Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sermon Trinity 23

15 November 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 22:15-22

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

The Pharisees and the Herodians were clever. Their goal was to kill Jesus. And in the Roman Empire, the best way to do this is to get a person to denounce the emperor or discourage the payment of taxes. And since Jews did not worship the emperor like everyone else, and since nobody likes to pay taxes – especially to an occupying enemy – this was a nifty way to get Jesus on the bad side of the Roman authorities – incidentally, the branch of government that had the death penalty.

And so they put Jesus to the test. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.” Of course, our Lord knew their question was no question at all, but part of a ruse. “Aware of their malice, [He] said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?’” And though He owed them no answer, He used the opportunity to teach us about church and state, about God and mammon, about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar. For we all live under both secular and divine authority, and they are not always in harmony.

They certainly were not in harmony in the Pagan Roman Empire.

And so when they showed Him the coin, He asked them to describe it. And when they pointed out that the denarius had an image of Caesar on it as well as an imperial inscription, our Blessed Lord told them: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

His answer was so stunning – not merely in a rhetorical, debate kind of way, but also in its clear exposition of what it means to live under both divine and secular authorities. It is not an either/or situation. But is rather a both/and situation. The Pharisees and the Herodians walked away without the smoking gun they wanted, and yet they “marveled” as the “left Him and went away.”

“Render unto Caesar” has often been repeated by secular authorities to try to bully citizens into a sense of blind obedience about what their government is doing. But the words of Jesus are the Word of God – not the commands of the state. Like the Pharisees and the Herodians, when unbelievers use God’s Word, they are usually repeated out of context, for they are not speaking by enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.

There is a difference between God and Caesar, and there is a difference between the two kingdoms we all live under. The way the state collects taxes is to take that which belongs to you. In the Roman world, the tax collectors were so notoriously dishonest that Jesus Himself uses them as a symbol of those who are outcasts and hated by all. The Roman government didn’t care if tax collectors were thieves – as long as the revenue made its way to the Eternal City.

In our day and age, the federal government has our employers “withhold” a certain percentage of our income to insure compliance. If there is anything left over after we fill out all the paperwork, this remainder is returned to us in the form of a refund that they actually let us keep.

The Kingdom of God works the opposite way. For God owns everything. He is the Creator and Master of all. From the perspective of God, we own nothing. But He shares all with us. He withholds nothing from us. He compels nothing out of us. He does not send tax collectors to take from us. To the contrary, He gives us all things: life, possessions, family, the forgiveness of sins, and an eternal inheritance in His kingdom. And even though we are indebted to Him by virtue of our sins, He forgives the entire debt and pays us infinitely instead, purely by grace.

The state operates under compulsion. The Church operates under love. The state takes under penalty of the law. The Church gives that which has been given to her under the Gospel. The Kingdom of Caesar demands payments for services rendered – all from the fruits of your own labors. The Kingdom of God asks only for grateful thank offerings for that which is given to you freely apart from works.

And yet, in this fallen world, we must render to Caesar – even if under protest, even if grudgingly, even if Caesar is wicked. But in the Lord’s kingdom, we are to be cheerful givers, ever willing to share with our brothers and sisters in Christ from our abilities according to their needs, both in what the Lord has gifted to us as wealth and what He has given us in our skills. Being rich beyond measure in the Lord’s kingdom, we can share and share and never run out of blessings from above.

But notice how the Kingdom of Caesar has distorted “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs.” This distortion of Holy Scripture was coined by Karl Marx. And it has been used to try to turn our Lord Jesus into a Communist revolutionary or a Fascist dictator. However, the Lord’s Kingdom, unlike the Utopia envisioned by Communism and Socialism, does not operate under compulsion. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of liberty, not of brutality; a kingdom of life, not of death. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace, not of force.

The Lord has blessed all of us richly. We live in a land where Christians are not persecuted, where we are free to preach and teach, where our churches are not taxed or regulated by Caesar, living in homes that are the envy of most people on the planet. We are blessed with technology and entertainment, free time and the ability to travel. We have choice beyond measure when it comes to food and clothing. And while your Uncle Sam is always there with his hand out, as he has already withheld what you owe him, your Heavenly Father is always ready to give you more. The Son holds His nail-imprinted hand out as well, not to take, but to bless, not to compel with a fist, but to grab your hand and pull you out of the clutches of the evil one.

And all the Lord has ever requested for the work of the Kingdom is not the 30, 40, or 50% that Caesar demands, but rather a paltry 10% for the sake of the Lord’s work.

The earthly government can never spend its billions of dollars in taxes in a way that will please everybody. Many people want the government to run health care, while others do not. Many want government-funded abortions, while others do not. Many want the government to be involved in faith-based initiatives, while others do not. And the political arguments involving these things can divide families, cities, and even churches.

But the Lord’s kingdom, funded by our thankfulness to the Lord, by our denying ourselves a little for the sake of giving to the Lord, goes toward keeping this local parish operating, so that the Word can be preached and the sacraments can be administered; so that people may be taught God’s Word, and so that those with special needs – such as the shut-in and the aged, the sick and the temped, the suffering and the depressed – may receive the spiritual care they need. And if you’re not one of these people, you may well be tomorrow. We also give to support missionary work, so that the Gospel may be preached to all nations, so that others may find the grace of God by which we have been blessed.

We give from our abilities, not because Karl Marx commands us that we must, but because the Lord tenderly invites us as His chosen people to do so. And we receive from the Lord according to our needs not because it is a government entitlement, but rather because we are children of the King and we have the Lord’s promise to deliver to us that which government can’t – the “peace which the world cannot give.”

And unlike that which we give to Caesar, nothing is wasted. Even the widow who placed her two pennies in the poor box did not offer her sacrifice of praise and thanks in vain. For truly she received a reward from the Lord for her love, for serving and trusting Him instead of herself.

Ultimately, that’s the difference between Caesar and God, and between their respective kingdoms. Even the best worldly governments do not love us. Even the most honest and popular of the presidents have not been crucified for us sinful men in order to save us.

And though we may pay taxes patriotically and even with love of country, it is indeed a very different thing to “[render to] God the things that are God’s,” things that are His to begin with, to offer of ourselves without compulsion to our Lord, who has given us all things, who withholds nothing from us, who runs no Internal Revenue Service, who requires no works on our part in order to be saved, and who has made all of us heirs of His kingdom which will have no end. Amen.

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

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