St. Matthew 22:15-22 – Pentecost 19
Our Gospel text is the classic ‘obey the government’ text. This is the text that comes up every time there is a question about whether or not we should pay taxes. This is the text that comes up first when the discussion is about matters of church and state.
And you know why?
Because when you look at this text that is what everyone is talking about. The separation of church and state, the question of whether or not a believer could even pay taxes, is at the very heart of the question posed to Jesus in an effort to trap Him on whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.
But you know why else we look at this text and only think about church and state issues and obeying the government and paying taxes?
Because if we were to admit what this text is really all about, we would discover that it is about something much harder than paying taxes and respecting the ruling authority, no matter who that authority may be.
Granted, respecting Caesar is no easy task. The very title of Caesar is meant to bring up images of a god, for that is how the Caesars viewed themselves, and more importantly how they expected others to view them. In fact, that someone even has a Roman coin in which to show Jesus in our text should have repulsed those gathered. To have on hand the coin that bore the image of the one who put himself in the position of a god should have been disgusting to any Jew.
And that does not even begin to get into the gruesome details of what Caesar did with the power and authority he had; nor does it get to the point that Israel was really not all that fond of foreign rule to begin with.
Perhaps you can relate.
To hear this text, particularly in April and every 3 months when quarterly estimates are due is not a very cheerful thing. As Americans we do not like to pay taxes; and as the Church, most of the time, we do not really like hearing about what an earthly government has to say.
If this text were just about respecting Caesar, than it would be a tough pill to swallow, but we would sit back and remember that no matter who is the earthly authority, Jesus is the one, true ruler of heaven and earth; and that as the people of God, we must suffer a little while longer until Christ returns and makes all things right.
This text is a hard one when it comes to respecting the government; but for the most part, we do, perhaps to the same extent that the Jews in our text do: we grumble, we complain, we dream of revolution and uprising; but we still mail the check in to pay our taxes.
We do that, because it is a lot easier than admitting what this text is really about.
Because as it turns out, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s is the easy part.
Often forgotten is the rest of that line in our text: Render unto God the things that are God’s.
Often forgotten, and even ignored, because it is much more difficult to follow.
Of course, what does God want?
We try to be cute, and say that the government does not really get our dollars and our allegiance, for God is the true owner of all things; ergo this line is really to put the government on notice that they are merely stewards of God’s gifts and should use their power and resources to the glory of God and the service of citizens under their authority.
Which may be true, but it is not what this line is about.
Render unto God the things that are God’s is really all about you; just as the line Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s is all about you.
Caesar, no matter what form he may take, wants your tax dollars. God, in the only form that He takes, wants your repentance and faith.
Which is easier: to pay your taxes, or to go to God and ask for forgiveness? Which is easier: to obey some earthly laws regarding the speed limit or how you travel; or to obey God’s Law regarding how you live your life? Which is easier: to obey the government when it imposes restrictions on your business; or to place your trust in God when He calls you to be His own?
Suddenly the government does not look so bad anymore.
The call to repent is not an easy one for us to hear, for the call to repent would imply that something was wrong in the first place. No longer is the call about the government doing wrong and how there needs to be an uprising overthrowing a mildly oppressive regime, now the call is about you, and how there needs to be an upheaval of sin in your own life, and the creation of a clean heart and a right spirit within you.
And that makes paying taxes sound a lot easier. Paying taxes allows you to keep doing what you want, as long as you pay the government a portion of your money. Repentance requires you to admit you were wrong and to stop doing what you have been doing all along; and live a life that is holy and pleasing to God in faith.
Everyone wants to be wise and say that this text is about paying taxes, except for Jesus, who declares in His perfect wisdom that this is really all about repentance and faith.
For the Pharisees and Herodians, their efforts to trap Jesus have failed. Instead of catching Jesus in a difficult situation of defending or condemning Caesar, they instead find themselves in an even more difficult situation, being accused of being more faithful to Caesar than to God.
And that is where we find ourselves today; left with the question of who are we more faithful to? You may not like the government, but how many tax payments have you missed? Hopefully none, for our role as citizens is to respect the government, and pay our taxes.
We love God, and all that He has done for us. But how faithful are you to God? You never miss a tax payment, but what about meal time prayers, and daily devotions, and worship? Are you rendering to God the things that are God’s as faithfully as you render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s?
The truth may sting. It certainly stung the Pharisees and Herodians, whose hearts are hardened in their desire to get rid of Jesus.
Getting rid of Caesar, whether it is in the 1st century or the 21st century is no easy task; getting rid of Jesus? Seemingly much easier. And so the Jews use the very government they despise to arrest and kill Jesus. Not the last time that will happen, as today, you use the government as an excuse to do what you want, for if Caesar allows it, than it must be ok.
For your sake, and for mine, Jesus willing goes to the cross and renders unto God the perfect devotion and sacrifice that we could never render. Jesus in His wisdom sees that we are to blinded by the things of this world to save ourselves, and so He goes to the cross and dies for your sins of failing to render to God and to Caesar the things rightly due them.
Renewed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, we now look at our lives once more as forgiven and redeemed children of God, and render unto God the things that are God’s.
What does this rendering to God the things that are God’s look like?
It looks like confessing your sins and receiving absolution. It looks like setting aside time each day for prayer and daily devotions. It looks like gathering here each Lord’s Day to hear the Word and to receive Christ’s gifts. It looks like helping a neighbor that is in need. It looks like living the life of a baptized child of God.
That is not a life that comes around once a year, or at most every 3 months; rendering unto God the things that are God’s is a daily activity that begins with remembering your baptism, and living each day in the trust and hope of that baptism.
For that baptism, that rendering unto God the faith and repentance that He desires, will yield unto you not the good roads and schools that Caesar promises, but the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that God alone cane grant out of His goodness and mercy to you, His own beloved child.