- Matthew 22:15-22
- Trinity 23
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
When we hear today’s Gospel reading, there is a strong temptation for us to interpret it in American political terms. The statement “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” we take to mean little more than “the separation of church and state” or something along those lines. You’ve got your church life here, and you’ve got your secular life and political life over there. Take care of your responsibilities in each, but keep them separate.
But that’s not what Jesus is saying here. He’s not simply reducing himself to the role of Thomas Jefferson. And he’s certainly not saying that your Christian faith should only be applied to a couple narrow areas of your life and be kept out of the other stuff. In fact that’s actually the opposite of his point.
Now to be sure, there are distinctions to be made between church and state. In the church God rules primarily by means of the Gospel, bestowing mercy and forgiveness on repentant sinners. For such there is no coercion, just grace. But in the state God rules primarily by means of the Law; which means that when the government is doing its job properly, it’s about punishing bad behavior and rewarding and protecting good behavior. The government by its very nature operates by threat and coercion, by force. Step outside the boundaries of the Law and face the consequences; stay within the boundaries of the Law and reap the benefit. This is as God intends. Romans 13 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God. . . Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.” God gives government and rulers the authority to use force, to punish, and to reward. They are ministers of God’s left hand kingdom of the Law for your good, to maintain order.
Of course, the problem occurs when sinful rulers are no longer a threat to wrongdoers but to those who are doing good. In our country, the abortion industry is not only protected by the government, it’s even funded by the government. Planned Parenthood, which performs over 330,000 abortions in this country every year, receives about $550 million dollars a year from the federal government and what we pay in taxes. All tolled, the government and the civil law is complicit in the deaths of over 1 million unborn children in this country annually; that’s over 3000 every day. Politicians who say, “I’m personally against abortion, but I don’t think I should force my moral views on others” are gravely mistaken and self-deceived. Just apply that thinking to the topic of child abuse, and you’ll realize how ridiculous and foolish that supposed justification is. I’m personally against child abuse, but I don’t think I should force my moral views on others.” What do they think abortion is? This bizarre separation of church and life is certainly not what Jesus is talking about here.
In addition, the government also now protects and promotes a fundamentally corrupted understanding of marriage. And the days are drawing nearer when those who simply speak out in favor of God-given natural marriage only between a man and a woman are going to be seen as criminally guilty of hate speech. Christian business owners who decline to take part in providing services for same-sex ceremonies are already being are already being sued and driven out of business, very often with the blessing or assistance of local authorities. Such actions by governments are certainly not to be seen as God’s will or the God-given role of the state. In our democratic republic, it is certainly right and appropriate for us in these instances to resist the authorities and to work to change the laws as well as the hearts of people toward what is good and right. And if the government ever attempts to require us to sin, then we say along with St. Peter in Acts 5, “We must obey God rather than men.”
But having said all this, Jesus’ point in the Gospel actually isn’t focused primarily on civil government, but on something much more. Those who were trying to entangle Jesus in his talk were mostly concerned with political things. Were you backing the right people and favoring the right policies? That’s what they were getting all worked up about. But Jesus wasn’t fitting very well into the agenda of either side, and so since He wasn’t useful to their cause, they wanted to get rid of Him–and that included both the religiously conservative Pharisees who hated living under Roman rule, and the secular elite and powerful Herodians, who were in league with the Roman empire. They had common cause here in trying to trip Jesus up. No matter how Jesus answered the question about paying taxes, they thought they’d have Him trapped. If He supported paying taxes to the Romans, he’d lose popularity with the people who were oppressed under Roman rule. If He didn’t think it was right to pay taxes, then He could be accused of treason and rebellion. But Jesus, Wisdom in the flesh, rises above their political arguments and says, “Whose image and inscription is on the money. Caesar’s? Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were silenced. All they could do was marvel and go their way.
But note how Jesus not only shut them down, but also how He changed the subject. With His response, it was as if He was saying, “You are all caught up in the things of this world and the power of people who are nothing but dust. If part of Caesar’s passing glory is to have his image and inscription on money, and he wants you to pay taxes with it, do it. Don’t give that money and that mammon more importance than it deserves. The stuff of Caesar is temporary; the things of God are eternal. Turn your attention to that. Render to God the things that are God’s.” The real emphasis for Jesus is not on the first half of the phrase but that second half.
“Render unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, if you think about it, 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 can tell yourself that you’ve done your duty. And then you can 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? He’s 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 are and to manage that in a way that is pleasing to Him. That may well start here with the 10% that you are given to put in the offering plate to support the mission of the church, but it’s about much more than just money. It continues with the other 90% and your very lives that you are given to manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.
Remember, it’s all about the image and the inscription. The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar. And what bears God’s image? You do. You are created 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 the invisible God Himself according to Colossians 1. The image of God in us was broken through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. Just 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 with gold or silver but with His holy, precious 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.” There is Jesus on His throne for you.
When it comes to settling accounts with God, you can do one of two things: either you can render to Him your own works and your own goodness, which always fall short in making up for your sin, or you can trust in the works and the sacrifice of Christ rendered to the Father as the full and complete payment for your sins. So then at its heart, to render to God the things that are God’s 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 alone is the offering that wins for me everlasting life.” To put it another way, we render to Caesar obedience, but we render to God the love and trust of our hearts.
In baptism, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name. Your image was tarnished and corrupted, but Jesus stamped the sign of the cross on you and joined you to Himself. In Jesus the very image of God is restored to your humanity. 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 as living sacrifices by the mercies of God in loving our neighbor.
For as St. Paul said in the Epistle, our citizenship is in heaven, in Christ. We are like foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland. So we don’t have to live as if we’re so attached to the things of this life or as if everything depends on who wins elections, as important as they are. You are citizens of this country 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.
Hear the wisdom of the Psalmist, “Put not your trust in princes and rulers, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. Blessed, is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.” When everything seems to be coming apart in the world around us, it is good to meditate on the words of Psalm 11, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do? The Lord is in His holy temple. The Lord’s throne is in heaven.” Christ remains the King of kings and the Lord over all authority forever.
Here, then, is our sure and certain hope and our heart’s desire: (Phil. 3) “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.” These lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious metamorphosis at Jesus’ return, so that they will be like His glorious body after His resurrection from the dead. 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. You will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.
So render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, taking care of those necessary duties in a fallen world. But above all, render unto God the things that are God’s, honoring and trusting in Him above all things. “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.” Here is where you are given to participate already in the life of God’s eternal kingdom. Here is where you not only kneel before your King, but calling on His name, you receive His very body and blood into your bodies for the forgiveness of all your sins. And “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