Monday, October 20, 2008

Proper 24 of Series A (Matthew 22:25-22)

“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter twenty-two. Dear friends in Christ, think back to the Gospel lessons of the past three weeks. We have been marching through the Gospel of Matthew, walking with Jesus on His way to the cross. These past three weeks, Jesus has launched three attacks against the religious leaders of His day. He has told them through three parables that the kingdom of God will be ripped from their hands and given to others. Israel has been disobedient, they have refused to do the Father’s will, killing the prophets sent to them, those who were inviting them to the wedding feast. Not only that, but they will soon kill His one and only Son. And what was their response? Did the Jewish leaders repent and follow Jesus? I think you can guess the answer- as we read a few weeks ago, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest Him, they feared the crowds.” They could not just arrest Jesus out in the open, but they needed another strategy, a more cunning strategy. Our text is the first of three attempts to take care of this ‘Jesus problem,’ and to do this, the religious leaders have concocted a new plan.

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle Him in His talk.” This was their strategy, to get Jesus to say something that would turn people against Him. They needed a question that would have no good answer, that would place Jesus in a lose-lose situation. But first, they needed to butter Him up. “And they sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, 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.’” For all their false flattery, what these people said was correct. Jesus is true, and He does teach the way of God truthfully, most especially when He said that the only way to God is through Himself. Moreover, He does not care about man’s opinion. All that He cares about is the will of His Father, for whom He took on Human flesh. Jesus serves His Father, not the whims of men. These men spoke ‘truthfully,’ even though their purpose was deception.

The disciples of the Pharisees had a simple question for this teacher they supposedly revered so highly: “Tell us, then, what you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They think they have the perfect question, and in many ways, they do. It sounds very innocent, a simple and honest inquiry on how a conquered people should treat their conquerors. Moreover, there are two wrong answers to this question. If Jesus says ‘no,’ if He declares that the Jews should not pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees will turn Him over to the Roman authorities as a revolutionary. Jesus will then be declaring that His kingdom truly is of this world, that He has come to collect power and set Himself up as an earthly king. With the God-man at their head, the Jews will be unstoppable in their quest to throw off the shackles of the Romans. On the other hand, if Jesus answers ‘yes,’ if He tells those gathered around Him that they should pay taxes to Caesar, then the Pharisees can paint Him as an opponent of the Jews, One who has no regard for the privileges of His very own people. In either option, temptation lurks, Satan is waiting for Jesus to make a false step. This is another chance for Jesus of Nazareth to grasp at glory, to court the favor of the crowds, perhaps even a chance to join with the powerful Romans. Satan wants Him to reach for earthly glory, he knows that Jesus must be derailed from the cross. But Jesus sees through it all: “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?’”

And Satan continues to tempt you and me with this same question. Especially in an election season, the question comes to each one of us, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” No matter who wins and who loses on November fourth, roughly half of our nation will be elated and the other half despondent. For those of you on the losing end, the question then becomes, do we give this new government our loyalty as well? Or do we register our disappointment by failing to pay taxes or dumping our trash on yards with Obama/Biden signs? Now those are pretty extreme examples, but I am sure that you know many other ways to rebel against rulers you despise. More importantly, there is the mental despair and despondency that comes from seeing someone you detest take the podium on Inauguration Day. On the other hand, there is an equally insidious danger to the winners. Those who win political victory are tempted to put all of their trust in the government, to stake all their fortunes on the whims of a hundred million voters. Is this any different than what Jesus was tempted to do? Satan wanted Him to gather worldly glory, forsaking the purpose for which He became incarnate. Satan wants your focus on anything else but God, He wants your trust to be centered on the things of this world. On either side, despondency or elation, we forget where our hope and trust should lie. They do not lie upon humans, but instead upon the God who has created us, the God who has redeemed us. On November fourth I urge you to vote, but do we look to a candidate for our ultimate confidence, for our salvation? Do we put our trust in the government, in the mechanisms of this world alone? If not, what do we owe to Caesar, or Obama, or McCain? What did Jesus say?

The answer of Jesus is so simple that it almost seems ridiculous: “‘Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, ‘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.’ When they heard it, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.” Such a simple answer to such a serious question! We simply give to the government what we owe it, whether it is taxes or obedience to the law. Jesus did not advocate rebellion, He did not take Satan’s bait to establish a kingdom upon this earth, but instead He rejected this temptation. We are especially tempted during an election season to put our hope in earthly rulers, but Jesus shows us a much better way. We give to our rulers what we owe them, no more and no less. We do not give them our ultimate hope and our confidence, we do not look toward them for salvation. But we do give them what they are owed. And why is that? What is so special about earthly governments that would have even Christians in their debt?

We render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s because Caesar’s ability to rule does not come from Himself, it comes from God. God has established earthly governments to take care of earthly things- their power flows directly from Him, just as our loyalty to government flows directly from our obedience to God. But that is not all- more importantly, God also uses earthly governments to His own ends. In our Old Testament lesson, God tells Israel that He will use Cyrus, the king of Persia, as His instrument to bring His promises to fruition, as His means of returning Israel from exile. And Cyrus will not even know it. “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is none other.” Just as God used Cyrus to fulfill His promises, so He would use other earthly rulers, Pontus Pilate and the Jewish leaders, to fulfill His ultimate promise. Jesus rejected Satan’s offer of earthly glory because He had come to this earth for a much higher purpose. He took on human flesh in order to die, to be killed, to be executed as a common criminal. God needed an instrument to accomplish this sacrifice, and so He appointed Pilate and the Romans, who did not know God nor His plan, to be His chosen instrument of salvation, of your salvation. Jesus reminded Pilate that he was simply a part of God’s plan in John chapter 19: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, in fact, the world rejected it, as He was crowned with thorns and hung on a cross, shedding His blood for your sins and the sins of the entire world. Jesus was not just ‘true’ as the Pharisees flattered Him, but He was the Truth Himself, and the Jewish leaders exchanged the Truth of God for a lie when they sent Him to His death. But then God’s chosen instruments were witnesses to a greater miracle, as Pilate’s soldiers fell to the ground in fear as the tomb opened and Jesus stepped forth. His sacrifice now redeems you, His victory gives you life, life with Him forever. You have no need to put your trust in candidates, presidents, or rulers. God can use whomever we elect toward His own ends. Instead your confidence and hope is in Christ, the one who gave up His life for your sins, the one who covers you with His robe of righteousness and brings you to the marriage feast of God.

Because Christ has redeemed us, we can then live a life in fulfillment of Jesus’ words: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” God has blessed us with so much in addition to our eternal salvation- every good gift flows from Him, and so we give back to Him what we have received from His providing hand. Not only that, but the very best, the first-fruits, go to Him in joyful thanksgiving to the Lord of the Harvest. And while we are not rebellious citizens, we are also not quiet ones. As baptized children of God, as those redeemed by Christ’s blood, we do not let the government infringe on the Gospel- it is there that we draw our line. The government was established by God to order our affairs in this life, but when those God-given authorities step into the realm of the Gospel, we are expected to disobey. We must obey God rather than men.

And so there is a balance to be struck in our Christian walk. On the one hand, we respect those placed in authority over us as those who have authority from God. On the other hand we do not tolerate their intrusion into areas in which God has not given them authority. This is not an easy balance. We prayed in our collect for today, “With You as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.” Satan is always using the things of this world in an attempt to draw our attention away from Christ. May we live our lives in this world in order that we do not put our trust in anything else but in Christ, the one who became man for you, the one who took on Satan for you, the one who died in your place. The Lord is forever faithful to His promises, and we pray that He will preserve us in this true faith until life everlasting, Amen.

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