The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 22:15 Then the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him in what He said. 16 And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (NASB)
In light of a controversy created by a congresswoman over a condollence call from President Trump to a widow of a fallen service man, Chief of Staff General Kelly, gave a press conference to clarify what had transpired. In so doing, he also offered one of the most precise critiques of what has gone wrong with our culture and our public discourse. In short, he pointed out that there is no longer anything that is truly sacred in our culture. The institutions of the church and of government, the practice of civic virtue, the respect for women, and selfless service, are being torn asunder for selfish and political reasons.
It ought not be so for the Christian or the Christian church. In one short exchange between the Pharisees and Herodians in the Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus clarifies exactly what the Christian’s relations is to God ordained governments. While selfish and ignorant religious and amoral zealots continue their offensive to paint the Christian Church, Christians, Christian teaching, and decent morality as a threat to their two gods, self and government, the Bible’s teaching on the topic of Church and State, Christian and government is clear.
Yet, as long as men have served the true God and sought to be at least somewhat faithful to His Word, there has been a great tension between people of Christian conscience and the rest of the world.
Enemies of the Gospel and even Christians who suffer from bad doctrine and self-righteousness often say that being “a good Christian” is at odds with being a good citizen of the state. There are many places in the Bible that either contain a clear command that we be good citizens, respectful of the governing authorities and good servants to our neighbors, or offer examples of the same. Romans 13 is the most often cited passage. 1 “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good.”
The Bible is clear. Christians are to be good citizens. At the same time, we have this example from Acts chapter 5. “27 When they had brought them, they stood them before the Council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
The event recorded for us in the Gospel lesson this morning took place during Holy week, as “the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him.” The enemies of Christ were becoming bolder and more aggressive. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus’s critiques had asked Him questions in an attempt to discredit Him. And every time they did, He turned the tables on them and they walked away further discredit.
This time, they thought they had Him. They decided to go with what for the “orthodox” Jew of the day was a conundrum, an unresolvable issue of how to deal with the foreign occupation of a corrupt pagan government.
If Jesus answers their question by telling follow and critic alike that everyone should pay Roman taxes and humble themselves before this pagan Gentile master, the number of enemies and critics of Jesus would increase and some of His followers, at least on the margins would be disappointed and fall away.
On the other hand, if Jesus tells them not to pay their taxes, He would be guilty of stirring up revolution against the Romans and they the Romans would take care of the Jesus problem. The religious leaders could use that as a pretense to arrest have Him, lock Him up, and throw away the key.
16 “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
Instead of giving a simple yes and no answer, Jesus does what He always did, He puts them into the position of having to answer the question themselves, at least in part this time.
18 “But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, ‘Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ 21 They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.’”
Jesus answered the question by implying that there were things that were properly under the regulation and possession of the government and there are things that are not under to be under the authority of human government. As the president recently said, In America We worship God, not government.” A few decades ago that statement would have been a more accurate description of the state of affairs, now it is more like wishful thinking.
The Pharisees asked their question, hoping to set up an impossible situation. But Lord Jesus remains unintimidated by whatever so-called impossible situation your life can create. By the way He is not intimidated by any so-called impossible situation you face either. We might be intimidated by the realities of life, but Christ never is. His reply to the Pharisees, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
With these words, Jesus not only answers the question about taxation, but He takes the conversation to a deeper reality. Jesus does that a lot. People ask Him questions on one level and He answers them on a deeper theological level. That is one of reasons why so many lay people have trouble understanding pastors who actually think like theologians.
A question comes and it is almost always a law question about rules and regulations. What to do and what not to do so that we can be good little Christians.
But Jesus always answers such questions on a more profound level. He answers with the Gospel, with Gospel freedom, and with grace. Here Jesus replies with the Gospel and its freedom and does so by applying it to the world in which you live, the real world.
Jesus asked them to bring the coin used to pay the poll tax. It is a denarius and it has the image of Caesar on it, which made the use of it and of paying taxes even more irksome for the Jews. Jesus answers their question by pointing out that it is owed Caesar because it has the image of Caesar, who is the government.
With these words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” Jesus summarizes your entire Christian life. Do your duty in this world, serve your neighbor and your country. Luther quote of the day. “God does not need your good works. You’re neighbor does.”
But your worship, it belongs to God alone. Christ, paid what was required of Him before Caesar, He yielded to the authority and the verdict, even the unjust verdict of a pagan government. As the pagan Babylonian king Cyrus of Isaiah 45 because the instrument for securing Israel’s freedom to return to Jerusalem so that the promise Seed would make His way through human history as promised, so Pilate and the Roman government became the instrument for the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Christ yielded to Pilate and Caesar’s authority so that He could imprint, impute His image on you. The coin had Ceasar’s image on it. But you, the very image of Christ has been printed, imputed on you in that waters of Holy Baptism. Again Galatians 3:26 “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is [a]neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The government, the people, and the events of this world deal only in temporal things. They can demand and take property, limit the ability to move about, even take one’s earthly life, as it did in Christ’s case on Good Friday. But the government cannot touch the things that belong to God, bought and paid for by the person and work of God’s only begotten Son. The government cannot give nor take away the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Temporal things belong to this realm, but heavenly things belong to the God and Him alone.
The coin used for the poll tax had Caesar’s likeness and inscription. You have to look in a book or go to a museum to see that coin. But in the waters of Holy Baptism and in the gift of faith you bear a likeness too and there is an inscription on you too. The likeness is of Jesus Christ and the inscription; “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
May the Peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.