Posted on November 15th, 2009
Trinity 23 texts: Proverbs 8:11-22; Philippians 3:17-21; Matthew 22:15-22
Bianca Ehling was baptized at this Divine Service.
It’s early in the week – just a day after Palm Sunday, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The crowds hail Jesus as their king. All Jerusalem is abuzz. “Messiah has come!” It is time, the Pharisees decide, to solve this Jesus problem once and for all. So the Pharisees conspire with the Herodians to lay a trap for Jesus. The Herodians were a Jewish political party that was loyal to King Herod; a key part of their platform was submission to Roman rule. Together with the Pharisees, they try to put Jesus in a no-win situation. They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus says, “Don’t pay the taxes,” the Herodians will report these words of rebellion, and Jesus will be arrested. But if He says that people should pay the taxes, this (they suppose) will turn the people against Him; they’ll lose confidence that Jesus is the Messiah, because – they imagined – the Messiah will free the Jews from their Roman overlords.
They have sprung the trap – but Jesus cannot be trapped. His answer allows Him to escape their trap, but even more, it reveals to us the important teaching of the two kingdoms: the worldly kingdom of power, and the heavenly kingdom of grace.
“Show Me the coin,” Jesus says. “Whose picture is this? What name is written here?” And just like money today has the name of the government and a picture of a ruler, the Roman coin had Caesar’s picture and name on it. After they acknowledge this, Jesus tells them, “Since the coin has Caesar’s picture and name on it, then it belongs to him. Give it to him.” But then, the kicker: “But you must give to God what belongs to Him.”
So we must pay our taxes, and give the government its due – but even more important, we must give God what is owed Him. And there are punishments attached to these laws: The government threatens you with prison, but God threatens with hell.
Now it’s very easy to become dissatisfied with our government. We all probably imagine that we could do a much better job. Today, Christians are sometimes smitten with the idea that we need to help our poor, weak God out by “taking back the country” for Him. It’s not really a new thought. Dr. Luther put it this way:
Even real Christians are sometimes tempted [in] this way[:] They see that the world at large, and particularly their own government, is being so poorly managed that they feel like jumping in and taking over. But this is wrong. No one should suppose that God wants to have us govern and rule this way with the law and punishment of the world. The Christians’ way is altogether different. They neither deal with such things nor care about them. They are perfectly content to leave these things to the care of those who are authorized to distribute property, to do business, to punish, and to protect. As Christ teaches: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” For we have been transferred to another and a higher existence, a divine and an eternal kingdom, where the things that belong to the world are unnecessary and where in Christ everyone is a lord for himself over both the devil and the world, as we have said elsewhere.
So our goal as Christians is not to take over the government, or impose a theocracy. We must stand up for basic human rights, including the most fundamental right, the right to life for every human person, whether born or unborn. But we must ever remember that the Church is not a political action committee. We gather as the people of God under no earthly banner; our standard is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. When you despair about the state of the world, the condition of our government, the future of our nation, or when you are tempted to boast in earthly power and glory, remember the words of St. Paul we heard today: “Our citizenship is in heaven.”
For now, we walk in two worlds, two kingdoms: we are citizens in this earthly realm, most of us under the government of the United States. It is not wrong, but can even be honorable, to go to court, hold public office, serve as a soldier. God has established these worldly offices, too, to protect us and to help us serve our neighbors. Are you a soldier? Do not act maliciously, or abuse your power. Are you in government? Work for the people, and not yourself. Are you a judge? Take no bribes, and judge impartially. Are you a citizen? Pay your taxes, show honor to the rulers, and pray for those whom God has placed over you.
All this is rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But then, the far weightier obligation: “Render to God the things that are God’s.” Who can say he has done this? For what belongs to God? As the engraving on the coin shows its governing authority, so has God stamped His image on the things belonging to Him. The first man, our father Adam, was made in the image of God. That image was renewed and stamped on you in the Sacrament of Baptism. When the pastor traces the sign of the cross on the person being baptized, as with Bianca today, he says, “Receive the sign of the holy cross on both your forehead and your heart, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.” The Scripture describes those written in the Book of Life as having the name of God written on their foreheads.
So as the name of the government is written on our money, and thus we must render to that government its due, even so is the name of God written on us, and we must offer to God what is His, what belongs to Him – everything we are, everything we have, placed at His disposal, doing His will with joy.
Have you done this? No. Our “minds [are] set on earthly things” (Epistle) – we are far more interested in pursuing the things that belong to Caesar, i.e., the coins, the money. That is why our Old Testament reading is given to us today, to remind us that there are things far more significant than money: “For wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” In the same book, Proverbs, it is written, “Wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding” (4.7).
So where is the Gospel, the Good News, in the words of Jesus today? The Good News is where it always is: in Jesus Himself. God the Son took on our human nature so that, as a man, He could render to God the things that are God’s. Christ is the very image of the invisible God, and He rendered Himself, gave Himself up to God for us. He paid the tax that we owe; or in the language of last Sunday’s parable, He stepped in and paid that enormous debt that we by our sins have incurred.
The result of His obedience is this great promise – these words from today’s Epistle that we always read at the graveside of a Christian, as earth is poured on the coffin in the shape of a cross. “We now commit [this person’s] body to the ground: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies that they may be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.” That is the funeral sermon in brief: man returns to dust, as God declared to our first father Adam after he rebelled; but by the resurrection of Jesus, God will raise us up from the same dust to a new and glorified body.
And that is why we can pay our taxes and not despair over the problems in our world and government – because that’s not the citizenship that ultimately matters. Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we await a Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ.
So to sum everything up today: pay your taxes and show honor to the government, but remember you have a higher, eternal citizenship in the kingdom of God. So don’t let your pursuit be in earthly things; don’t have your belly – your lusts and desires – for your God; but pursue Wisdom by fixing your eyes on Jesus. He is coming to transform your lowly body to be like His glorious body, and in His kingdom shall you ever abide.