Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pentecost 18 (Proper 24), Series A


Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 16, 2011 (Proper 24, Series A)

According to today’s text, the Pharisees and the Herodians were not honestly seeking to learn from Jesus by asking the question they asked. They were trying to trap Him. They purposely asked a question for which both answers were problematic. If Jesus had said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then He would have made an enemy of the patriotic Jews who wished to rid themselves of the hated Roman oppressors. In fact, that’s what many people thought Jesus was about: they thought He was going to kick the Romans out of Israel and restore the ancient Israelite monarchy, with Himself as David’s heir on the throne. Even His own disciples thought this way, as we can tell from certain things they said and asked Jesus throughout the Gospels. And so for Jesus to support the right of the Romans to tax the Jews, would anger just about everyone who supported Him, and lead to a riot. On the other hand, if He were to say, “No, it isn’t lawful,” then he would have been charged with undermining the Roman authorities, imprisoned, and executed. Of course, that’s what He was later charged with and executed for anyway, but if He would have said that, the charge would actually have been true. The question is a trap. Either answer is bad for him. It’s like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Either a yes or a no answer is bad for the person, because the assumption behind the question is wrong.
But Jesus gets out of the trap by pointing out that it was Caesar who issued the money in the first place. His face and his inscription are on it, and so it really belongs to him anyway. Since Caesar issued the money, he has a right to demand it back. But, by the same token, we are also to render to God the things that belong to Him. And that means that there are certain boundary lines Caesar should not cross. If Caesar demands that his subjects do things that are against God, those subjects have the duty to disobey him, even though they still obey him when his commands are within the sphere of authority God has given him. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Now, that’s not to say that any one particular form or government enjoys God’s special favor. We happen to live in a constitutional republic (sometimes mistakenly referred to as a democracy). And, since the highest law of our land guarantees us the freedom of religion, we do give thanks that God has graciously allowed us to be relatively free of religious persecution here. This is a good thing. But obviously Jesus wasn’t talking about the United States here; it would be some 1800 years before our Constitution would be written. He was talking about the hated oppressor Caesar. Every government, even ones that we would regard as oppressive and horrible, are used by God to keep peace and order in society. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was very effective from keeping the Islamic majority in Iraq from killing or driving out the Christians in that country, and ironically it was the ancient Christian communities in Iraq that suffered the most when his regime was ended. Even Communist regimes keep the roads paved and the electricity flowing, which are blessings even for those who have to worship in secret. And so governments are to be respected, precisely because it is God who is keeping peace and order in society for our benefit through them. That doesn’t mean we have to obey when they command us to sin; after all, “We must obey God rather than men.” But it does mean that we can simply disregard them just because they aren’t perfect and don’t always do a perfect job of respecting everyone’s rights and being fair to everyone, either.
But how to tell the difference? What does our Lord say? How do we know what things are Caesar’s and what things are God’s? The coin they brought to Him had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar stamped upon it. And so, because it bore Caesar’s image and His inscription, it was Caesar’s. But how do we know what is God’s? The same way. By God’s image and God’s inscription. And where do we find that image of God? What things bear the image of God? We learn from Genesis that mankind was created in the image of God. This means that everything we are and everything we have is God’s, because we bear His image within ourselves. This isn’t just a matter of giving to Church or to charity, although one way we confess the fact that we are His is by giving generously to the Church and to those who need our help in our midst. This is a matter of confessing that everything we are and everything we have is His. There is no part of our life, no aspect of our being, that He does not claim. His image is upon all of it. We are created in His image.
Of course, mankind lost that image when he fell into sin. We have all inherited that sin from Adam and so are separated from our Creator. This is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die and rise again so that our old sinful nature could be drowned and die in Holy Baptism, and a new man come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. In Holy Baptism a new name was inscribed on your hearts, the name of Jesus Christ. Christ claimed you again as His own, so that you could live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. You were recreated, reborn, in that font, so that now you have once again the image of God in you, not only in your heart but in your whole being and in the living out of your life. Where do we find that which is God’s? Where His image and inscription are. Where are that image and inscription? On our hearts and in our lives. He has called us by name, and we are His.
As I mentioned before, one of the ways in which we show that we are His is by obeying those who are placed in authority over us. This includes not only the secular government, but whomever is in authority over us in society and family. This includes our boss at work, our parents, for wives it includes your husband, and in matters where the Word of God speaks it also includes your pastor, whose authority it is to speak that Word of God in your midst. To render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s is really one way in which we render unto God the things that are God’s, since He is the one who stands behind and upholds those in authority over us. “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” This is the explanation Luther gives of these matters, in connection with the Fourth Commandment. It is God whom we are serving when we obey and honor those who are in authority over us.
But most important is to remember to Whom it is that we belong: God. Yes, that is a great responsibility, but it is also a great comfort. Part of the duty of the government is to watch over and protect us from those who would hurt us. But the police and the sheriff’s deputies can’t be everywhere at once, and even though in our nation we also have the right to keep and bear arms to defend ourselves, we also can’t be everywhere at once. Sometimes our fellow sinners are still able to take advantage of us, to rob us or even rape or murder us. But God’s vigilance over us never fails. Nothing happens that He does not know about and use for our benefit. Even the ultimate evil that could happen to us, namely death, is now the gate of life for us. We have eternal life itself, and so nothing in this world can truly harm us. How do we know we have eternal life? We have God’s image and His inscription. We belong to Him. And He will defend and keep what is His own. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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