✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Politics and religion are things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation, if you want to avoid conflict. But our Lord Jesus was never one to avoid conflict, and the Word of God for today requires us to talk about both politics and religion. For God is at work in both arenas–in the left hand kingdom of the Law, and in the right hand kingdom of the Gospel.
For some people, politics is almost a religion in itself; they daily pay attention to the latest news and polls and political talk shows, acting as if everything important hangs on who gets elected–as if Jesus isn’t still at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all and King of kings. Everything is seen through a political lens, conservative or liberal, republican or democrat.
And it goes the other way, too. Some are very political in their religion. They see their religion as a means to accomplish political goals in the kingdoms of this world. For them being Christian is all about “social justice” or getting certain laws and policies enacted and trying to set up the kingdom of God on this earth, as if sin and evil could be overcome and a near-perfect world could be established by the right laws and political structures. But the kingdom of God is not of this fallen world; we know that no utopia can be established that is comprised of and run by sinful human beings. We are only pilgrims here, this is not our home. And so while Christians do work for the good of their fellow man in this life, the church is especially about proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ so that people might have eternal life with God. One of the results of the fall is that we tend to confuse politics and religion and their God-given place in our lives.
That certainly happens in today’s Gospel reading. The Pharisees try to entangle Jesus in His talk. They don’t like many of the things He’s been saying, so they see if they can trip Him up publicly. These religious Pharisees get together with some Herodians, who were political types, supporters of King Herod and the Roman political structure. The Pharisees had nothing in common with the Herodians except that they both wanted to get rid of Jesus–politics makes strange bedfellows. After trying to flatter Jesus, they asked the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Of course, here’s the trap. If Jesus says “no,” then He is guilty of treason against Rome and the political Herodians would be the first to report Him. If Jesus says “yes,” it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, then He is guilty of disloyalty to Israel, and the religious Pharisees could use that to turn the common people against Him.
They must have thought they were pretty smart; they must have thought they had Jesus cornered. Just as we like to think we’re pretty smart, too, the way we can turn everything into a complicated ethical dilemma as soon as the Word of God starts getting a little too close for comfort and condemning us for our sin. We’re good at changing the subject or coming up with questions about the latest issue of the day that distract from the main issues of repentance and forgiveness, of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us. Don’t play tricks with God; don’t try to avoid His words to you with the clever language of lawyers and loopholes. He knows the way you try to evade Him and who He is and what He says.
Repent. Jesus will not be distracted. He will not be caught in men’s feeble traps. He asks the Pharisees and the Herodians to show Him the tax money. And He says to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” The coin had a portrait of Tiberias on the one side, and a picture of him seated on his throne on the other. The inscription declared Tiberias to be the great ruler. Then Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at His words and went their way. You get the sense that Jesus wants to get beyond mere politics to the real business of theology, the things of God.
But first things first. Politics does have its place. Romans 13 says that God has established those who are in civil authority, whomever they might be. Therefore, we are to honor them, pray for them, follow the laws of the land–as long as they do not cause us to sin–and yes, we are to pay our taxes, even if at some point paying taxes feels more like being extorted. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
Now if the civil authorities try to cause us to sin–to deny His Word in some way, to do things that are morally wrong or that go against our faith in Christ, then we are duty bound to disobey Caesar. We only honor Caesar for God’s sake. And if Caesar wants us to deny the God who gave him his civil authority, we must obey God rather than men, as Peter says in the book of Acts. And so we don’t submit to Caesar’s sinful redefinition of marriage just because it’s “the law of the land”; we don’t support or condone in any way the legal expendability of life in the womb. And after the huge overreaction of the government to COVID and their big grab for power and control, we’ve certainly learned that if they ever try to tell us again that we can’t gather for worship or that we can only gather in a certain way, we will respectfully reply, “We’re going to listen to God’s commands, not yours, thank you very much.” If the day comes when the church is persecuted for standing firm for her beliefs, we recognize that God is even at work there. He works all things, even the evils of ungodly government for our eternal good, for the purification of the church and for the strengthening of our confession of the faith. The church has always been strongest in times of persecution. For God accomplishes His greatest good through suffering, most especially through the cross of our Lord Jesus.
Which brings us to the second half of Jesus’ statement, which is really the more important. “Render unto God the things that are God’s.” Well, everything is God’s, so give Him everything. Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” Paying taxes is really nothing, then. God wants all of you–all you are and all you have. He doesn’t just want a couple of hours on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning and some money put into the plate so you feel like you’ve done your duty. And then you get back to your real life out there. He wants to be your real life everywhere, 100% of the time, at the heart of all you are and all you do. He Himself is your life, isn’t He? The Source, the Creator, the Redeemer. To render to God the things that are God’s, then, means to honor Him as the true owner of everything you have and to manage it in a way that is pleasing to Him. That starts with the 10% that should go in the offering plate here–why should we give less than Israel did in the OT?–but it continues with the other 90% that you are given to use and manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.
Remember, it’s all about the image. The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar. And what bears God’s image? You do. You are in the image of God. And so you are given to God.
But also remember this. You do not give yourself to God. You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of the God Himself according to Colossians 1. The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. Just as an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh. And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice. Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood. And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself. It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” There is Jesus on His throne for you.
You see, when it comes to settling accounts with God, you can do one of two things: either you can render to Him your own works and your own goodness, which always fall short, or you can trust in the works and the sacrifice of Christ rendered to the Father as the full and complete payment for your sins. So then at its heart, to render to God the things that are God’s is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him. It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation. He alone is the offering that wins for me everlasting life.” To put it another way, we render to Caesar obedience, but we render to God the love and trust of our hearts.
And there is still more. For through your baptism into Christ, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name. On you, whose image was tarnished and corrupted, Jesus stamped the sign of the cross and joined you to Himself. In Jesus the very image of God is restored to your humanity. You are now God’s holy coinage, His cherished treasure. What shall we render, then, to the Lord, for all His benefits to us? We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord. And living in Christ, we offer up our bodies by the mercies of God as living sacrifices by loving our neighbor.
For we know that we are now citizens of heaven. We are as foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland. So we don’t have to live as if we’re so attached to the things of this life. You are citizens of this country only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity. Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country. Let your highest attachment be not to the American flag but to the holy cross. Let that be the real joy and delight of your hearts. St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.” By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation on the day of resurrection, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection. Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world. Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.
So, render unto Caesar what is his and to God what is His. Let us above all else, give allegiance to the eternal Father, and to Jesus who is Lord over all things for the sake of His church, holding to His saving Word and to our catechism and creeds which faithfully confess that Word. Let us raise up the holy crucifix of Christ as our great flag, the banner of salvation. For though it is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, Christ’s cross remains the power of God and the wisdom of God and the only way to enter His everlasting, unshakable kingdom.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