The Twenty Third Sunday after Trinity
November 11, 2012
“Giving to Caesar and to God”
St. Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way. St. Matthew 22:15-22
The Pharisees were jealous of Jesus because he had the affection of the people. The people trusted Jesus. He taught with authority. They thought he was a prophet. Many believed he was the Christ, their promised King. Jesus preached a gospel of peace between the holy God and sinful humanity – a peace brought about by the forgiveness of sins. He claimed the authority to forgive sins here on earth. He claimed spiritual, not political, authority.
The Pharisees knew this. They knew that Jesus had no designs on Caesar’s power. Jesus posed no threat to the civil authorities. He wasn’t a politician and had no interest in exercising political power. The preaching of Jesus posed no threat at all to the powers that be. He preached the gospel of the kingdom, but his kingdom did not rely on the power of the sword, but rather on the power the Spirit. Jesus preached the gospel. He taught his disciples to live lives of love, humility, self-sacrifice, and compassion. There wasn’t a hint of rebellion against the civil authorities in his teaching. The Pharisees knew that the government of Caesar had nothing to fear from Jesus.
But out of jealousy they tried to get Jesus into trouble. They were clever. Their approach was twofold. First they sought to disarm Jesus by flattery and then they set a trap for him. They flattered him:
Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.
Their flattery was deceptive. In fact, they were lying. Since they cared desperately about what people thought of them they naturally assumed that Jesus cared about what people thought of him. Religious people pose. They posture. They set themselves before others for approval. The Pharisees figured that Jesus would care very much about his personal popularity with the people. This led to the trap.
They asked Jesus: “Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” How could he answer such a question? If he said, “Yes, it is lawful,” he would lose the support of the people who believed that it was unlawful to pledge allegiance to a heathen ruler. Was it necessary to pay taxes? Maybe it was. After all, it’s not as if anyone had any choice. If you don’t pay your taxes the government is going to get you. As they say, there are only two things certain in this life: death and taxes. The government will see to that.
But the Pharisees did not ask, “Is it necessary?” or “Is it advisable to pay taxes to Caesar”? They asked, “Is it lawful?” They chose their words very carefully here. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar he would be saying that Caesar had the right to the people’s allegiance. How could Jesus teach allegiance to a heathen god? Yes, Caesar claimed to be a god!
On the other hand, if Jesus responded by saying, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” he would be putting his life into jeopardy. Caesar ruled. Herod may have had the title, King of the Jews, but he got his authority from Caesar and everyone knew it. The presence of Herodians to witness this conversation was a not so subtle threat to Jesus that if he denied it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar he would be in big trouble. Jesus could be arrested and put to death as an insurrectionist.
The Pharisees had Jesus in a trap. Whichever way he responded, he would lose. He would either lose the support of the people who despised Roman rule over them or he would find himself in serious trouble with the civil authorities. But Jesus turned the trap against them and showed them their hypocrisy in the process. He asked to see the tax money. They showed him a denarius. Jesus asked them whose image and inscription were on the denarius. They said, “Caesar’s.” They tried to trap Jesus but trapped themselves instead. What were they doing with a denarius? Why were they using a denarius? And how could they use Caesar’s coin with Caesar’s image and inscription without giving homage to Caesar? They could not.
