Matthew 22:15-22; Philippians 3:17-21
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
I think all of us are looking forward to Wednesday, when all the political commercials and ads will thankfully and mercifully stop. Today I won’t be adding to the promoting or tearing down of candidates. But our appointed readings are timely as they encourage us to consider and rightly understand the place of politics and religion.
God rules in this world in two distinct ways, through government and through the Church. Today’s readings teach that although these two kingdoms are very different from one another, both of them are from God. He is the ultimate authority behind each. Lutherans usually refer to these two kingdoms as God’s left hand and right hand kingdoms. With His left hand, God appoints civil authorities to maintain order, to defend its citizens, to punish wrongdoers and to praise those who do what is good and right. In this kingdom of the left hand, the Law holds sway. Coercion and the threat of penalties and prison are used to keep the peace. But in God’s right hand kingdom, the Gospel holds sway. The church operates not by threat but by gentle invitation, not by penalties but by the forgiveness of sins. Peace comes through Christ’s death on the cross which reconciles us to God the Father. It is not a temporary peace between people but an everlasting peace with God. The Church is not ruled by the sword but governed by the preaching of God’s Word alone.
Jesus directs us to give proper honor to both kingdoms when He says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” First of all, give the governing authorities the honor and obedience that is due to them. For Romans 13 says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.” They may sometimes not properly exercise their authority; they may not even realize that they have a divine calling. But Christians are to honor those in office as servants of God nonetheless. For by honoring that office, we are really honoring God Himself. We may or may not like a particular governing official. In Jesus’ day Tiberias Caesar was not a particularly honorable fellow. But if God has allowed a person to be established in office, then we are to honor him for God’s sake, obeying whatever laws are in force, as long as they do not cause us to sin against God. If that happens, then it is written, “We must obey God rather than men.”
In our country, of course, we have an unusual situation in that we get to choose our Caesars. We get the government and the taxes we elect. So to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” for us means to do the best job we can as citizens to be informed and to choose wise and competent leaders and to vote for laws that are good and right.
It’s tremendously important for us to make a proper distinction between Caesar and God. We sometimes tend to confuse the two. We either turn God into Caesar, as if God were merely the top law enforcer, a morality cop. Or we turn Caesar into God, as if getting the right people elected would solve all our problems and bring the kingdom of God on earth. We either reject the gift of government, or we expect too much from it.
Jesus speaks in terms of both God and Caesar, and He speaks of the two properly distinguished–not separated, as some people think, but properly distinguished. You don’t cease to be a Christian when you walk into a voting booth or take public office, as if your faith doesn’t matter there–if you don’t act on your beliefs, someone else’s false beliefs will take their place, right? Likewise, you don’t cease to be a citizen of this country when you walk into a church. It’s just that you have another higher citizenship in Christ.
With His left hand of power, God gives us temporal blessings, 1st article gifts, daily bread. He ensures that we have roads and sewers and policemen and firemen, and everything that protects our body and life. With His right hand of grace where Jesus is seated, the Father gives eternal blessings, 3rd article gifts, forgiveness, life, salvation. God’s left hand punishes and restrains, it keeps a lid on our sin and keeps us more or less in line. The policeman that pulls you over for speeding, the judge who sentences the criminal is an extension of God’s left hand. With his right hand, God comforts and consoles us in Christ. Preachers and teachers of the Word are an extension of God’s right hand, giving forgiveness, eternal life, and peace with God. God’s left hand works to make people outwardly good. God’s right hand works to make people inwardly holy.
God is both left-handed and right-handed. The left and right hands of God work in different and opposite ways–and we don’t always see how they are connected. For instance, it was during the time of the pagan Roman empire, when there was relative peace throughout the world and a common language spoken, that Jesus was born. This allowed the Gospel to be carried far and wide after Jesus’ ascension. We can see that now, but back then, I’m sure the Israelites wondered why God allowed them to be oppressed by the Romans. So also today, all we can do is believe that God is working with both hands toward the redemption of His people. With His left hand God causes kings and kingdoms to rise and to fall. He has caused our nation to rise for a few centuries in history, and when He is through with us, He will bring this nation down, as He has all the great nations of the past, like the Romans. God doesn’t explain why or what He is up to. We are simply given to trust that the God who sent His Son to die for the world knows best how to manage the kings and kingdoms of this world. It’s all in God’s left and right hands, and He orders everything “for us and for our salvation,” working all things toward the day when Jesus appears and every president and governor and congressman must bow down before the King of kings and Lord of lords.
And that brings us to the second and really more important half of Jesus’ statement. “Render unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, everything is God’s, so give Him everything. Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Paying taxes is really nothing, then. God wants all of you–all you are and all you have. He doesn’t just want a couple of hours on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning and some money put into the plate so you feel like you’ve done your duty. And then you get back to your real life out there. He wants to be your real life everywhere, 100% of the time, at the heart of all you are and all you do. He Himself is your life, isn’t He–the Source, the Creator, the Redeemer? To render to God the things that are God’s, then, means to honor Him as the true owner of everything you have and to manage it in a way that is pleasing to Him. That starts with the 10% that goes in the offering plate here–that act of worship is very important–but it continues with the other 90% that you are given to use and manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.
Remember, it’s all about the image. The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar. And what bears God’s image? You do. You are in the image of God. And so you are given to God.
But also remember this. You do not give yourself to God. You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of God. The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. It is written in Colossians, “(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.” As an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh. And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice. Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not in the currency of this world, but in the currency of God, His own blood. And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus’ head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself. It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Not by offering up your own merits, but through Christ alone you are put right with God. To render to God the things that are God’s, then, is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him. It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation; He is my offering that settles my account with God.”
And there is still more. For through your baptism into Christ, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name. On you, whose image was tarnished and corrupted, Jesus stamped the sign of the cross and joined you to Himself. You are now God’s holy coinage, His cherished treasure. What shall we render, then, to the Lord, for all His benefits to us? We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord. And living in Christ, we offer up our bodies by the mercies of God as living sacrifices in love toward our neighbor.
You are now citizens of heaven. You are pilgrims in this world, foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland. So you don’t have to live as if you’re so attached to the things of this life, or even the outcome of elections. You are citizens of this land only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity. Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country. St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.” Our natural birth leads to death. But our supernatural rebirth into Christ leads to the resurrection of our bodies to share in Jesus’ Easter glory. By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection. Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world. Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.
Until that final Day comes, always remember that Jesus is reigning at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all. The future of the nations, the future of the church, your future rests in both of His nail-scarred hands. And there is surely no safer place to be.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