Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Date: Pentecost XVIII + Proper 24 + 10/23/11
We are definitely on the threshold of the ending of another liturgical year, the completion of the Church’s telling of the story, the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who He is, what He came to do and how all of that involves you, your life now and your eternal destiny. Big topics! Important stuff! We are coming to the conclusion of reviewing our Lord’s earthly ministry. And we are also coming to the conclusion of whether this saving Word of God has found a dwelling place in your heart and mind and soul by a God-given faith for your salvation.
We have spent a number of weeks detailing Jesus’ interactions, conversations and confrontations especially with those leaders of the people who questioned His authority and were trying to silence Him. It is Holy Week. After His so-called Triumphant Entry into the holy city of Jerusalem and into His temple, the chief priests and elders of the people, with “the Pharisees’ laymen’s league” carefully listening in right behind them, questioned His authority. Though He seemed to have refused to answer them, He actually did by means of telling a few parables. Regardless of their intent to reject Him He continued to reach out to them in words intended to bring about, even at this last minute, a last ditch effort to bring about repentance and faith and salvation in them.
Today we see and hear how despicable were their attempts to “entangle [Jesus] in His words.” This is sort of like what Newt Gingrich complained of in one of the recent presidential debates as “gottcha questions” from (as someone else called it) the “lame-stream media.”
What’s really loathsome, however, is the way they began their question. It’s called “schmoozing,” chatting pretending you’re being friendly but in a way to gain the advantage or even trick someone especially into a no-win situation. “They sent their disciples to [Jesus], along with the Herodians (!),” folks who preferred cooperation with their Roman occupiers as opposed to the “zealots” who opposed Rome and especially the paying of taxes to Rome. They seemed to have “set Jesus up.”
How’s this for schmoozing? “Teacher,” they call Jesus, “we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully.” Oh, do they? Their very intent is to prove He is a false religious teacher, teaching falsehoods. “We know that you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” That part is mostly true. But their intent is to give the false impression that whatever His answer to their question it will be objectively accepted.
Then the question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The Herodians were there ready to criticize Him if He took the zealot position of not paying taxes. Of course, if He says they should pay taxes that would set off popular opinion that was against the Roman occupation. He didn’t equivocate, however. But He answered in a way that brought to the surface the more important question.
“Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription?”
“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” More importantly, however, He adds, “and [render] to God the things that are God’s.”
What things are those?
Though it is true as the traditional American spiritual says, “He’s got the whole world in His hands,” certain things God leaves to man to work out for himself. Though God has given the fundamental command, “Honor your father and mother,” the command is lived and worked out in a sinful world, meaning that even father or mother may not always reflect God’s heart of blessing. So also for the commandment’s extension to other authorities, such as government, which may or may not reflect God’s justice. In man’s hands, after all, we have seen first-degree murder punishable by death but the murder by abortion of unborn children is not even considered a crime. Though our society has almost completely ignored the sixth commandment, we are still free at least to obey God’s loving design for marriage and family if we choose. So now, what about taxes to the government? Though in some societies like democracies or representative republics we can have some influence on government, still, Caesar’s in charge. And we are explicitly commanded to obey, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “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. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment….
“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:1-2, 5-7).
Some things, however, are not left for man to work out for himself because, indeed, he cannot. Because of sin, says the Bible, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). No one can avoid death or stand God’s judgment for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). For, as Job of old said, “who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. …[man’s] days are determined, and the number of his months is with [God], and [God has] appointed his limits that [man] cannot pass” (Job 14:1-5). No, it is final, “by works of [even God’s] law no human being will be justified” (Rom 3:20). But “God has mercy on those who fear him” (Ps 103:17; Luke 1:50). Yet that very fear of God and faith in His mercy is not within our reach except as the Holy Spirit works true repentance and faith in the heart. “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ….”
Along with Martin Luther we call this the distinction between the kingdom of the left hand (government) and the kingdom of the right hand (the kingdom of God, the Church). The one works only according to Law, force, reward and punishment. The other works only according to the Gospel, mercy, grace, faith, hope and love. Mixing the two inevitably leads to either libertinism or legalism. Let Caesar’s things remain Caesar’s and God’s things God’s.
In the coming weeks we will hear a few more challenges of the religious leaders and then silence. After a break for the celebration of the 200th birthday of C.F.W. Walther and the Reformation and the great hope of All Saints Day, judgment day will be upon us. So how will you fair in the judgment? Those who have produced the fruits of true repentance and faith will receive commendation. Those who have not will receive condemnation. In faith we will, as St. Paul said today, “wait for God’s Son from heaven, who he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess 12:10). You will then be asked to join together in the koinonia, the fellowship of faith, to witness, to tell the story, if God wills, all over again in the Advent of a new Church Year.
God grant you grace, mercy and peace as we live out our faith in the shadow of a hostile world by the bright hope of God’s glorious Gospel.