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LSB Proper 24A Sermon – Matthew 22:15-22

October 20, 2014

October 19, 2014 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Tell us then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Jesus gets asked a lot of questions. Some are inquiries where people want to understand certain matters: “Are You the One who is to come, or shall we look for another? … Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” There are other types of questions that Jesus gets—the ones that aren’t asked to gain understanding but to accuse: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast? … By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority?” Then there are the crafty questions usually asked by the Pharisees, the ones that begin: “Is it lawful….”

In the Gospel Reading, you heard one of those crafty question posed by the Pharisees to Jesus: “Tell us then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They ask the question with the goal of trapping Jesus, as Matthew notes: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Him in His words.” They want Jesus to answer a question, so that His answer can be used against Him in a court of law. Their plot is simple: get Jesus to say something that will either cause Him to be rejected as a false teacher or arrested as a seditionist; give Jesus enough rope to hang Himself.

The question asked to Jesus is centered on the word “lawful”. That word has different connotations for the two parties who came together to ask it. The Herodians are interested in maintaining the law of the land, the Roman code as administered by their boss, Herod, the client king of Galilee. For them, the matter is like asking a government attorney about whether the tax code should be followed: “Is it lawful to submit taxes to the Department of Revenue?” But for the Pharisees, the matter of lawfulness is different. They are concerned about what the LORD had spoken in the Torah (the Law) and their lengthy tradition of interpretation of it. The Pharisees want Jesus to comment on whether it is right: “Is it the LORD’s will that Israelites should pay taxes to a foreign, pagan ruler?”

So Jesus reveals the answer about what is lawful, of what the LORD’s will is in this matter: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” His words have been quoted many times by many people, whether standing in pulpits or in conversations. But Jesus’ answer needs to be understood as not just the statement at the end. That word “therefore” is quite important. Jesus’ statement—“Therefore render to Caesar that things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”—is based off what came before it.

Jesus’ answer is rooted in what He has the Pharisees do: “Show Me the coin for the tax.” After seeing the coin, Jesus asks: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” That question is the key to understanding Jesus’ answer. The Pharisees rightly tell Jesus whose likeness and inscription is on the coin: “Caesar’s.” The likeness and inscription on the coin indicate who has issued it, who has given it legal tender status, who has put his authority behind it, who it belongs to. That is why Jesus says: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

Jesus really isn’t interested in Roman tax policy. He isn’t commenting on whether there should be a census tax or not. And He certainly isn’t setting Himself up as a rival to Caesar, a would-be revolutionary ruler of a Free Israel. The questioners may have hoped that Jesus would make statements like that. But “aware of their malice,” Jesus doesn’t stumble into their trap. There is a bit of a dismissiveness and nonchalance in His response. In essence, Jesus says to the Pharisees and Herodians: “The coin belongs to the emperor. See, it has his name and picture on it. So if it is his, then there is nothing wrong, nothing unlawful, in returning it to him. If he wants it back, give it to him.”

Jesus’ own example of paying the half-shekel temple tax illustrates the meaning of His answer. It’s expounded in the apostolic writings. Peter’s statement plays off of it: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Paul builds on it: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

This is how you know that what your annual or quarterly submission to the federal and state revenue departments is not unlawful. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question shows that such action is not against the LORD’s will. If the Treasurer of the United States and the Secretary of the Treasury demand that you submit the Federal Reserve Note on tax day, then give it back. It’s got their name on it, return it to them. Don’t try to make a misguided argument that somehow you are immune from such actions because you belong to the kingdom of heaven. Writing “Jesus is my Lord and King” on a tax return and submitting it with no payment is not a legitimate response on April 15.

But the greater part of Jesus’ answer is actually in the second portion. Remember, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees did not end: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” No, it went on: “…and to God the things that are God’s.” That second portion of the answer is of greater concern for those who would be Jesus’ disciples. It is actually more complex than the first portion. “The things that are Caesar’s” was easy to understand: the Pharisees and Herodians could see that it meant the denarius coin that they had shown to Jesus. In the present day, you can think of the monetary system or other civil matters that have governmental origin.

