Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity, November 11, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Rendering What God Wants – Matthew 22:15-22
So, how are you, this Sunday after Election Day? Did your candidates win? Did your party do well, or are you in mourning?
I was hiding out in the hills on Election Day. Having completed my ballot at the Courthouse the Friday prior, I was blissfully free from the last minute barrage of personal attacks, lies and destruction which pass for political advertising these days. Five days of listening only for elk and reading only the freshest sign will do wonders for your equilibrium. So I’m feeling pretty good, and would be regardless of the electoral outcomes. Our nation may soon be careening over a fiscal cliff that could have real negative impact on all of us, but I at least have come away from this election week refreshed through four wheeling and mountain beauty, and with a great story to boot. Who else do you know who can say that his very first round fired through his brand new pistol took down a little muley buck? I may never shoot it again.
So, I’m doing o.k. You may be too, simply because the election is over, or if you think the election outcome was good. On the other hand, you may be despondent, wishing you could move to a better country, if you could find one. Either way, God has served us very well through the appointed Gospel text for this day. Responding to the attempt by the Pharisees to trap Jesus into saying something that will either get Him into trouble with the government, or discredit Him among His followers, Jesus answers their question about the appropriateness of paying taxes to Caesar this way: "Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 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."
I’m very happy to have this reading before us this Sunday after Election Day, but not because this text gives us a good lesson on our Christian duties as citizens of earthly nations. It does do that, for sure. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” does give us important guidance for our earthly lives. Be a good citizen. Vote, if you are fortunate enough to live in a democratic system. Pay your taxes. Be obedient to the laws of the state. Pray for the king, or the president, as the case may be, whether you like him or not. These are all true and important rules for us. Even when you think the government is a mess, Christians are to be law-abiding citizens, perhaps even to suffer under bad government. Only if the government commands us to sin are we to disobey. If the government does command us to sin, and especially if the government seeks to make us deny Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior sent from God the Father, then we are to resist, peacefully though, gladly suffering for the Name of Jesus, if it comes to that.
Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. That’s all fine and good, and appropriate enough for this day. But this text is not primarily about what God wants you to give to the government. No, this text is really all about what God wants, from you. Render unto God the things that are God’s. Our text this morning is about what God wants, and how He’s going to get it back, regardless of the scheming and striving of men and women to avoid His levies. Render unto God, that’s what this text is all about. Render means to turn over, to give back to the proper owner something you have received from him by his authority. The Israelites of Jesus’ day, living under the earthly authority of Rome, are to render to Caesar the tax that is payable with a coin that bears Caesar’s likeness and inscription. The coin came from Rome. The Israelites use the coins. So when Rome demands some of them back in taxes, Jesus tells people to pay.
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. Caesar, the emperor, wants back his denarius, his money with his picture and name on it. Fine. Pay your taxes. But Jesus is really using the reality of Roman taxes to suggest a greater question: What does God want back? What bears His likeness and inscription that He might want to get back from us?
The Pharisees, sending their disciples to trap Jesus in His words, hope that the never popular subject of taxes will give them opportunity to accuse our Lord. They bring along some Herodians, Jews who were supporters of King Herod, who governed a region of Israel that included Jesus’ home area of Galilee. Herod governed in the same fashion that Pontius Pilate governed Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside of Judea. Although Herod was allowed to call himself king, in reality he was just a puppet for Rome, for Caesar. The Herodians were Jews who had thrown in their lot with the Romans, supporting the rule of Herod and so receiving great benefits. Most Israelites, however, despised living under a Roman puppet, and wanted nothing so much as to be free. So, thought the Pharisees, their question put Jesus in a political pickle. If He endorsed paying taxes to Rome, Jesus would be alienating the people who so far had been wildly supportive of Him. But if He rejected Roman authority to tax the Jews, the Herodians would immediately turn Him in to Herod, or Pilate, or both.
The Word of God made flesh would not be tripped up in words, of course. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. God’s concern is not with whether your taxes are too high or too low. God’s concern is that humanity render to Him the things He has given them. Render to God the things that are God’s. And God wants His image back.
God wants His image back, from those with whom He has shared it. God’s wants to be rendered, to receive back, His own likeness and the inscription that He has shared. On whom has God put His image and inscription? “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” So spoke Father, Son and Holy Spirit, at the beginning, sharing His own perfect and glorious image with Adam and Eve. Later, God put His Name on His special people Israel, and desires that all people become part of His people. God wants His image and inscription back, which means you are to render yourself to Him.
But what does this mean, that we children of Adam and Eve are to render ourselves, give ourselves back to God? Does this mean that for six days of the week we are free to feed the bellies of all our desires, living as if we owned ourselves, just so long as we give an hour and fifteen minutes to God on Sunday? Or, if we give ten percent of our income to support the Church, does this sufficiently pay off our tax man God? What about five, or maybe three percent? Is this what Jesus means by rendering to God?
