2023-10-22 Pentecost 21
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen!
“Render unto Caesar!” This has got to be the most oft quoted verse on every Stewardship Sunday known to mankind. You know, the Pastor hops up into the pulpit and gives the congregation a real blast for being blessed beyond all measure and that we should give freely to our church out of the grace that we have received from God our Heavenly Father. Throw in a little Law and a little Gospel, a couple of witty jokes and then we can carry on to the potluck dinner! Yes, it’s all good stuff. But the point of today’s Gospel text is not a how-to-sermon on 10 steps to paying taxes like a spiritual pro! Rather, this text is truly a tale of two kingdoms.
This text before us is actually quite short, but it is jam packed with spiritual insight. The Pharisees and the Herodians are on the war path against Jesus. As usual. This is their default mode of operating. Target acquired and locked, full attack! We remember that the Pharisees were the teachers of the Jewish Religious Laws and the Herodians are the group of Jewish people who were the more politically minded of the bunch. So really, you’ve got both “church” and “state” coming at Jesus, trying to tag-team Him into saying something wrong. They are trying to tangle and entrap Him in both religion and politics. They attempt to put Jesus in the impossible situation of having to make a choice between religious faithfulness to God’s teachings or civic duty to Caesar. So they pose this seemingly simple question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” This is one of those questions in life like when the wife asks the husband “Does this dress make me look fat?!” … Red Alert, boys! Red alert!
If Jesus answers “yes” to their question then the Jews will hate Him because it was an embarrassment for them to be ruled and dominated by the pagan Roman government. They were the chosen people, after all. It is they who should be ruling over them. If, however, Jesus answers “no, it is not lawful to pay taxes”, then the Herodians will be quick to haul Jesus off to the gulag for his far-right, conspiracy theory, anti-government, hate-speech! So, this is quite the dilly of a pickle to be in. No matter what you do, there’s going to be issues. However, our Lord Jesus navigates their two pronged malice and gets out of the trap quickly and easily with His “render unto Caesar” answer. The coin has Caesar’s picture and inscription on it, it belongs to him. Therefore, hand it over. Far more importantly, however, is the other side of the coin. Render unto God that which belongs to God.
This is an absolutely brilliant response! Jesus quickly and easily bursts their bubble and escapes the seemingly impossible situation. There will be no being stuck between a rock and a hard place for our Lord. But what does this response mean for us? Jesus doesn’t leave us a nice and neat itemized list of what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God that we may render. Is this a gray area in a black and white doctrine?! Is it an either-or scenario?? Are we forced to choose between serving God and serving the state?! How do we understand this?
In a lot of popular theology in our time, there is much emphasis on forming a “Christian Nation.” Much is said about deposing sinful governments that enact increasingly un-Christian laws and policies that go against the Word of God. Much more is said about forming a Christian government, enacting Christian laws for a fully Christian country. Unifying church and state together, like it was in the good ol’ days or like what Muslim countries currently enjoy. Or you get the other idea that being a Christian is a quest in avoiding this world. It becomes a personal policy: “I don’t smoke, I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls who do!” There was a lot of this over the years. A Christian was viewed as a person who didn’t dance or play cards. Someone who didn’t listen to secular music. This is what fueled the whole Christian pop music industry of “rock n’ roll for the rest of us.” Lynyrd Skynyrd was bad, but Petra was good! Why should the devil have all the good music, right?! But not only music. Christians had to wear the right types of clothing too. You can see this locally amidst the Hutterites or in the US, amongst the Amish. So, you put all of this together and you have a whole “Christian” culture complete with activities, music, and clothing, all with one goal: staying out of the world as much as possible.
In some church denominations, you aren’t considered a Christian if you vote or if you pay taxes or if you serve in the armed forces. But these notions have been around for a long time. These same kinds of attitudes were taking place 500 years ago with the radical reformers – the Anabaptists – who were rejected by Martin Luther and all Lutheran kind since then! Why? For the simple reason that these misinformed folk have forgotten that being a Christian means being in the world but not of the world. We are dual-citizens. People living an earthly and heavenly life at the same time. It is the tale of Two Kingdoms.
The Two Kingdoms! On the one hand we have the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the right hand, the Kingdom of grace. And on the other, we have the earthly Kingdom, the Kingdom of the left hand, the Kingdom of power. But it is not a one vs. the other kind of thing! Instead, it is a “both and” situation. And this is often confused. It’s like the little Lutheran who gets in trouble with mom. When she starts to discipline him, he astutely responds “But mom, you should just forgive me because Jesus took my sins away on the cross!” Or like that classic film “O brother, where art thou?” When Delmar, running from the law, repents of his life of crime and gets baptized in the river, he exclaims “I’ve been redeemed! The preacher done warshed away all my sins and transgressions!” Everett reminds him “Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the state of Mississippi is a little more hard-nosed!” These are the Two Kingdoms.
As you read through the Bible it becomes clear that all earthly authority comes from God. These authorities are to function as God’s representatives. Also, there is powerful Words in the Bible about the government in 1 Peter 2: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” That’s pretty clear. Luther himself builds on this in the Small Catechism when it comes to the table of duties when he cites St. Paul in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
So, we can see that Christians have the duty to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. If it is tax, then pay tax. If it is revenue, then dish out revenue. If it is respect for those above us, then render respect. If it is honor then be generous with honor. It would be very easy if Jesus had stopped there. ‘Honor your earthly rulers, yea verily, Amen.’ But He doesn’t stop there! He also says render unto God! I mean, He is the One who has created us and brought us into His Kingdom of Grace through the Cross of Christ, by our Baptism and faith. We owe Him our thanks, our praise and our obedience. Honoring God is done by honoring those who are in authority over us: our Parents, our Teachers our Employers … even our Pastor! And of course, the Government. This is all basic 4th Commandment type stuff. The only exception to any of this for us as God’s people is when the civil rulers are in direct opposition to God, mandating stuff contrary to His Word. Then Acts 5:29 comes into force: “Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”“
OK, so then what else can we render unto God?! Think about the coin that Jesus used to show the Pharisees and the Herodians. It bore the image of the Emperor – Caesar. Therefore, Caesar owned it. But what bears the image of God?! Think about Genesis, Chapter 1: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Humanity bears the image of the true King. We bear the image of God. If we render unto God all that is God’s then, there is really no limit we can gladly render! We owe Him our very being, our life and all that we have! No part of us is excluded or segregated or secular or cut off from Him as our creator and redeemer!
So really, the nugget of this short Gospel is that we are truly citizens of two kingdoms. In the earthly kingdom, we owe certain allegiances and duties like paying taxes and voting and even military service in war time. In the Heavenly kingdom, we owe absolutely EVERYTHING! And so this Gospel lesson invites us to share in the struggle of life lived in two places at once. Just as our Lord Jesus Himself spoke to Pontius Pilate and acknowledged his right to take His life by the cross, He also gave all that He had to His Heavenly Father – and He gave it all for you! He died that you may have life, eternal life at that. And the response to that grace is how we render our time, talents and treasure unto the Lord. We love each other and help each other as much as is humanly possible. We share the Good News of the Kingdom of the right hand and serve our Lord by serving others. For now, we live in these two kingdoms, rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God, bearing the image of the One who bore our sins for us. Amen!