Matthew 22:15-22 (18th Sunday after Pentecost—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
October 16, 2011
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson from Matthew 22:
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
The whole conversation is a set-up. The Pharisees had heard Jesus’ parables, the same ones we have heard the last two Sundays. They knew that Jesus was speaking about them, warning them that rejecting Jesus would ultimately result in their exclusion from the Kingdom of God. They wanted to arrest Jesus but they were afraid of the crowds. So they try a different tactic. The Pharisees stay out of the picture, but send their disciples along with the Herodians to trap Jesus in His words. Now this is an act of desperation because the Pharisees and the Herodians did not get along; they were enemies. Now, even enemies are joining together against Jesus whom they both despise.
The trap comes in the form of trick question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answered that it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar because Caesar claims to be a god and that would be an affront to the one, true God, then the Herodians would arrest Him for treason against Caesar and the Romans who ruled the land of Palestine. On the other hand, if Jesus answered that it is lawful to pay tribute and tax to Caesar, the disciples of the Pharisees would report Him for lack of loyalty to Israel and Israel’s God because Jesus supports Caesar, a false god, and the Roman overlords. It’s a cleverly devised question with no answer that Jesus could possibly give to evade trouble. Yet, Jesus’ answer is perfect in every way so that the inquirers could only walk away saying, “Wow!”
You know the Lord’s answer to the trick question. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus distinguishes between two realms in which believers live—the civil and the heavenly. Our first allegiance is to God, but we are also bound to obey the legitimate civil authorities God has established. As we read in Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
As Christians we owe loyalty and obedience to God, but also to the human rulers that God Himself as established. Civil authority and good governmental leaders are beneficial to us. They are means whereby God blesses us. But they are not the only means of God’s blessing. I want to return to the text to the description of the coin. “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”
One of Jesus’ teachings in our text is that, as Christians, we can rightfully honor the Lord as we honor the legitimate governmental authorities whom He has placed over us. But I want to spend the bulk of our time this morning looking at a second teaching in our text. It addresses the issue of what actually belongs to Caesar (and to us) and what really belongs to God.
We pay taxes to whom taxes are owed. We pay revenue to whom revenue is owed. (Rom. 13) But whose money is it? If you take a look at the Roman coin on the bulletin cover, you see a coin very similar the one Jesus saw. There is Caesar’s face and Caesar’s inscription. Does that mean it is Caesar’s coin? Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Before we do any rendering, don’t you think it would be a good idea to find out what belongs to whom? I wouldn’t want to give what belongs to God to Caesar or vice versa. What, then, belongs to God?
Everything, even Caesar’s stuff. Everything belongs to God. Let’s put some flesh on the word “everything”: things, time, relationships, talents, money, the earth, opportunities. Let’s use Luther’s Explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed to help further define this “everything.” “God has made me and all creatures; . . . He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses. . . . He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.” If these things didn’t belong to God in the first place, He would have no right to give them to us. But the fact is that everything belongs to God, including you and me.
Doesn’t that make you a little uncomfortable? It’s far easier to talk about what belongs to Caesar, what belongs to me, what belongs to you because it is so easily identified. If it’s in my possession, it probably mine. The books on the shelves in my office I say are “my” books. The minivan parked in the driveway is “my” van. This is “my” hair, “my” eyes, “my” clothes. We can’t forget this one, what’s in my wallet is “my” money. That’s just the way things work in this world. There is “mine” and there is “yours.” But then God enters the picture with His holy Word and says, “Not really. You have a misconception here. You are not owners. I have put you in charge of My possessions. All these things that you have I have placed into your hands for a period of time, but ownership has never been transferred to you.” Starting to squirm in your seat yet? I am. This seems such a very radical way of thinking.
But check out the Garden of Eden. Whose world was it? God’s. He is its Creator and Lord. And what does God tell Adam and Eve (in fact, His own creation as well)? That they can have it? That it now belongs to them? No. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’ And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:27-31)
Adam and Eve and their children and their children’s children—you and me—have been created to be part of God’s world and to take care of His creation on His behalf. That means that God expects us to use His stuff the way He would use it. Your front yard is several feet high with lovely brown leaves. Your rake is busted. Your neighbor has a super-duper mega-sized leaf blower. You ask to borrow it. In letting you use it, how does your neighbor expect you to treat his super-duper mega-sized leaf blower? The same way he would, so that it keeps running and isn’t misused. So that’s what we do with God’s possessions—we use them as He would use them. It is mind-boggling, isn’t it?
Actually I think that it is more eye-opening and heart-opening to realize that God shares His created goodness with us, that God trusts you and me to act as He would act, to respond to the opportunities of life as He would respond, and to handle life’s treasures and talents as He would handle them. So whatever it is that we would render to Caesar, we know that it is first God’s gift to us. It is God’s money that we use to buy the things we need for life in this world. It is God’s money that we use to buy the milk and the bread at the store. It’s His milk and bread that we buy. He gives it to us to nourish our bodies. It is God’s car that we drive, enabling us to go places for work and recreation, to help others, and to give Him glory through what we do. It is God’s house that we live in, provided by Him to shelter us. Once we discover and rediscover that everything belongs to God, a whole new, wonderful world of responsibility and accountability is opened up to us.
You and I are responsible and accountable to God for what we do with His stuff—how we use His money, His time, His food, His clothes, His talents given to us. But we are not responsible and accountable to Him as some hired hand. We are accountable and responsible to God as His children. Yes, we are God’s creation, but more than that, we are His redeemed children. He sent His only Son Jesus to win that status for us. Jesus died to free us from the power of our sins, from the misconception about God’s things being “my things”, from greed, and from selfishness. Jesus’ forgiveness won for us on the cross frees us from our guilt to serve God and to use His blessings in the way that is truly God-pleasing. Jesus’ death and resurrection won for us the new life of faith that frees us to see everything as belonging to God and how we, as His beloved children, can use God’s gifts to His glory and to benefit others, as well as giving thanks and praise for what He allows us to use on His behalf.
The Psalmist asks in Psalm 116:12, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” Today this same question is put before us as God’s redeemed and forgiven children in Christ Jesus. What are you and I going to render to the Lord from the bounty of His gifts to us? When you are asked to make a commitment for the next year as far as offerings to the Lord’s work goes in this congregation, how does the Lord want you to better use His money? When you fill out the commitment card, prayerfully consider what God Himself would pledge for Kingdom work. When you are asked to volunteer in the congregation or in the community, how does the Lord want you to better use His time and abilities given to you? How will you better use the Lord’s things in your homes, in your schools, in your workplaces, in your everyday lives?
We are God’s much-loved children who are accountable and responsible to Him. Yes, I have blown it as far as always rightly using God’s things is concerned. I know you have too. But the good news is that Jesus died to save us from those sins. We are forgiven of our sins and our failures to rightly use God’s things, His treasures, talents, and creation. Yet, as much as we have messed up over time, God still trusts us to use His creation and His gifts as He would use them. And God the Holy Spirit continues to empower us through the Word of the Gospel to render to God the things that are God’s and to use His gifts to us the way He would use them—for His glory, for helping others, for our blessing, and for extending His Kingdom of grace that is in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.