Is That All?
Everyone knows this text. Everyone knows that Jesus said, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." It's so well known that you will even find those outside of the Church referring to it simply by saying, "Render unto Caesar." You've probably heard sermons on this text at 4th of July. But long before there was an America, long before there was democracy, long before the time of Luther this text was read in Medieval churches on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost. What is really being said here? To find out we need to pay close attention to the context. Jesus didn't decide, "Before going to the cross I'd better hurry up and teach something about the Christian's proper relationship to government."
Our text takes place on Tuesday of Holy Week, 3 days before Jesus is crucified. It's called the Day of Controversy because the enemies of Jesus attack Him one after the other. First it's the Pharisees and the Herodians, then it's the Sadducees, then just the Pharisees attack Him. They all attack Jesus under the guise of questioning students. The Pharisees and Herodians want to know about paying taxes, the Sadducees want to know about multiple marriages and the resurrection, and finally the Pharisees want to know what is the greatest commandment. From these encounters, we get important teachings on relating to our government, the resurrection, and the Law, but is that all? Is that the only reason the Holy Spirit deemed these encounters be recorded? No.
We find out from these encounters that the enemies of Jesus, despite hearing Him preach the pure Gospel for years, only wanted to trap Him, to tempt Him. They weren't concerned with the truth of God. They didn't believe Jesus was a man of integrity, taught the way of God in truth, and that He wasn't swayed by men. We learn from these encounters that His enemies were hypocrites who really believed that Jesus was a charlatan, taught incorrectly, and formed His answers based on who was listening. So they thought they could put Jesus in a conundrum. They thought they could get Jesus to either insult the people, who believed He was a prophet, by saying taxes should be paid or violate Roman Law by saying taxes shouldn't be paid. Jesus' enemies wanted to trap Him in His words. Jesus' Church wants to be taught by them.
And what can we learn? We can learn, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's , and to God what is God's." That truly is a masterful answer. You see, Jesus enemies thought they were doing to Him what He had done to them. Jesus had continually put before them either/or questions. You can either serve God OR mammon. You can either follow the doctrines of God OR the doctrines of men. You can either love father and mother most OR God. You can either say the ministry of John the Baptist was from heaven OR from earth. Either/or questions really do clarify things. Unless, of course, it is not a question of either/or.
Jesus' enemies came to Him hypocritically asking, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar OR not?" Jesus answers truthfully, "Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, AND give back to God what belongs to God." If only His enemies had listened. Jesus just cut for them the Gordian knot they themselves had tied. He has rescued them from the horrible position of being damned if you do and dammed if you don't. You see the Pharisees in particular were very serious about religion, duty to God, and being upright citizens. They didn't go around purposely violating Roman laws. But if they paid their taxes, they thought they would be unfaithful to God, and if they didn't pay them they knew they would be lawbreakers to Rome. Jesus' answer, could deliver them from the horns of their conscience.
It can deliver us too. You know there are people today still hung up on the questions of conscience the Pharisees and Herodians raised? Haven't you meant Christians who don't know if they can or should serve on a death penalty jury? Haven't you meant Christians who are concerned that their tax dollars go to pay for abortions, ungodly art, or questionable military campaigns? Haven't you meant Christians who really aren't sure whether they should serve in the armed forces?
Such Christians feel damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they serve on a death penalty jury they feel morally guilty for killing a person, if they don't serve, they feel they're shirking their civic duty. Such Christians are in a Gordian knot. If they pay their taxes responsibly, they feel they're responsible for dead babies, anti-Christian art, or wars of aggression. And how can they serve their country in the military if they know that means taking human life?
Jesus rescues us from such questions by telling us government has a right to what belongs to it. Caesar is responsible for punishing criminals and conducting wars. Caesar has right to use his citizens to do this. When you serve on a death penalty jury or in the military, you're a tool of Caesar. Caesar is the one who executes people and wages war. You're merely the tool in his hand. The lumberjack cuts the tree down; the ax in his hand is the tool. The lumberjack is the one morally responsible for what his ax does. Of course, this illustration breaks down in that jurors are responsible for weighing evidence and soldiers for selecting targets, but the point remains that death penalty juries and wars belong to Caesar and Christians can give him their service without sinning.