I’m afraid that we all think this way, even though as soon as I said it out loud, we all knew that such a rendering falls far short. The cattle on a thousand hills belong to God. In Him we all live and move and have our being. God is God. He doesn’t need our money, or our time, as if He was struggling to make budget and just needed everyone to share in the pain so that all His programs can remain funded.
The light and heat bill, my salary, and the office supplies all need to be paid for, true enough, but such rendering by us is not what Jesus is talking about. No, God wants His image back, in the same condition He shared it: unblemished, unbroken, unstained, possessed of all the holiness, glory and beauty that God shared with Adam and Even in the Garden. God put His inscription, His own Name, on Israel. And He has put His inscription, His own Name on you, blessing you with inscriptions made with Words, including one chiseled into your thick skull with a water drill. Simply to receive back in holy and righteous condition the gifts He has first given to us, this is what God wants. Jesus commands the Pharisees, and the Herodians, all the people of His day, as well as you and I, to render unto God the image He first shared with us, to reflect back to Him the holy, righteous, loving likeness in which He first created us. Anything less will not do.
But this is precisely the image we have broken; our likeness to God is impossible to see, shattered as we are by sin. ‘Render to God the things that are God's’ seems like a simple enough requirement. But we are utterly incapable of complying, for in our sinfulness we smear and mar and make ugly the good things God has given us. We bring shame on the Name God has shared with us each time we sin, in thought, word or deed. We can shine things up as best we can, and put on a pretty good show for one another. ‘That Joe, he’s such a good man, and a good citizen, don’t you agree?’ But when God comes calling, when God inspects our likeness to see if we still reflect Him, when God checks our record to see if we have brought honor to His Name, well, we all know how far short we fall.
But the requirement stands. God demands His image back, or we will be declared eternal tax cheats, sentenced to suffer in debtors prison forever. How can it be possible for sinful people like you and me to render to God the likeness and inscription He has placed on us?
In a word, the answer is ‘Jesus.’ Adam and Eve were created in God’s image and likeness, Israel received the Name of God on them as a blessing. But Jesus is the very image of God, the eternal Son of the Father, who eternally posesses the Name of the Almighty, rightly and properly in His own person. Only Jesus, God’s Son born of the Virgin Mary, true God and also true man, only Jesus, the Righteous One, can render to God the unblemished, pure, righteous image and inscription which God requires. This is why He came, to render to God the righteous image which He rightfully requires.
But not for Himself. Jesus had no reason to render to God anything at all. All that the Father has belongs to Jesus. All that Jesus has belongs to the Father, along with the Holy Spirit, the eternal Creator and Sustainer of all things. Jesus came to render unto God an perfect, unblemished image and likeness, not for Himself, but for us broken-imaged sinners, even for the Pharisees who are trying to trap Jesus. In fact, Jesus uses this very confrontation to arrange for the payback, the image rendering, that He came to complete. In a mystery of God’s undeniable will to save, Jesus is using the hatred of the Pharisees to pour out the love of God. Indeed, when Jesus commands the Pharisees to render unto God the things that bear God’s likeness and inscription, He is truly speaking of Himself. Jesus is in essence telling them render unto God the things that are God’s, by crucifying Me. Sacrifice me, Jesus commands, and the Pharisees in their blind hatred are unknowingly caught up in God’s plan of salvation. Their sinfulness and hatred are real, and truly deserve God’s punishment. But Jesus bears their sins on His Cross, yes, even the sins of those who falsely accused and arrested and tortured and killed Him, all in order to render to God the perfect likeness and inscription God gave to humanity in the Garden.
Your sinfulness, your hatred, your selfishness, your preference to find salvation in your favorite candidate or party, these are all real as well. We are all guilty of putting our trust in our favorite politicians, if only we could get them elected. We look for salvation from so-called powerful men and women, instead of trusting God in Christ. You, and I, truly deserve God’s punishment, for continually despising and ruining the likeness and inscription God has place on us. But Jesus has borne your sin. His rendering, His giving back to God for your sake, has been accepted. Your sins are forgiven, the image of God in you has been restored, completely perfect, in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
You and I will not stop worrying about the government and taxes. That’s o.k. As we speak up for life and justice with our words and votes, perhaps in an increasingly hostile and anti-Christian environment, we will have opportunity to confess Christ before the world. God will use our confession in His mission. As you go, as you live out your life as a Christian citizen, never forget that nothing the government can do or fail to do can take away what Christ has rendered for you. Covered in Christ Jesus, who is the image of God, with His Name written on you, you are free to live joyfully, generously, and truthfully, even when the world seems to be falling apart, for your King has rendered all you owe, and He will bring you through to His perfect Kingdom, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.