The Twenty Third Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 23, 2014| 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
When we Christians talk about church and state, to whom do we look for guidance? Who instructs us? God or Caesar? The church or the state? Jesus says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Our trust is rendered to God. We trust in him to teach us the truth. We trust in him to provide for our every need. We trust in him to deliver us out of every evil of body and soul. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. To God we render our sincere and childlike faith. It is the most precious offering we can give him. To Caesar, that is, to the state, we give the obedience that God tells us to give – nothing more and nothing less.
In other words, when we consider what we owe to God and what we owe to the state, it is God – not the state – who decides the matter for us. We are Christians. Christians think theologically. We talk theology. Theology is literally “God-talk” and that’s the most important kind of talk there is. But when we talk about God we ought to be talking as God teaches us to talk. When theology doesn’t conform to what God says it is just jibber-jabbering at best and taking God’s name in vain at worst. So if we want to know what we owe to the state and what we owe to God we should listen to what God tells us in the Holy Scriptures.
Here in our text, Jesus tells us to honor the civil authorities. He teaches his disciples to submit to the civil laws, to pay taxes, and to be good citizens. Jesus calls himself the truth and he teaches the truth plainly. He doesn’t attempt to trick anyone. He isn’t capable of deception. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were transparently deceptive, as have been so many of Jesus’s critics over the years. They asked Jesus a question, not to receive instruction, but in an attempt to get Jesus into trouble. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus said that it was not lawful, he would be in trouble with the civil authorities. He could be accused of sedition. The state could take action against him. On the other hand, if Jesus said that it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar he would lose moral authority with the Jews resented Caesar’s authority over them and who believed that faithfulness to the LORD God of Israel disallowed pledging allegiance to a pagan ruler. Jesus couldn’t answer the question without getting into trouble. Or so the Pharisees thought.
Jesus turned the tables on them by asking them to show him the tax money. When they did, Jesus asked them whose image was on the coin. They had to answer, and by answering they trapped themselves in their own words. They said “Caesar’s” and revealed their hypocrisy. The coin was technically an idol since Caesar claimed to be a god and his image was on the coin. Furthermore, by using that money they were acknowledging Caesar’s authority. He was the one who coined it. Jesus exposed their hypocrisy.
Jesus makes it plain. We are to honor and obey the government. His apostles teach the same thing. St. Paul writes in Romans 13:1-4,
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.
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
We owe obedience to the government because the civil authorities are servants of God. This is so whether they know it or not. We owe obedience to the government because we owe obedience to God. We don’t owe obedience to the government only when it is a good government run by virtuous men. Tiberius was Caesar when Jesus said to give him what was his. He was a vile, immoral, and incompetent ruler. He didn’t deserve honor. Nero was Caesar when Paul and Peter wrote, and he was even worse than Tiberius. He didn’t deserve honor, either. But God does. And the civil rulers are his servants. God rules us through the state, even when the state is corrupt and incompetent. And it usually is.
God rules over us. He rules our bodies and souls. He rules our bodies through the civil authorities that have the power to require us to do this and forbid us to do that. If you take a look at the Ten Commandments you will see that most of them are reflected in the laws of Minnesota and North Dakota. When someone robs a convenience store in Fargo, and is convicted and imprisoned by the state of North Dakota, that is God’s work. God protects property and life through the powers that be.
God rules over our souls through Christ’s ministry of the gospel and the sacraments. He governs us, not by forcing us to do this or that and threatening to punish us if we disobey, but by forgiving us all our sins for the sake of Christ’s obedience all the way to the death of the cross, and by giving us the Holy Spirit who moves us to do willingly, from free hearts, what God wants us to do. Listen to God’s words spoken through the prophet Ezekiel describing the gracious rule of Christ our King:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Ezekiel 36:25-27
Caesar relies on force and threats of punishment. He has an essentially negative function. He cannot give. He can only take away. By threatening to take away from the bad guys what they would like to take away from you he protects you from the bad guys. And if you would try to take away from your neighbor what is rightfully his, Caesar is there to stop you, whether you are a Christian or not, for everyone must submit to the government.
But Christ’s kingdom isn’t based on threats. It doesn’t depend on the authority of the law, but on the authority of the gospel. Jesus demonstrated this authority by forgiving sinners of their sins. We enter into this kingdom by Holy Baptism where God washes us clean of our sins, cleanses us from the idolatry in our hearts, and takes out our hard hearts of stone and replaces them with believing hearts that trust in Christ the Savior and are led by the Spirit. The church on earth has received from her Lord the authority of this kingdom.
The ancient Caesars claimed to be gods. We may think such a claim to be absurd in our day. Who would believe such a thing? But people still believe this way. They deify their political leaders and turn politics into a form of worship. Politicians are celebrities. The power of the state is seen as the solution to just about every human ill. As people abandon historic Christianity and no longer confess the Holy Trinity as their God, they put their faith in human governments to care for their daily needs.
Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. But don’t confuse the two. Patriotism is a virtue. We should love our country. The Fourth Commandment says: “Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.” What does this mean? As with all of the commandments, the explanation begins with the words, “We should fear and love God.”
So it is in honoring the civil authorities. We should fear and love God. It is as God’s representatives that the powers that be have the authority to govern. When they oppose God’s will they should be opposed. When they presume to offer what only God can offer their promises should be rejected, even as we reject all idolatry. Nobody was ever reconciled to God, forgiven of his sins, or welcomed into heaven by being a patriotic American. Christ alone is our peace with God. Only Christ, the God become our brother who suffered and died for us and rose from the dead on the third day, can govern us by grace. And it is only by God’s grace that we are presented to God as saints.
This is why Christians make good citizens. We don’t expect the government to do for us what only God in Christ can do. But we submit to the authority of the government, whether it is fair or unfair, wise or foolish, because we know that such obedience is a gift to our God who calls us to fear, love, and trust in him above all things.
The civil government is God’s. The spiritual government is God’s. The civil government is God’s kingdom of power. It relies on force because there is evil in this world that must be opposed and punished. The spiritual government of Christ is God’s kingdom of grace. It relies on the gospel because there is sin in our lives that must be forgiven. That gospel is how the Holy Spirit works and sustains faith in our hearts and faith is what we offer to God. Giving to God what is God’s is beautifully expressed in the hymn:
Naught have I, O Christ to offer
Naught but thee, my highest good.
Naught have I, O Lord to proffer
But thy crimson-colored blood.
Thy death on the cross hath death wholly defeated
And thereby my righteousness fully completed;
Salvation’s white raiments I there did obtain,
And in them in glory with thee I shall reign. Amen