Our text in a nutshell is this: Jesus' enemies send religious and political leaders to trap Him. Jesus isn't trapped and in the midst of escape He frees us from government. I don't know about you but between the election and the bailout I am feeling trapped by government.
Jesus frees us from government in this way. He puts a limit on what it has a right to from us. Government has a right to things not belonging to God. The things belonging to government can only be the things which do not belong to God.
So, government has a right to my money. They print it, mint it, and issue it. They can ask for it back. The Bible clearly says in several places, "Pay your taxes." I find this verse comforting every tax season. How many other things in politics do I have a clear Word from God on? He doesn't command me to vote, to write my congressmen, or even to pay attention to politics, but He does command, "Pay your taxes."
Government has a right to my money, but not my heart. The 1st Commandment requires me to fear, love, and trust in God, not government. In fact, when I am worried, troubled, or bothered based on things that have to do with the government, I am not fearing, loving, or trusting God above all else, am I?
Government has a right to be honored. Paul says give honor to who honor is due; Peter says honor the king. The political ruler Paul and Peter lived under was Nero. He would eventually behead Paul and crucify Peter, yet both say his office is to be honored. In America we have freedom of speech. If we want to, we can say dishonorable things about our government leaders; we can mock them, insult them, distain them. However, because the Bill of Rights says we can it doesn't mean God agrees.
While government officials are due honor, they aren't due worship. This was the issue the Pharisees were concerned with in the text. The coin required to pay taxes either had the inscription "One worthy of divine honor" or gave Caesar the title "high priest" and "Son of the Divine August." The Pharisees thought by paying the tax you participated in Emperor Worship. Jesus says you can pay taxes to the government without being guilty of false worship. Just because Texas has the goddess Liberty on her capital doesn't mean we worship her when we enter it. Just because we use money that professes trust in a generic god doesn't mean we worship that god. Just because our tax money supports unchristian things doesn't mean we're compromising our faith. Think what taxes paid to Caesar supported.
Government has a right to things not belonging to God; therefore, it has a right to our submission but not our obedience. Scripture makes a distinction between these words. Submission means we "stand under" government. Obedience means we "hear under" it. Government doesn't frame our reality. Government doesn't determine what we think, feel, believe. This is freeing. While we pay taxes, honor officials, and stand under the laws government makes, we don't hear under it. So when government tells us abortion is not murder; homosexuals can marry; and divorce can be for any reason, we plug our ears. We don't hear it. We don't have to.
It's not that we revolt against government; we just don't believe as they say we should. We don't believe what the novel 1984 called the doublethink. We don't believe the contradictory things spoken by our government like: human life is protected by destroying it; the institution of marriage is strengthened by redefining it or weakening it.
Acceptance of murder and homosexuality were the precursors to God's destruction in the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. However, this is not where sins begin but where they end. They begin in rejecting the God of the First Table of the Commandments and end with flaunting your unbelief in the public sins of the Second Table. Our government protects both murder and homosexuality by force of law. They see no great crisis in doing this. The crisis that loomed before them that got them to work round the clock wasn't protecting sacred human life or protecting holy matrimony. It was protecting money. And isn't this worthy of God's judgment?
There, I've gone and done it. I've made you mad. That's what the law does. I've exposed the fact that government is really your god and that's idolatry. We're bothered by what's going on in Washington and in the election because our gods are teetering. If this person isn't elected or that person is, if the government doesn't do this or does do that, we're through. Yes, we are, if government is God, but it's not.
Thanks be to God; government is not God because government is all law all the time. Each time our legislature meets they pass hundreds of new laws. A radio show said that an American can't go through a week without breaking about 20 laws. Go to the parking lot. Look at your license plate. If your frame obscures the plate, you're breaking the law. Go down your street the owner of every car parked on the wrong side of the street, or of every car more than 12 inches from the curb is breaking the law. Go about town. The parent of every child skating or biking without a helmet is breaking the law. If government is your god, then all your god can do is make you guilty.
Thanks be to God; government is not our god. The government didn't give its only beloved Son to die for you. The government didn't take your sin and guilt and put it on someone else. The government didn't take off of you the obligation to keep all its laws. The government has never freed one person from sin, from death, or the power of the Devil. Indeed, no law made or repealed by government, is able to do that, but the true God has done all of that for you through His only beloved Son.
Government is God's servant and it's His servant for good says Romans 13, but no government has, can, or will save us. Government can and should protect our physical life, but it cannot save our souls. Only the true God can save us. He did this by sending His Son into time, into our flesh and blood, born of a woman, born under the Law, says Paul. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem because a government law made His family go there. Though sinless, though He never broke a law of the government, the government tried to kill Him as a child and did kill Him as an adult. They killed Him because we deserve to die, but since He was killed in our place we are given His right to life and that abundantly.
You are not free to rebel against government, but you are free from all sins, from death and the power of the Devil. You are to live under the laws of the Land that don't break the laws of God, but you are not to live under the guilt of your sins, under the fear of dying, or under the Devil's power. The Lord Jesus Christ, your true God, has freed you from these by suffering these already, and it would be a shameful waste if rather than living in the freedom He won, you lived as if He never won it.
What I mean is this: Jesus already felt the weight and shame of that sin that bothers you, so you would not feel it. Jesus' soul was overwhelmed with death, so yours doesn't have to be. Jesus was handed over to the powers of darkness, so you could be free of them. You are freed from sin, death, and the devil, and you are freed from government as god.
That means when governments shake and even fall, your God does not. While the money of a government can becomes powerless, your God never does. When governments don't know what to do, you can be sure your God still does. The problem is that we expect way too much from dust. The prophet Isaiah is clear that all nations are dust, less than dust; they are nothing. Don't believe me? Hear Isaiah 40: 15: "Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; He weighs the islands as though they were fine dust." Isaiah 40: 17 "Before Him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by Him as worthless and less than nothing." If you lean on dust, you will only get dirty. If your hope is in nothing you have no hope.
This is what you are freed from: the limitations of dust and the emptiness of nothing. Recognize that these limitations are yours too, not just government's. We too are but dust; we are nothing. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians1 that those God chooses for salvation are nothing. "He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things the things that are not."
By descending into our dust in the Person of God the Son, our God redeemed this dust for everlasting life. He brings this redemption, this salvation to us through things governments regard as nothing. Government regards water flowing through hydroelectric damns as power; we regard the Waters of Holy Baptism as eternally powerful. Government regards the words of the Declaration of Independence as important because they freed men for self-rule; we regard the Words of Holy Absolution as important because they free us from ourselves. Government regards the things of the earth like oil, grain, and gold as all important because they bring energy to our economy; we regard the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion as all important because they bring eternity to our bodies through the Body and Blood of Jesus.
God does miracles today with handfuls of water, a few spoken words, and Bread and Wine. No matter what government we live under whether in good or bad economic times these miracles have freed us to live as citizens of another country, a heavenly one, whose Builder and Ruler is God. Our home country doesn't shake or teeter no matter what the stock market does on Monday or who gets elected in November. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (20081012); Matthew 22: 15-21