So what are “the things that are God’s” which should be rendered to Him? Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to go back to what Jesus mentioned about the coin. Because the coin had Caesar’s likeness and inscription on it, it was of Caesar. But are there things that have God’s likeness and inscription on them? Are there things that are of God in that way?

The Scriptures speak of Jesus being the image of God. That is what Paul mentions to the Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” So Jesus has God’s image on Him. Though Jesus did not have an inscription on Him, He did have the Father issue an oral epigraph: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And there is the statement made about Jesus in the Letter to the Hebrews: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power.”

So should Jesus be rendered to God? In a way of speaking, He already has been. This is the work that He has done in His atoning sacrifice offered once-for-all for the sins of the world. This Jesus who is the image of God offered Himself as the Lamb of God. This wasn’t an offering that you made; it was made for you. That is how your sins were forgiven, how you received new life, how your salvation was procured. You don’t render Jesus to the Father; Jesus has already rendered Himself to the Father for you.

But there is another great truth about things which bear the image and inscription of God on them: you bear the image and inscription of God. This is part of the baptismal reality that you possess. You now share in the image of God, as you are made righteous and are regenerated. This is what Paul also writes to the Colossians: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” And he says to the Romans: “For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.” God has also placed His inscription on you, when you were baptized and He marked you with His own name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So what bears the image and inscription of God? You do. So what are the things of God that should be rendered to Him? You are. Part of your calling as Christians is to do what Paul exhorts the Romans: “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Or as he put it when writing to the Thessalonians as you heard this morning: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

Paul prayed for the Thessalonian believers, including “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He notes what the Thessalonians were doing as they had received the gospel that he proclaimed to them. That gospel included telling them that they were now a new people, a people who belonged to God the Father because of the work of Jesus. They now shared in the image of God, just as you do. They bore the inscription of God, just as you do. The same “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” that was found among the Thessalonians is to be present here among you.

What will that look like? Part of it will be living your daily lives in accordance with the LORD’s will as expressed in His moral law. You render to God your obedience to what He determines to be “lawful.” Is it lawful not to misuse His name, to keep His Sabbath, to honor parents, not to kill, not to violate marriage, not to steal, not to bear false witness, and not to covet? Yes, all this is lawful. And it is a way that you “render to God the things that are God’s.”

But it goes further than just obedience of the commandments. “Rendering to God the things that are God’s” includes using what He has bestowed to you for whatever He deems to be good. In your bulletin, you can read the Stewardship Note on your own. But here is part of what was written for this week: “So what is Jesus saying? Doesn’t everything belong to God? Yes—and God has a place for everything. Some of what He gives us goes to Caesar. Some must come back to the work of His Church. And some goes to support the families He has given us.” The way that plays out includes rendering yourselves to further the work that God does in the world through people.

The LORD was able to use Cyrus as an instrument to do His will in the world, as you heard in the Old Testament Reading. But note what the LORD said about him: “For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know Me.” Though Cyrus did not know the LORD, the LORD still used Him to accomplish His will. But you are different than Cyrus: you know the LORD. Not only has the LORD called you by name; He inscribed His name on you. Not only do you know the LORD’s identity; you share His image. So when the LORD wants to work His will through you, you are moved to act.

Your “rendering to God the things that are God’s” includes your monetary contributions given to the congregation. But it also includes giving of your person and your abilities to congregational efforts to make known the work that Jesus did in offering Himself up for the salvation of the world. So when the call goes out for people to participate in the educational, outreach, or service works that are done here, the response that you can give is: “God is doing His work through people. Since I bear His image and inscription, I want that work to be done. Since I bear His image and inscription, God can use me to do these things. Since I bear His image and inscription, I serve the living and true God. Since I bear God’s image and inscription, it is lawful for me to render myself to Him and His work.” And then you will render to God the things that are God’s.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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