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Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.

00:00 / 01:04

22 Oct 2023

20th Sunday after Trinity

Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 Thess. 1:1-10, Matt. 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “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.” When they heard it, they marvelled. And they left him and went away. A father once told his young son to clear up his room. The son replied, “This is my room and you can’t tell me what to do in it.” To which the father replied, “Well, it might be your room. But it is my house.”

Context – The Horns of a Dilemma

The Pharisees sought to trap Jesus by skewering him upon the horns of a false dilemma. In asking him the question of whether or not they should pay taxes to Caesar they sought to force him to say simply “yes” or “no”.

If he had said “no” then he would have pleased the party of the Zealots. The Zealots were nationalists who hated the Roman occupiers and wanted to lead an armed rebellion against them. But, if Jesus had said this then he would have put himself in danger of the Roman authorities.

If, on the other hand, Jesus had said “yes”, he would have made himself safe politically but he would have been seen as unpatriotic and even perhaps lacking in religious passion for the God of Israel.

And so Jesus, in his divine wisdom, split the horns of the false dilemma by asking for a denarius and demanding to know whose image it had upon it. That is Caesar’s, he was told. “Then render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he replied. That, in itself, meant that he supported the paying of taxes and implied the observance of temporal laws.

“And to God the things that are God’s.” There was the twist. What does he mean by that? He didn’t say. And so the people marvelled when they heard it, as well they might. The cynic may deny the divinity of Christ but even the cynic must acknowledge his gnomic genius in crafting such answers in seemingly spontaneous fashion.

And so we have to think about the answers to those questions: what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?

What Belongs to Caesar?

“Whose image is this?” Jesus asked of the denarius. Because Caesar’s image is imprinted upon the denarius the Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. After all it was their currency.

More broadly, we can say that Caesar represents the temporal or civic authority more generally. Today, we might call it “the state”. It may come as a surprise to some, but the teaching of Jesus and of the New Testament is a far cry from anarchy and rebellion. If we look to the New Testament to find out what we own to Caesar, we find the following things:

We owe the temporal authorities prayer: “First of all, then, I urge supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and for all who are in high positions…” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

We own them obedience to just laws: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14)

And we owe them taxes as Christ teaches us here and as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 13:7: “Pay to all what is owed them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed”.

You might look at this list and ask “Why should we do these things?” The answer is rooted in the concept of the sovereignty of God. The sovereignty of God tells us that God is sovereign over all of human history, including who ends up ruling nations and empires. A key New Testament text on this subject is Romans 13: “Let every person be subjected to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1)

This is the lesson brought home to us so powerfully in our Old Testament reading, which shows us that even pagan kings who are unaware of God’s very existence are nevertheless subject to his command. This he says of the Persian king Cyrus in Isaiah 45: “For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me” (Isaiah 45:4-5).

So, obedience, honour, taxes and prayer is owed to the temporal authority. What room does that then leave for God?

What Belongs to God?

Before attempting an answer, let me clear something up: Christ is emphatically not saying that there is a sphere in which Caesar has authority and that there is a sphere in which God has authority, that in some areas we must obey Caesar and in others we must obey God. Recall the story with which I began this sermon. The young boy who believes his room is his independent territory is mistaken simply because the house belongs to his father, who has sovereign authority over every room within it, even if his authority is partially delegated. The father could take away the son’s room if he so chose or move him to another one. The only reason that the son has that particular room is because the father gave it to him in the first place.

What belongs then to God? In a sense, everything: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). As the Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, “There is not one square inch in the whole of creation over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, mine!”

When we imagine that we finally and fully possess anything at all we are mistaken for it was all made by God and given by God to us: our money, our talent, our abilities, our souls and our very bodies themselves. All were given by him and for him.

Before going any further, please consider that for a moment. How often do we bring before the Lord the things that we “possess” and really ask him: “Lord, what do you want me to do with this? What do you want me to do with this money you have given me? How do you want me to spend my talents and my abilities and my opportunities?”

The people of the world imagine that they truly own the things that they have. The Christian knows that these things were given him by God for the glory of Christ. So this is a key point to consider: Are you using your money, talent, your time to glorify God or for some other reasons?

The Image of God

A secret meaning in Christ’s statement is perhaps revealed when we consider that he speaks of the image of Caesar on the denarius. If the image of Caesar is to be found on the denarius, where is the image of God to be found? And the answer is, of course, that the image of God is to be found within us. As the church father Augustine puts it: “Caesar seeks his image; render it. God seeks his image, render it…To Caesar his coin, to God your very selves”.

The coin, the denarius, is only something external: a tax exacted by legal force for the preservation and upkeep of the state. The image of God that is imprinted upon the human soul is in the deep and hidden place of the heart. As the father Tertullian put it: “One freely gives to God precisely what one must withhold from political authorities: oneself, one’s conscience, one’s soul”.

We Christians may look like upright, law-abiding citizens – and indeed we are! – but we know that our souls belong to another, that our lives are hidden with Christ in God, that we are citizens of heaven and not of the earth. And where our hearts are too much attached to the things of this world, where are loyalties are divided between Caesar and God, we must strive to direct them towards heaven and crucify the desires of our flesh.

This, by the way, is why the tyrants of the world will always persecute and vilify the true disciple of Christ. The Hitlers and the Moas and the Stalins will always attack true Christian faith and martyr faithful believers. The reason is that they know that Christians have a higher loyalty than to the state. The state is not God. The state cannot possess our souls, cannot receive our worship. These are reserved for Jesus Christ alone.

In our Gospel story, Christ does not tell us what to do when loyalties conflict: What should we do when Caesar tells us to burn a pinch of incense to him, to bow and down and worship him as though he were God himself? Well, we hope and pray never to be in such a situation, but, if we ever are, the Scriptures and the history of the faithful witnesses of the Church tell us clearly what the answer must be: as the Apostle Peter says in the Book of Acts, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).


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