Matthew 22:15-22 (Pentecost 21A)
St. John, Galveston 10/22/2023
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Pharisees wanted to know if it was legal to pay taxes to Caesar.  It was a bit of a trick question.  Sort of like asking a man if “he has stopped beating his wife.”  Either way the man answers, he’s condemned.  In this case, the question was about government.  More precisely it was about loyalty to the government, specifically as it relates to the payment of taxes.  The Pharisees addressed Jesus, “Teacher (they said),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.  Tell us, then, what you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  Clearly the question wasn’t asked out of genuine concern or out of some sense of civic responsibility.  Rather, it intended to trap Jesus.  At issue was whether or not He would deny the citizen’s duty to Caesar.  

Jesus, of course, wouldn’t be caught in the Pharisees trap.  He asked for the coin, in this case, a denarius.  Holding it in His hand, He said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”  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.”  

While the Pharisees thought Jesus would deny Caesar’s right to collect taxes, He, in fact, affirmed that right.  At the same time, He reminded the Pharisees that they owed a debt, not only to Caesar, but also to God.  “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  It is a classical text for the godly distinction between the two Kingdoms, government, on the one hand, which is often called the “the Kingdom of the Left,” and God, on the other hand, or, more precisely the Church, which is referred to as the “Kingdom of the Right.”  God, of course, rules them both.  However, He rules the Kingdom of Left, that is government, with power, while He rules the Kingdom of the Right, the Church, with grace and mercy.  

The question before us this morning is “what debt do we owe to each, the government on the one hand, and God, on the other?”  As citizens of this great country we are, of course, tremendously blessed, perhaps as no other people have been before.  “There never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States.”  Those aren’t my words, although I do agree with them.  Those are the words of George Washington, who, went on to say “I should be pained to believe that they (meaning the citizens of this country) have forgotten that agency, which was so often manifested during our revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God, who is alone able to protect them.”  In speaking of the good that derive from being citizens of this great land, the founding fathers saw that owed thanks to God for such blessings.

In asking the question about taxes and Caesar, the Pharisees were actually correct in terms of asking Jesus what is lawful and what is not in terms of their debt to Caesar, the State.  “Is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”  The fact is, in the kingdom of the left, government, our loyalty is based on the law, or, to put it another way, our loyalty is based on obligation.  In other words, when it comes to the government our debt is fulfilled by our doing.  Therefore, we pay taxes.  We do community service.  We vote.  And, in the course of time, we perhaps even take up arms to support and defend our nation.  We are most definitely called by God to render to Caesar the things that are Caesars.  We are obligated to do so because government is established by God as His minister for good.    

Naphtali Daggett was President of Yale and Professor of Divinity when the American Revolution began.  On July 4, 1779, the British landed 2500 troops at New Haven and one hundred students volunteered to fight in order to delay their march.  As they marched over West Bridge they saw the elderly Dr. Daggett riding furiously on his old black mare carrying his long rifle.  The students cheered him and were then dispersed by the British.  Daggett, however, had gone to the cover of some bushes and continually fired his weapon until the redcoats overtook him.  When the British commander asked him what he thought he was doing, Daggett said, “I am exercising the rights of war.”  Impressed by the cleric’s response, the commander asked, “If I let you go, will you ever again fire on the troops of His Majesty?”  Dr. Daggett replied,”Nothing is more likely.”  He was then marched by bayonet some five miles in the hot sun back to New Haven.

    Our responsibilities to government, the kingdom of the left, are divinely appointed, calling for our devotion, perhaps even for our gallantry and ultimately for our lives.  Our debt to government, however, is not singular, nor is it absolute.  While we have one foot in the kingdom of the left, the reign of government, we also have a foot in the kingdom of the right, God’s gracious reign of grace, exercised through His Church.  Here God bestows on us the gifts of salvation, namely freedom from the damning effect our sin, freedom from the curse of death and the accusing power of the devil.  He adopts us as His own in Baptism.  He washes away our sin with His crimson blood and with His pure and holy body in the sacrament at this Altar.  And by His word, that word made flesh in Christ, He continually declares to us that He is for us in all things.  Indeed, “if God is for us, who can be against us?”    

For such gifts of His grace we are most certainly indebted to God.  In this case, however, our debt cannot be paid by our feeble attempts to fulfill the Law, stained as those attempts are by the corruption of our nature.  Rather, our debt is paid in the innocent, bitter sufferings and death of God’s dear Son.  What remains for us, is not a debt to win God’s favor, or, to prove our loyalty, or, to prove our righteousness, but, a debt of thanksgiving and praise that acknowledges God’s love for such lost and condemned sinners such as ourselves.  Even in our praise, however, it isn’t that God is so shallow that He needs our continual praise.  Rather, it is that we, in our sinful condition, need to praise Him that we might not even be able to envision a life without Him.    
C. S. Lewis, skeptic turned believer, says that when he first became a Christian, he found one of the biggest stumbling blocks to his faith in the repeated statements of Scripture that we should praise God.  “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness,” Lewis wrote, “and these words of Scripture sounded hideously like God was saying, ‘What I want most is to be told that I am good and great.’ ”  It also seemed as though the psalm writers were bargaining with God, saying, “You like praise.  Do this or that for me, and You shall have some.”  Well, the answer, as C. S. Lewis figured out, is that only in the act of worship and praise can a person learn to believe in the goodness and greatness of God.  God wants us to praise Him, not because He in any sense needs or craves our flattery, but because He knows that praise creates thankfulness and joy, and joy must automatically overflow into praise.

Our duty to God is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, a debt we need to offer for our own good.  Luther most definitely had it right when expounded on the first article of the Apostle’s Creed.  All that the Father provides for us to enable us to support our body and life, is given, “out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us.  For all this it is our duty to thank and to praise, to serve and to obey Him.”  

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are God’s.”  The bottom line is our loyalty to God is always first.  The Apostle says as much in the Book of Acts.  When the governing authority overstepped its God given role, when the Apostle’s were forbidden to preach and teach in the name of Christ, they responded, “we must obey God rather than men.”  What we render to Caesar is a response of duty, of obligation, of order and of civic righteousness.  What we render to God is an act of gratitude for all God has done for us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.  The one labels us a good citizen, the other, a sinner redeemed by God’s grace.

“Lord, Thy kindness did so constrain Thee
That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.
All our debt Thou hast paid;
Peace with God once more is made.
O Lord, have mercy!”
In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +