The Twenty Third Sunday after Trinity
November 8, 2015
“God and Country”
And [Jesus] said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21
The Fourth Commandment teaches children to honor their father and their mother. There is a promise attached to this commandment: “That it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” The authority of the father and the mother in the home is the foundation for every other kind of human authority. This means that we honor our fathers and our mothers when we honor those who serve in the government.
Here in America we are taught that the government derives its just power to govern from the consent of the governed. The people have the right to choose their own government. The slogan, “No taxation without representation” inspired a generation of Americans to cast off the rule of the British crown and to establish the free and independent United States of America. They gave us a constitution with a bill of rights. We cherish our rights as Americans and we honor those who fight for our country.
But what if the government gives you no voice and no vote? What if it doesn’t respect your God-given rights? Do you still have to obey it? Do you still have to pay your taxes? Jesus says yes. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Christ’s apostles teach us to honor the government as we would honor servants of God. St. Paul writes in Romans 13
Jesus told his disciples to give Caesar what was Caesar’s. St. Paul, Christ’s apostle, told the Christians in Rome to pay their taxes because the government officials are God’s servants. The apostle St. Peter said the same thing. The government that our Lord and his apostles said should be honored was not made up of Christians. It actively promoted idolatry, that is, false worship. That’s why the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. They were trying to trap him. If Jesus said, “No, you should not pay taxes to Caesar,” he would make himself guilty of sedition against the government. On the other hand, if he said, “Yes, you should pay taxes to Caesar,” he would be saying that they should honor a man who set himself up as a god. That’s what Caesar did. He claimed to be a god. How could any God-fearing person pay him tribute?
Jesus showed the Pharisees their hypocrisy and silenced them by asking them to show him the coin that one was required to pay to Caesar. It was a denarius, which represented about a day’s wage. Jesus asked them whose image and inscription were on the coin they were carrying around. “Caesar’s,” they said. Since Caesar claimed to be a god, the Pharisees who had set out to trap Jesus in his words ended up trapping themselves. They were walking around with idols in their pockets! “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The civil government is established by God himself. This doesn’t mean that God is an American or that he subscribes to the American Constitution. God’s Word doesn’t teach us what kind of government should be established among us. The Bible teaches us that whoever the governing authorities are, they are God’s servants and they do what they do as representatives of God. If a man commits a crime, say he robs a store, and he is caught by the police, prosecuted, found guilty, and imprisoned – it is God who is punishing him for his crime. God works through means. He doesn’t rain bread from heaven as he did in Moses’ day with the manna in the wilderness. He causes the crops to grow, be harvested, processed, marketed, bought, prepared, and served. Through these means God feeds us with our daily bread.
Just so, he doesn’t do justice here on earth directly, but through means. Since he works through sinful people the justice isn’t perfect. The civil authorities in this world can only bring an approximation of justice. The rich usually get better justice than the poor. No surprise there. We haven’t ever seen perfect justice but we have seen what happens to countries where the civil authorities lose their ability to govern. Where there is no government able to punish criminals, protect lives and property, the strong and brutal tyrannize over the weak. Look at the vicious savagery that has descended upon Iraq and Syria. There is no viable civil authority to stand in their way. The strong prey on the weak with impunity. Even when the government is incompetent and corrupt and led by vain fools, it is better to have law and order than to live in a jungle.
So we give to Caesar what is his. We pay our taxes. We obey the law. Some taxes are unfair. Some laws are stupid. We pay unfair taxes and we obey stupid laws because God wants us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. There can be no law and order if everyone chooses for himself which laws to obey and which taxes to pay. Without law and order our lives, our property, and our children are at risk. Obedience to the government is one way to show love to the neighbor. Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s.
And give to God what is God’s. There is a line that Caesar may not cross. The authority of the state is limited, not by the state, but by God. I said not by the state, but by God, because the only legitimate authority the state has is the authority that God gives it. God grants the state authority over the body, but not over the soul. God permits the state to tax us, to punish lawbreakers, to wage just wars, and to do other things that may burden our bodies with obligations we are bound to fulfill. But God does not permit the state to lay any burden on our souls. The power of the state is to make people do what they don’t want to do. That’s its authority. It is coercive. It doesn’t make the unwilling willing. It requires the unwilling to obey the rules or pay the price.
Not so with God’s kingdom. The kingdom that Christ established doesn’t rely on coercion. It doesn’t depend on force. It doesn’t make anybody do anything he doesn’t want to do. Instead, the authority of God’s kingdom, exercised by the Holy Spirit, is to make the unwilling willing. God doesn’t force anyone into his kingdom. The power of God’s kingdom doesn’t come from swords, guns, policemen, or laws. It comes from the crucifixion of the Son of God.
Pontius Pilate may have been a religious cynic and a greasy politician, but there are two things he said that are worth listening to. First, he said he found no fault in Jesus. Second, he ordered a sign to be placed over Jesus while Jesus was being crucified, written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew that said: “This is the King of the Jews.” When the Jewish leaders objected and argued that Jesus only claimed to be King of the Jews, Pilate replied “What I have written I have written.” Pilate didn’t understand the significance of identifying Jesus as the King of the Jews where Jesus was suffering and dying on a cross. But then the civil authorities rarely do understand the significance of what they do and say. God was in control. God identified Jesus as King precisely where Jesus was gaining the authority to rule over his kingdom.
The spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of God, the kingdom over which Jesus is the King, doesn’t rely on swords, guns, or weapons of any kind. God’s kingdom relies on the power of Christ’s suffering and death. Who is he who suffers on the cross? Is he not our God, come to earth, for this moment? Is he not our brother, offering up to God the obedience that no earthly government succeeded in procuring?
Compare the two kingdoms. The civil powers that rely on forcing obedience out of the unwilling cannot make anyone righteous. They can only punish the bad guys. They cannot make them good. But the spiritual authority of Jesus is to do what the civil powers cannot do. Jesus does make sinners into saints. He does so by doing the good deeds the sinners could not do, giving them the credit for his obedience, and then suffering the punishment for the sins they did, thus taking that punishment away from them. He obeys. He suffers. This gives him the authority to forgive us all our sins. This gives him the authority to rule over us, not by coercion, not by force, not by threats, but by grace.
The civil government can make rules for our bodies. Even when they go to extremes in imposing burdensome laws that are neither necessary nor beneficial, we Christians submit to them out of reverence for Christ. For the sake of peace with our neighbors, we obey an unreasonable government. But we don’t permit any human government to govern our consciences, to teach us right from wrong, or to rule over our souls. In commenting on Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s,” Martin Luther wrote:
As we honor our veterans, it is good for us to keep in mind that the freedom for which America has fought can never been anything more than tentative and temporary. For it depends on deterring by force of arms those who would do our nation harm. It cannot change the hearts of our adversaries. It cannot change a single human heart.
But Christ’s kingdom does precisely that. God changes our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. God turns sinners into saints by a twofold miracle. First, he forgives us all our sins and reckons us to be righteous for Christ’s sake. That makes us saints in the eyes of God. Second, he fills us with the Holy Spirit who moves us to do willingly what the civil power can only prod us to do against our will. But instead of mere outward obedience to the civil law, the Holy Spirit changes our desires and our will so that we willingly obey, from the heart, God’s law. He who bore the burden of our sin on the cross says to us,
There will come a time when America will fall as all nations before her have fallen. But the church of Jesus Christ will never fall. She will abide forever, governed, not by force of arms, but by the Holy Spirit who calls us by the gospel, enlightens us with his gifts, and sanctifies and keeps us in the one true Christian faith.
Rolf D. Preus