October 16th, 2011
“Christ and Caesar”
The foolish Pharisees. Trying to ensnare Jesus in his words. He, the living Word of God, the creator of words. The arrogance. But if they could trip him up – maybe the Romans would take care of this Jesus problem and they wouldn't have to get their hands dirty.
So they send a delegation – with questions. But first, compliments. And the false praise here is plain blasphemous. For they neither consider him truthful or of God. If so, they would have listened to him long ago. They wouldn't be here to challenge him. But the question is still a good question. And Jesus answer is even better.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? And in this short question is packed a load of dynamite. You see, the Romans were occupiers, outsiders, and their grip was as cold and cruel as it was strong. The Jews longed for the glory days when they governed themselves, chose their own way. When they could worship freely without the pollution of a pagan power. Purity! Freedom! Self-determination! They despised the Roman authorities, and rebelled here and there. And that coin with the emperor's likeness – no good Jew could suffer graven images, but to make it worse, the inscription hailed Caesar as the “Son of God”. Blasphemy. So to pay taxes to Caesar was not only economically uncomfortable, it was nauseating and repugnant to a good Jew.
We have our caesars today. We have our own governments and powers that be, to whom we must answer, and against whom we may feel powerless. Even in a nation which cherishes liberty and justice for all, and which extends rights and privileges to its citizens unique in the history of nations – still we are the same. The powerful are corrupted. The little guy feels left out. We choose our sides and work for what we think is best, and complain about what we think is wrong. Maybe we've even got some good points. And we'd love to be free of taxation, not only for the bottom line on our checkbook, but because it's our money, and we want it spent our way!
So it's a clever trap, by human standards, that the Pharisees lay for Jesus. If he says it it lawful to pay taxes, he risks offending the Jews. If he says not to pay, he surely brings down the wrath of the Romans.
But Jesus will not be fooled. His answer is so magnificent that it disarms his opponents instantly, and teaches us a valuable lesson even today. Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. A simple principle. A beautiful way to understand God's proper ordering of things, even today. Let's unpack his meaning:
God gives us earthly government for our good. Jesus never supports anarchy, for that would only give sin freer reign. Good government brings order, keeps peace, and provides a measure of safety for God's people. Jesus commends soldiers for their faith, and never tells them to quit their jobs. He acknowledges the authorities as having true authority, though given from above. Yes, all rightful earthly authority falls under the 4th commandment – honor your father and mother – for we answer to authorities in all spheres of life.
Even though no human authority is without sin. But this is no excuse for us to be lawless. Caesar was due his taxes, and so is Uncle Sam. A Christian is to obey the authorities, even corrupt ones, to the extent that he can without sin. This is what we Lutherans call the teaching of the Left-Hand Kingdom. It's the idea that all earthly, even secular authority, is God's authority – a way in which he rules the world for our benefit.
And it is in our sinful, human nature to balk at authority. To rebel. To challenge and push and test those limits. We disdain those who are over us, thinking we could do a better job. We question our parents, ridicule our boss, and make snide remarks about our politicians. But those who are placed over us are over us for our good, and they serve God in that role. To despise authority, whether parent or government, or boss, or teacher... is to despise the ultimate authority. And we've been doing it as long as we've been sinners. Our old nature is a rebellious nature, set against God and those who rule as his representatives in our lives.
Yet there is another hand of God – the right hand. That hand which is not about justice, but mercy. Not physical force, but the power of the word and Spirit. And God is right-handed. Here, in the church, he deals with us according to his love and grace in Jesus Christ. Here the real power is not in punishing, but forgiving sins. Here God rules you by the Gospel – the good news of salvation in Jesus.
So render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's. Which begs the question. What is God's? If money is the tax we pay in the Left hand kingdom, and obedience to authority, then what does God expect of us in spiritual terms? What are our spiritual dues?
Some would say moral behavior, or upright living. That if we simply try hard not to sin, that's what God wants of us. And according to the law, that's true. But it's also impossible. It's a tax no one could pay. Our debt, too high. You think the IRS is bad?
No, like so many things in this right hand kingdom, God's ways are so different than the world. He knows our inability to pay, and so he pays for us. He sends the true Son of God. The true image of God, not in the form of a coin, but in the flesh of a man. His perfect life earns us a credit on the heavenly ledger. He restores us, by his holiness, to the perfect and holy image of God we shattered in the Garden of Eden.
And what's more, Jesus rendered unto Caesar his very life: suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. Jesus gave what was due for our sins, his blood for ours, the only currency that could cover it. And now he offers us his body and blood free, without price.
And what does he require of us? What should we render God? Simply, our faith and trust. Simply to believe his word of forgiveness and promise. Nothing, really, except to receive what he gives. To give God what is God's doesn't mean first to do, but to believe. This is the highest and truest worship of God. The doing follows. The works flow from that faith that is given.
That we have such a God, and such grace, makes it easier to render to Caesar. Jesus shows that the coin is worth little compared to the riches of God. Psh. Don't get so caught up in it. There's bigger and better things to think about.
So pay your taxes. Obey your leaders. Respect those in authority. But more than that, render to God what is God's. Trust in the author and perfecter of your faith, Jesus Christ. He is the king of kings, who serves you even to death. He gives you all good things, for free.