Caesar was a heathen. Not only was he not a Christian, he was hostile to Christianity. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Pilate ruled by the authority of Caesar. The same authority that killed our Lord killed the Apostle Paul, who fought valiantly for his rights as a Roman citizen as he proclaimed the gospel throughout the realm. In the end it was to no avail. He was a victim of state-sponsored murder. Godless, heathen, anti-christian governments have been persecuting Christians for the past two thousand years. For these two thousand years Jesus Christ has been teaching his Christians to submit to the authority of the government.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Pay your taxes. Obey the laws. Honor the authority of the state. You may not accept the protection of the state while mocking its laws and rejecting its authority. Some forms of government are better than others and political theorists have debated which is better than which for a long time. There is one thing on which everyone ought to be able to agree and that is on the worst form of government. That is anarchy. Everyone does whatever he pleases to anyone he pleases. The strong bully the weak and the weak have no recourse. The civil authorities have the duty to punish criminals so that they will be afraid to commit their crimes against others. Listen to what St. Paul writes in Romans 13:1-7,
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
We give the government its due because God tells us to. The only authority the government has is that given to them by God. This is what Jesus told Pontius Pilate when Pilate told Jesus that he had the power to release him or have him killed. Jesus told Pilate that he would have no power over him unless it had been given to him from above. The government doesn’t get its authority from the people. It gets its authority from God. God gives the civil government the power it needs to keep the peace, to protect us from those who would do us harm, to exercise the power of the sword against those who would place themselves above the law to prey on the weak and helpless.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But don’t give him any more than that! Don’t give to Caesar what belongs to God alone. When the civil authorities claim the authority that God does not give it, they transgress a line and must be resisted and opposed. The government may lay claim to our property. It may require us to pay taxes. It may require us to obey its laws. It may not require us to do anything contrary to God’s word. It may not interfere with the preaching of the gospel. It may not lay claim to the affection and devotion that we owe to God alone.
Confusion reigns in both the church and the state concerning the role of each. The state plays God as politicians promise to do what only God can do. The state declares wars on poverty, on drugs, on terror, on every conceivable evil that besets humanity, as it seeks and gets more and more power to right every wrong in its path. Not content with doing what it can do, it seeks to change the unchangeable. The state promises what it cannot deliver. It promises heaven and delivers hell. This is what Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung finally delivered, despite all of their highfalutin claims of acting on behalf of the people. What led to their murder of millions? It was the deceit that if we give to Caesar what is God’s then Caesar will be able to do what only God can do.
But the power of the sword cannot change the human heart! It cannot lead anyone to repentance and faith. It cannot forgive a single sin or open heaven to anyone. And that’s the only power Caesar has: the power of the sword. He can provide a form of justice, an approximation of justice, the kind of justice that sinners can give to sinners, but he cannot rise above his nature. The governments of this world and their subjects are corrupted by sin, selfishness, envy, greed, and self-serving violence. That’s the way it is and will be until the end of time.
How sad it is, then, when the church grasps for political influence as if that is what the world needs from her. The church does not need any political power to do what God gives her to do. She needs God’s word. She has in Christ what this world needs, and it is only through the gospel of Christ that true justice will ever come to anyone. The first and greatest act of worship is the pure proclamation of God’s holy word.
Giving to God what is God’s is preaching the gospel in its truth and purity. It is seeking out this gospel, taking it to heart, and teaching it to our children. For God is glorified, not by Caesar rattling his saber or promising more bread, but by the church of Jesus Christ remaining faithful to her Lord’s great commission to preach the gospel to all nations.
The state can provide a limited form of worldly peace. If we can walk down the street in safety, be secure in our own homes, be able to keep and use the fruit of our labor, and free to practice our Christian faith we can thank God for the peace provided us by the state.
But the state provides a temporary peace and an imperfect justice. The peace that comes from God is the peace of sins forgiven. It is the peace of being reconciled to God by means of the obedience of his Son. It is justice reckoned to us, not produced by us, justice that is flawless for it is nothing less than the perfectly just life of obedience that our Lord Jesus offered to God on our behalf. Jesus paid his taxes to Caesar. To God, he paid his life as a sacrifice for all sinners. In that way he established peace here on earth and that peace prevails wherever sinners are led to trust in him and in his gospel. This is why we cherish the gospel above all allegiance to any civil authority.
We give to the state what the state can rightfully claim from us. Our faith is in God. We do not trust any human government to give us what we really need in life. We trust him who died for us and rose again. He is our true King, the King of peace, the King of righteousness, our Savior, whose kingdom shall have no end. Amen