Matthew 22: 15-22
These past few weeks we’ve heard Jesus school the Pharisees on their understanding of the scriptures. Today, we heard about them regrouping and forming a new plan. If they can’t compete with his knowledge, they’ll set him up for failure with an interview. We’re all well aware today how easy words can be taken out of context, how easy it is to slip up and say something which we ought not, especially if there are enough witnesses or a video recording.
Notice that it wasn’t the Pharisees themselves who went, but they send some of their students. They come and acknowledge Jesus as an authority, a Rabbi, and so it would be rude for him to not answer them. They asked: “Teacher, 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Along with the Pharisees’ disciples were some of the Herodians, that is, servants of Herod, the King of the Jews. Only, Herod wasn’t a true King, he only ruled with the approval of the Romans, and the Emperor Caesar. These Herodians would be very interested politically in Jesus’ answer about whether the people’s taxes should remain in Judea or be sent to Rome’s large treasury.
These Jews are supposed to be God’s chosen nation on Earth, a people separate from all others. And Yet here they are paying tribute to the Romans, who worshipped pagan gods. It was no doubt a sore subject for some zealous Jews, who no doubt longed for the independence they heard about back in the days of King David or King Solomon.
Consider also that there have been whisperings about this Jesus, perhaps he is the Christ, that is, the king! What kind of king allows his people to pay taxes to other nations?
There wasn’t supposed to be a right answer for Jesus to give. Either he would support Roman taxes and appear as a traitor to the Jews, or he would speak against Caesar, and they could call for the Roman guard to come arrest him for stirring up revolt.
But Jesus rises above their loaded questions, quite similarly to how he rises above Satan when he was tempted by him in the wilderness. “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Nevertheless, Jesus doesn’t miss the chance to teach the truth.
19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
– I think we too marvel at what Jesus says here, but only because of how strung out we get about political authority. It demonstrates our sinful hearts and blinded eyes. Let me give you an example. What if I were to say to all our children: Give unto your parents the things that are you parents, and to God the things that are Gods! Of course children should respect and give what is due to their parents, and no one would think that this conflicts with what is due to God. Even if the children’s parents are unbelievers, we would encourage them to respect and honor them in regards to discipline and anything outside of the faith.
Likewise: Children, give unto your teachers the things that are your teachers, and to God the things that are Gods! If you children go to a public school, there’s a strong chance their teachers are not devout Christians, and yet you would expect your children to pay honor and respect to their teachers.
We as adults should not be so arrogant against our government. There is no political system on earth that would make every adult feel they are treated fair and proper. But we must not take for granted what our governments do to establish God-pleasing order in our lives. We pray here every week that our leaders would recognize a natural moral law giving rights respect to all. Even if our leaders do not know Jesus as Lord, or any God for that matter. Our respect for government is not based on whether our leaders are Christian or not.
– I won’t lecture on the nature of our taxes, whether local or federal, about whether we need a bigger or smaller government. But we need roads to drive on, we need a military for protection, and it’s helpful to have currency so that we’re not bartering. And for all of that, we need to pay taxes to Caesar. It’s far too easy to cast blame on politicians and our government, and no doubt there are times that we ought to. But to be utterly thankless toward our government, whether it be President Obama, President Trump, or whoever comes next, to be thankless towards them is to be thankless towards our God. God can and will establish order in this world through our leaders, whether or not we have the eyes to see it or not.
To be thankful doesn’t mean we endorse everything our leaders do. None of them are Jesus after all. We can give thanks to God for a leader despite them their stance on abortion, or despite their comments and conduct towards women, minorities, or immigrants.
Our Old Testament lesson helps teach us. Isaiah the prophet foretold how God would work through Cyrus, King of Persia, to help free God’s people from their captivity to the Babylonians. Cyrus would allow and even decree that the Jews should go back to Jerusalem and build their temple. All of this Cyrus did without really being a true believer in the God of Israel. It was not about who Cyrus was or what he believed, but how God worked through Cyrus’ position as king to accomplish God’s will.
Even if Isaiah did not prophesy about either Donald Trump or Joe Biden, as citizens of this country we must be able to give thanks for the order our government leaders help establish. It never means that we are endorsing them as perfect. It is far too easy to complain and rebel and take for granted what God is providing for us through them.
– Now, that all being said, there is the respect, thanks, and taxes we should render to Caesar above that is the fear, love, and trust that must be paid to God. I would argue that it is not very often that paying what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God is a conflict. I would argue that it is often that we can be both a good member of Christ and a good citizen.
But there are times we will face conflict between Caesar and God. The stay-at-home orders and public restrictions this year have put a challenge before the Church. We desire at all times to respect our government and their strategies to preserve human life. We will always do anything we can to help and accommodate this, whether it means wearing masks, worshipping in smaller numbers, or perhaps whatever else. We have the Christian freedom to do these things if it allows us a way to still gather as the Church and not be in conflict with our Government.
We’ve had it relatively easy here in Indiana. Some states, most notably California, have made it much more difficult for Churches to meet this compromise. We have seen government leaders put restrictions on specifically Christian Churches which were not consistent with other businesses, venues, or even other places of worship.
Though a child ought to always respect their parents, there does come a time for a child to be rescued from an abusive or neglectful home, and there are times a child may even take it up themself to escape. So it is for us Christians with our government. Again, we have been relatively blessed in Indiana. We will always strive to work respectfully with our government here at church, doing anything we can to meet their health standards set for our safety.
But it is of more importance that we sustain our faith and pay honor to our God. We are called to gather together in Word and Sacrament. It is not the same to watch at home on a screen, as any of our shut-in members watching at home right now can tell you, though we are thankful to at least offer them to watch online.
If it is ever necessary again, we will meet in smaller groups. We’ve had to sacrifice most of our social activities this year. It might count as a mortal sin against this congregation when you think how long it’s been since we’ve had a potluck together! Yet we have held off on these things out of love for our neighbor and respect for our Government.
But it is not right to ever stop meeting entirely. The church should always find a way to gather. Many early Christians in history had to do this secretly against the will of their Government.
We will never meet just to spite our government and mock their attempts to protect us. But there are more important things we receive here. As much as our Great Nation provides for us, and as great as our United States Armed Forces are, and thanks be to God for all of you who have served in them, we receive greater provision from our Heavenly Father, and greater protection by St. Michael all his Angels watching over us above.
Jesus is our eternal King. He does not need our earthly taxes, and desires that we would pay what is right to our government. But he does desire our heavenly tithes, that is the fear, love, and trust he owed, and he desires that we would financially support our congregations for their operation and their missions, both near and far. More often than not we can pay what is due both to our nation and what is due to our God. Jesus has given us the freedom to do so.
Knowing Jesus is King of King and Lord of Lords means that we can tolerate whatever rulers we are given now, no matter how wicked or imperfect they may end up being. We can trust our Father is working to accomplish his Holy Will despite and through all of our sinful actions here on Earth. And we bow before Jesus our King, not just because of his power and authority, but because he is truly a leader for his people. He is the King of Love who would lay down his life for all of us, that we may all be invited to dwell in his eternal kingdom.
In Jesus’ Name.