The Twenty Third Sunday after Trinity| November 19, 2017| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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
It begins as a hypocritical attempt to trap Jesus in his words. It results in Jesus giving his Christian people clear instructions on their duty to both God and country. Let’s take a look at what these Pharisees were up to and how Jesus turned the tables on them.
The Pharisees were religious leaders who were losing their religious authority and status as Jesus was gaining in popularity among the people. The Pharisees were legalists. They taught that the pathway to God was paved by their own good deeds. They defined good deeds, not by the standard of God’s Law, but by the standard of their many rules.
Along came Jesus, teaching God’s Law more clearly than the people had ever heard. He showed everyone their need for God’s grace. He offered himself as the Savior of sinners. Sinners seeking forgiveness found their Savior in Jesus. As Jesus rose in popularity, the Pharisaic religion declined. They were jealous of Jesus.
They were also clever. They didn’t go to Jesus by themselves. They enlisted the Herodians to go with them. The Herodians were members of Herod’s government. Herod, who called himself the king of the Jews, was in fact under the thumb of the Roman authorities. The civil power was Rome. Herod knew it, the Jews knew it, and it rankled. The Jews resented the rule over them by uncircumcised barbarians who didn’t even acknowledge the true God. The ruler of the Roman Empire, called Caesar, claimed to be a god. Talk about a blasphemous claim! No teacher of God’s word could retain the loyalty of the Jews if he bowed before Rome. The Pharisees knew that. They also knew that if Jesus were to speak against Caesar, he would likely pay for his rebellion with his own life.
So the Pharisees come to Jesus with the Herodians. Representatives of religion and the government conspire together to force Jesus to favor one over the other. They begin by flattering Jesus. They praise him for his fidelity and impartiality, as they attempt to force him to choose between two apparently contradictory loyalties. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. It is a brilliant trap! If he says no he is defying Caesar who can put him to death for treason. If he says yes he will lose the support of the people who believe him to be a prophet.
Jesus responds by showing those hypocrites how hypocritical they were. He asks them to show him the tax money. They show him a denarius. This coin was minted by Caesar. It had Caesar’s image on it. It was technically an idol, inasmuch as it was an image of someone who claimed to be a god. So what are they doing walking around with idols in their pockets? Jesus asks them whose image is on the tax money. They have to admit that it is Caesar’s image. Jesus replies: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus teaches us that there is a difference between spiritual authority and civil authority. The authority of the church, of which Jesus is the head, is different than the authority of the state. The civil authorities may or may not be devoted to Christ. Whether they are or are not, we are to give them what we owe them. St. Paul writes:
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 . . . 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 . . . Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:1,4,7)
St. Peter writes:
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 1 Peter 2:13-14
When we obey the civil authorities, we obey God. Caesar is God’s servant, whether he knows it or not. The Fourth Commandment tells us to honor our father and our mother. It also tells us to honor the civil authorities that are established. God keeps order in this world by punishing criminals. He gives governments the authority of the sword. Capital punishment is ordained by God in Genesis 9:6 where we read:
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.
Anarchy is not only rebellion against the government. It is rebellion against God. The doctrine of civil disobedience, popularized by Martin Luther King, Jr., is false. We do not have the right to disobey the government just because it is unfair. We have the right – and the duty – to disobey it if by obeying it we would be disobeying God. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Caesar may be incompetent, unjust, and corrupt. This doesn’t give us the right to disobey him. It rather lays on us the responsibility to pray for him. St. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2,
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s. We Christians in America have a hard time distinguishing between the two. God and country become mixed up together. The authority of church and state are confused with each other.
To give to God the things that are God’s is to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God who gives us the treasures of heaven. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. The Psalmist writes concerning him:
Ask of Me, and I will give You
The nations for Your inheritance,
And the ends of the earth for Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron;
You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel. Psalm 2:8-9
America is not the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of this world. It will perish, along with the world. America is our fatherland. We love our fatherland, even as we love our fathers and our mothers. And concerning that, Jesus said: “He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
We mustn’t confuse America with the church. We must not confuse the loyalty we owe to the one with the loyalty we owe to the other. Outside the church, that is, outside of fellowship with Christ the church’s head, there is no salvation. There is salvation outside of America. America can fall and she will fall but the powers of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s church.
During the First World War, when anti-German sentiment in America rose to a fever pitch. Many pastors in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod suffered persecution because of their German language and heritage. I had a parishioner in Racine whose father served as a Lutheran pastor about a hundred years ago. He told her of brother pastors who were tarred and feathered and driven out of town by a mob of so called patriotic Americans. He spoke German. That was enough.
So the German Lutherans put American flags in their churches to let their neighbors know that they were as patriotic as anyone else. Those symbols of civil authority remain in our sanctuaries to this day. They don’t belong there. They never should have been put there. But they are there because in America Christians feel an obligation to give homage to America when they are gathered together to worship God.
But God is not an American! We do not worship him as Americans. We do so as Christians. America didn’t give us the right to assemble here every week to hear God’s word and to give him praise. God did. America is not the indispensable nation. It may appear that we, the church, have America to thank for our right to hear God’s word proclaimed in its truth and purity, since America has protected our religious rights.
But that is putting things quite backwards. The church is God’s. God doesn’t need America. America needs God. As surely as God has blessed America for protecting his people, his Christians, God will withhold his blessing from America if America persecutes his Christians. Let Caesar be warned. We Christians don’t rely on arms, on the sword, on military might, on political intimidation, or on any other carnal means of securing our future. We depend on him who did battle against the devil on the cross and defeated him. We depend on him whom the religious hypocrites tried to trap but ended up trapped in their own hypocrisy. God will use Caesar’s power to serve his church. God will protect his church.
We Christians living in America have historically enjoyed protection from the state to practice our religion. In recent years, things have changed. Christian businessmen have been driven out of business for refusing to honor perverted unions as marriage. When Caesar requires his representatives to embrace an anti-Christian religion as a condition for employment, Christians are driven out of the government. It is time for us Christians to consider the examples of Daniel, of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We will give to Caesar what is his due, but we will not do so at the expense of giving to God what is God’s.
What belongs to God? Our hearts. Our affections. Our lives. And our faith. We pay our taxes to Caesar, we honor him as God’s servant, and we obey his laws. But we do not put our faith in him. Our faith is in him who suffered the worst miscarriage of justice in the history of the world, being put to death by one of Caesar’s governors immediately after that same man had pronounced him innocent. He who was hated and despised by religious and civil authorities alike, being falsely accused of challenging the authority of both, by his death removed from us our slavery to sin, the fear of death, and the lies of the devil. He is our Lord, he alone. We honor Caesar for Jesus’ sake; not Caesar’s. Jesus, who bore our sins away on the cross, and who by his Spirit graciously rules over us in his church, richly and daily forgiving us all our sins, guarantees that his church will remain even when every kingdom of this world has be reduced to dust. Amen.