You and I, fellow sinners, do not do as we ought. Any time the law is brought to bear and focus on us, it shows every little fault and failing. So too with Jesus' words today. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's”.
We might think in terms of the Catechism. The Fourth Commandment, “You shall honor your father and mother” also entails the command to obey all rightful earthly authorities. But also to honor, serve, love and cherish them. The law here is that sinners like you and me, we don't really like authority much. We generally despise being told what to do.
From the day we learn the word, NO, and shout it at our loving parents, to the grumbling about this silly law or that, or having to pay this tax or that,
or my boss is a jerk
and the pastor is boring
and my husband doesn't deserve my respect
and the teacher at school is so clueless...
Find an earthly authority in your life and you will not have far to look, to see your Old Adam hating that authority, chaffing at it, shaking his fist in rebellion.
And all these authorities God places in our lives, are ways that he rules his creation for our good. So when you despise God-given authority, you despise the ultimate authority of God. And God works through these authorities, even tainted and corrupted by sin that they are – just as he worked through Cyrus his “chosen instrument” to accomplish his purposes. But we despise the good gifts of God, the authorities he gives us.
Render unto Caesar, Jesus says. Easier said than done, when you're a sinner.
Or render to God what is God's. Not there's something. For what isn't God's? Our whole life, our everything, for starters. And yet we want it for ourselves. This is a basic First Commandment issue. When we put anything in the place of God, we trample on Jesus' words here, “Render to God what is God's”.
Here I suppose some would criticize Christians for not giving enough money to church. But perhaps some give money even to let themselves off the hook a little for not giving something else they should. Well, we should give unto God from the bounty he gives us, but even that's not what is at the bottom of all this.
But what especially would God have of us? Repentance. He would have us come in humble confession of our sins. He would have a broken and contrite heart. He doesn't want your good works, as if you even have any to offer. He does want a change of your heart, a turning from sin, a genuine sorrow that you have grieved God by your actions and inactions, your thoughts and words, too.
And just as they couldn't fool Jesus with tricky questions about taxes, you can't fool the Lord God when it comes to your own sins. Though you try to rationalize or excuse why you haven't rendered properly to God or Caesar, he won't simply let you off the hook, without the cost which must be paid.
But what about Jesus? Did he practice what he preached? Does he “render unto Caesar?” And what if anything, did he “render unto God?”
With Jesus, there's always a twist.
He rendered unto Caesar, through Pontius Pilate, what didn't belong to Caesar. Just listen to this conversation with Pilate when Jesus was “on trial” (from John's Gospel):
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Jesus, it seemed to Pilate, was “rendered unto Caesar” by his own people. But Jesus knew better, that only he could give up his freedom, his life, his kingdom. Pilate and the Jews weren't forcing anything here. Jesus, the King far above and beyond this world, meant it to be this way. It was his plan, his purpose. To render himself to Caesar, and more importantly, to God, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Anyone who was listening to Jesus would know this truth. Jesus came to bring us freedom, his life, his kingdom – by rendering up himself, on the cross.
By rendering his own life to God, he paid a price he didn't owe. But far more than covering your tab at the restaurant, or you tax bill with the government, Jesus pays, offers, renders the price for sin. He pays what we couldn't, even if we tried. He gives what we don't have to give – the holy and precious blood of the spotless Lamb of God.
Oh and there's another way to look at this phrase, “Render unto God what is God's”. Look again to how Luther treats the First Commandment, that we “should fear, love and trust in God above all things”. Now there's some law there, no doubt, but did you hear the Gospel side of it? The good news not that not only should we, but we can “trust” God? That we can trust him “above all things”? If he were only an angry judge, why would we trust him? But if he is the God who has, in Jesus Christ, wiped the slate clean – then who better to trust? Certainly not ourselves. Certainly not fellow sinners, even the princes of this world. They have no ultimate answer to our problems. Only God, through Jesus Christ, deserves our trust. And what a blessing that he calls us to do just that. That's faith. And that's what God wants us to render to him more than anything.
So, repentance and faith, all for the sake of Christ. Render unto him what is his. For he rendered his all for you.
When Jesus passed the test with his answer about taxes, the Pharisee and Herodian inquisitors marveled. But we can marvel all the more at all that Christ has done for us. Marvel in faith, that he renders himself, that our confession is met with forgiveness, and that by His Spirit we render true faith in God. Marvel at it all, for the sake of Christ, Amen.