But what about taxes? Look at what heinous things our government does with our tax dollars? Aren't you glad therefore that Jesus makes paying taxes a godly thing? Aren't you glad that both Peter and Paul specifically command Christians to pay taxes? "But what about the horrible things they do with the money?" If you ask that question, you must not realize that when Jesus said these words about paying taxes, the Caesar He spoke of, Tiberius, was one of the worst monsters to ever sit on the throne. The same goes for Peter and Paul. The Caesar they commanded the payment of taxes to was the beast Nero. Christians are to faithfully pay their taxes. If government uses the money unfaithfully, it's the government not us who are accountable before God.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar's is a masterful teaching, but is that all? You would think so, wouldn't you? Everybody knows that part of the equation, everyone has probably heard sermons on that part. But dear friends, as true as it is that we are to give to Caesar what is Caesar's, that's not all. Part 2 of the equation is "give to God what is God's." This needs to be heard too because that's where the Gospel speaks the loudest.
We are to give to God what belongs to God. What belongs to God? Faith for one thing. You see this in the Collect after Communion where we pray that this Sacrament "strengthen us in faith towards God and in fervent love toward one another." Faith belongs to God not men. Faith is owed to God not government. Isn't that a comforting thought in these politically demoralized times?
Do you ever find yourself getting all worked up over the corruption or immorality of politicians? Did you ever think that unless this or that party or person is elected our country's future is in doubt? Giving to God the things that belong to God rescues you from these very disturbing thoughts. God never wanted us to have faith in our government, a particular party or a person. No, our faith belongs to the God who says all nations, parties, and politicians are no longer lasting than grass in the field. The future of God's people has never depended on what politicians or parties or governments do or don't do. Yes, we pray for our leaders, pray for our government, but "Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth."
Not only does God have a right to our faith but to our lives too. The First Article of the Apostles Creed teaches us that God has given us body and soul, eyes ears and all our members, our reason and all our senses and still takes care of them. Don't you see? If your life really belongs to God, then it is in His hands, not yours. How you live, how your die, whether you get cancer at 80, or the death of a flu at 45, all that belongs in God's hands not on your shoulders. What success or failures, what happiness or sadness, what children or spouse you have are all matters that you can entrust into God's hands. Giving to God the things that are God's relieves us of thinking that our futures hang minute to minute on our making the right decisions.
But recognizing that our faith and life belong to God isn't near as comforting as recognizing that our sins do. This is the main point Jesus hoped His enemies would get. Jesus is on His way to the cross to suffer and die for the sins of world. What but this could have loomed larger in His mind? Jesus doesn't want His suffering and death for sins to be wasted. But people think their sins belong to them. It's true; they are our fault. We do commit them. They have our name on them, so even though we come to Church and receive forgiveness for them, we still think they are ours. And so we take them back home to go through them when we're sick, depressed, frightened, or worried digging them up as a dog does his bones.
But dear friends, your sins belong not to you but to God. Didn't the ministry of Jesus begin with the announcement, "Behold the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world?" Doesn't Scripture teach you that God paid for your sins by the holy precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus? Now, then, when you go to the grocery store and pay for your food and carry it out to your car, whose food is it? What would you say to the manger who ran after you saying, "Give me back my food!" "What do you mean you're food? I paid for it and I've carried it away from your store."
And this is what Jesus did for you. He purchased your sins and carried them away from you as far as East is from West. He gave them to God the Father, and Scripture says the Father tossed them behind His back. And now God has put up "No Trespassing" signs around where He tossed your sins. They're His now and you have no more right to them than your grocery store has to your groceries once you pay for them carry them away. So when Satan or people speaking for him wish to throw your sins in your face, you can reply, "They aren't mine any longer. They belong to God now, and Jesus commands me to give to God what belongs to God. I can't give an account of what no longer belongs to me."
Friends, learn from this text how to be a good citizen, but that's not all. Also learn what it means to be a sinner whose faith, life, and sins belong to God. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XXII (10-24-99) Matthew 22: 15-21