Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

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“God and Caesar”

Matthew 22:15-22

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Pharisees are out for blood.  We already know that they were seeking to arrest Jesus (21:46).  We already know that Jesus has spoken two harsh parables against them.  And we know that they have “plotted how to entangle him in his talk” (22:15, ESV).  From now on, the Pharisees are out for blood; specifically, the blood of the Son of God.  And the question that they ask is designed to turn either the crowds or the Roman authorities against Jesus so that death will be the only reasonable result.  “Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (22:17, ESV).  This question, coming from both the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, is a well-laid trap.  They lay it carefully on the path, cover it up with the leaves of flattery and false charm, and stand back to see if Jesus will fall into it.  The dilemma is this: if Jesus says that it is okay to pay this particular tax to Caesar-a tax that was required of every subject of Rome-then the disciples of the Pharisees have an opening to turn the crowds against Jesus.  Their hatred of the Roman occupation of Judea, pagans occupying a holy land, would have been turned against Jesus, with His seeming endorsement of the status quo.  On the other hand, if Jesus says that religious Jews should not pay the tax to an idolatrous and corrupt government, then the Herodians have grounds to turn Him in to Rome as an inciter of rebellion.  After all, the Herodians only had power because Rome allowed them to have it.  In fact, if this was anyone other than Jesus, violent rebellion would have been a real possibility.  It was only about 25 years before that another Galilean named Simon had rebelled against Rome’s idolatrous coinage.

But Jesus is not Simon.  The questioners speak the truth when they say to Him, “you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” (22:16, ESV).  Indeed, He is not swayed by the appearances of the Pharisees’ disciples and the Herodians.  “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” (22:18, ESV).  “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, ESV).  What is in the hearts of these questioners is a desire for the blood of Jesus.  Their question and Jesus’ answer are actually irrelevant to their intentions.  He answers their question in a way that leaves the trap undisturbed, but that doesn’t stop them from pursuing Him and seeking His arrest and death.  If anything, it makes them more fervent in their hatred, more passionate in their hostility.  Behind a question about taxes and government is a question about whether Jesus really is truthful and whether He really does “teach the way of God truthfully.”  And so He answers the question.  But the answer does not satisfy those who would pit the followers of Jesus against government, nor does it satisfy those who think that governments should look like the Kingdom of God.  Notice that Jesus does not say that God’s people should refuse to pay taxes.  If it’s got the government’s inscription on it-in our case, minted by the United States of America-then we should give back to the government what it demands.  Sometimes that puts Christians in the uncomfortable position of supporting government programs that we would rather not support, from abortion to war.  But it is not as if the government has an ultimate or absolute authority to demand anything and everything from its citizens; that “anything and everything” can only be demanded from us by God.  The citizens and the government alike are accountable to God.  All things are coming back to the God who created them: both the people who live in any given country and the governments which God intends as a gift for our good.  And sometimes that puts Christians in the uncomfortable position of realizing that we have made an idol of the government and its currency, which are themselves subject to the God of creation; and we end up worshiping the creature rather than the Creator.

The two temptations, then, that always face Christians, regardless of the country in which they live, are these: first, to act as if the government were not, to use St. Paul’s words, “instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV).  God’s people are to be subject to the government, Paul says, to avoid God’s wrath and for the sake of conscience.  “For the same reason,” coming to Jesus’ answer, “you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (13:6, ESV).  Understand that this does not determine the amount of tax to be paid!  We can debate that, as we are hearing the presidential candidates do.  What is not up for debate is that the government has the authority, given by God, to exact taxes from its citizens to do the work of protecting and serving those citizens.  If we give in to this temptation, we act as if worldly governments are instituted by Satan rather than God; we say that God is not in control and that government is not subject to the will of God, not to mention explicitly contradicting the Word of God through Paul to the Roman church; that is, the church living under the rule of the same pagan country under which Jesus lived.  The second temptation is opposite of the first, but it leads to the same place.  That is the temptation to act as if what happens with the government is our ultimate concern.  This temptation is conquering people all over our country at this moment.  It suggests that some candidate will “save us, our children, and our grandchildren,” as one letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper said.  Or, it suggests that some candidate will prevent the country from sliding off the edge into the very pit of hell.  These are ultimate and absolute claims.  These are statements that may be truly said only of God.  Such claims may never be made of a fallible, sinful human being; let alone of a government run by fallible, sinful human beings.  This temptation leads to exactly the same position as the first: to the belief that God is not in control-so we have to do things ourselves-and that the government is not subject to the one, final will of God; not to mention contradicting the Word of God that says that when push comes to shove (and it will), we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  It may be that our consciences, subject always and only to the Word of God, require us to act in such a way that we run afoul of the government.  But since the same Word of God requires that we be subject to the governing authorities, we may find ourselves in the prison of the governing authorities for our teaching or actions.  Such is the position of the Christian who lives unavoidably in the world and under government.

Which leaves Christians in exactly the same place as it left Jesus: in a position that could never ultimately satisfy either the anti-government leaders, the Pharisees, or the pro-government leaders, the Herodians.  Christians who follow Christ are pro-Christ, which requires that we submit to the ruling authorities, even when they put us in prison or put us to death.  It should, of course, go without saying that we are only talking about persecution of Christians for being Christians.  As St. Peter reminds us, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.  For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?  But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:19-20, ESV).  In other words, if you break a law that says you can’t be a Christian or speak about Jesus, and suffer for it, that’s good in the sight of God.  But if you sin and break the law, you can’t claim Christ or Christianity as your alibi.  We should learn from our Lord how to live in the world: He paid His taxes to the government, He never rebelled with violence against the government, He paid respect to the governor of Judea, while reminding Pilate where his authority came from; and then that government killed Him!  If you think that God should rule in the world the way He reigns in the Church by the Gospel, you will destroy both the Gospel and the Church.  And if you think that because it is secular, the government is not God’s instrument for justice and the curbing of sin, then you despise the Creator and the institutions He has set up.  If you want the government run by the Gospel, you are sinning against God’s will: God rules in forgiveness only in the Church.  If you want the government to go to hell because it is not the Church, you are sinning against God’s will: God rules by His holy Law in the world through the government.  So what does this mean for Christians who live in the world and under government?  For the sake of your neighbor, be active in the government, locally and nationally.  Work for as much justice and do as many good works as possible, and vote for the candidates and issues that you think will accomplish that.  Your neighbors in this country need that from you, and your God requires it of you.  Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.  But do not confuse the government with the Church.  Only in the Church, where Christ reigns in mercy, is there true peace.  Only here, where Christ reigns for the sake of your salvation, is there the comfort of the forgiveness of your sins.  Only here does the weakness of the cross make sense as the power of God for salvation.  Only here, where Christ reigns for now in the humility of bread and wine and water and words, is there the foretaste of a lasting and eternal kingdom that will one day swallow up the imperfect institutions of a sinful world and every knee will finally bow to the King and Creator.  Here, brothers and sisters, is the sign of your hope, the One who claims your ultimate and absolute allegiance.  Anything less is idolatry.  Render, finally, unto God what is God’s.  Know that He is over all governments and all nations.  Until He brings you in your resurrected body into His full and new creation, He has ordained the governments of the world for your sake and the sake of those around you.  But the peace of the cross means that even when those governments persecute or kill you for the Name of Christ, as they are doing to our sisters and brothers around the world, they cannot really kill you.  You have already died in Christ, and you have been raised to new life.  Whatever happens in the world, good or bad; no matter who is elected on November 4; you belong to God, clothed in Christ who lived and died and was raised again for your sake in this very same world.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/15/08

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