Matthew 22:15-22 (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—Series A)
“The Things of God”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
October 18, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel lesson recorded in Matthew 22:
15Then the Pharisees went and took council in order to entrap Him in speech. 16And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and you teach God’s way in truth, and you do not care about what anyone thinks, for you do not pay attention to people’s opinions. 17Therefore, tell us what you think: Is to give the tax to Caesar lawful, or not?” 18Now Jesus, knowing their evil, said, “Why are you tempting me, hypocrites? 19Show me the coin of the tax.” And they brought to Him a denarius. 20And He said to them, “Whose is this image and inscription? 21They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Pay, then, the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God.” 22And when they had heard, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.
The whole conversation is a set-up. The Pharisees had heard Jesus’ parables. They knew that Jesus was speaking about them, warning them that rejecting Jesus would ultimately result in their exclusion from the reign 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. 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 question of which they don’t really want to know the answer, “Is to give the tax to Caesar lawful, or not?” If Jesus answered that it was not lawful according to the Law of Moses to pay taxes to Caesar because Caesar claimed 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, as well as 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!”
Now, Jesus knew of their trap and so He sprung the trap with His words: “Pay, then, the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God.” 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 description of the coin. “Now Jesus, knowing their evil, said, ‘Why are you tempting me, hypocrites? Show me the coin of the tax.’ And they brought to Him a denarius. And He said to them, ‘Whose is this image and inscription?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Pay, then, the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God.’”
We learn from our text, in part, 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 most of our time this morning looking at the main thrust of Jesus’ words in our text. It addresses the issue of what actually belongs to “Caesar” (and to us) and what really belongs to God.
Paul writes in Romans 13 that we pay taxes to whom taxes are owed. We pay revenue to whom revenue is owed. But whose money is it? If you took a look at a Roman coin, you would see Caesar’s face and Caesar’s inscription. Does that mean it is Caesar’s coin? Pay, then, the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God. Before we do any paying, 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”: time, relationships, talents, money, the earth, opportunities. Luther’s Explanation to the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed helps 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.
Does that make you a little uncomfortable? It’s probably easier to talk about what belongs to Caesar, what belongs to me, or 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 is it? God’s. He is its Creator and Lord. And what does God tell Adam and Eve? 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’” (Genesis 1:27-29).
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. 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 pay 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, and 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.” Jesus’ forgiveness won for us on the cross frees us from our greed and guilt to serve God and to use His blessings in ways that are 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 make a commitment for the 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 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 school, in your workplace, 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 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 pay 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 and serving our neighbors, as well as for our blessing and enjoyment. Amen.