Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Date: Pentecost XXIII (Proper 24) + 10/19/08
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
It’s not enough, I suppose, that you have to put up with the daily barrage of political ads on TV and radio as we enter the final couple of weeks before election day, but that you then come to church and hear of a first century political group using similar hypocritical tactics trying to catch Jesus in a “Gotcha” moment to trip Him up. Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” And I suppose he could have just stopped there. I mean that’s where we usually stop, isn’t it, when we quote this verse in daily conversation? when we put the final touches on form 1040 and enclose the check, resigning ourselves to the fact muttering with a sigh, “render unto Caesar.”
The subject was taxes. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” ‘Seems simple enough. But there was more to it than that. There was more to the question and there was more to Jesus’ answer. And let me tell you right up front that those who want to draw a clear, clean line between the sacred and the secular are going to be frustrated. The coins belong to Caesar, so render unto Caesar. But it all—including the coins and Caesar—belongs to God, so render unto God. Life is not neatly divided between sacred and secular, but the secular is lived out within the sacred.
Remember it’s Tuesday of Holy Week and the heat is on—the heat from the one side of the religious rulers’ pride and offense, and from the other side of the political correctness of the Herodian party, and behind it all the demonic designs of the Tempter himself, the devil who has been stalking Jesus ever since his first defeat in the wilderness.
Oh, they put on a good show, these stand-in emissaries of the Pharisees. You see the Pharisees didn’t come themselves but sent their “disciples”—cronies—to try to trap Jesus in his words. “Teacher,” they said, “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.” True enough. Jesus is true and speaks the truth regardless of the true motivations of those who question Him. So, whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, he could have just answered, “render unto Caesar that things that are Caesar’s” and left it at that.
But Jesus not only knows and speaks the truth impartially. He IS the Truth. He was “aware of their malice.” He knew their words were nothing but manipulative flattery, “schmoozing” as we say, “buttering him up.” He knew why they were accompanied by the party of the Herodians. They were those Jews who planted “Herod Antipas for Governor” signs in their front yards, not because they actually liked the guy, but because they figured Herod was the lesser of two evils, that is, at least “less bad” than the direct rule of Caesar himself.
He could have just said, “render unto Caesar.” But he didn’t. “Whose likeness and inscription is on this coin?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” “So render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” But then He added, reaching out to them, “and render to God the things that are God’s.” And by that Jesus doesn’t mean only a fifty-fifty deal. It is not a “one or the other” sort of arrangement. In our Old Testament reading we heard how the Lord would call and employ even the unbelieving Cyrus the Great, king of Persia to do His will even as he would soon employ Pontius Pilate, whom Jesus reminded, “You would have no authority…unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:11). “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1). Ultimately, it all belongs to God; all are accountable to Him.
“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” Of course. But what are these “things of God” we are expected to render to Him? If the image of Caesar marked what is his, then it is the image of God that marks what belongs to Him.
Human beings originally bore the image of God therefore we belonged to Him. The Book of Genesis says, “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him” (Gen. 1:27). The image of God is what makes us different than the animals. Only man can possess knowledge of God, righteousness and truth (Apology II), “righteousness, innocence and blessedness” as the little catechism says (Creed II). As the image of God man was created immortal, created to live forever in a unique relationship with God, to exercise dominion over all the animals and the creation that, ultimately, too, belongs to its Creator.
The image of God, however, was lost in the fall into sin. Oh, we are still God’s creation, but, because of sin, something is missing. On our own, because of our fallen nature, our knowledge of God is only of the lowest form. Instead of being able to accurately know what kind of God He is, people argue about whether He even exists, even though, as the Bible says, “what can be known about God is plain to them” in the creation around them (Rom. 1:19).
It was solely because God loves His creation that He sent His only-begotten Son, who is the image of God. St. Paul writes, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The Incarnate Word is also the icon or image of created man, “being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). And salvation consists in this, “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). It is through the forgiveness of our sins that we are restored to a right knowledge of God, righteousness, innocence and blessedness. That forgiveness was won for us by Jesus’ innocent, bitter suffering and death on the cross. Therefore, all who would be saved must behold this image of the love of God: the crucifix. Only there is repentance of sin and true, saving faith possible. Our closest connection with and our highest beholding of the cross is in the sacrament of His Body and Blood, for there we learn to be horrified by our sins and regard them as great indeed when we see there the great price of our forgiveness and find joy and comfort in Christ alone, and through faith in Him be saved (Luther’s Christian Questions with their Answers for Those Who Intend to God to the Sacrament).
When the inquiring minds heard Jesus’ answer, Matthew tells us, “they marveled,” they were impressed at least with the “slickness” of His answer if not the depth of its meaning. So, confounded, confused and perplexed “they left him and went away.” Then unraveled the mysterious, mighty grace of God, taking the anger and disobedience of both official church and state, turning their seeming victory of wiping Jesus out to be His own victory over sin, death and the devil. The blood of Jesus spoke defeat—but not His own. Rather, “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Redeemed, restored, forgiven in His blood we are saved by such faith.
In Christ you now bear again the image of God. You belong to Him and can know Him as Father even now as we still await the great consummation in the resurrection of all flesh when that image will be restored in its fullness. Remain in Christ and in His mighty Word that you may never be confounded but abound in hope.
Be patient. There are only a couple of weeks left until all the campaign ads will disappear. May God extend His gracious rule even and also through the government and the leaders we elect. More than that, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).