Matthew 22:15-22. 15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. 16 And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17 “Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? 19 “Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. 20 And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” 21 They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.
Prayer: Lord of all, govern the nations of the world so that Your Church may joyfully serve You in confidence and peace. We pray, graciously let us continue to live in Your fear according to Your will. Direct our leaders, that they may not hinder the obedience due to You, but maintain righteousness, that we may enjoy happiness and blessing under their government; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, we were told that our country’s future was hanging in the balance. The candidates presented different approaches to education, health care, the war on the terror, the economy, and taxes. Maybe the candidate you hoped to win did, and perhaps he didn’t. While the results of the election may change the course of our government and direction of our nation, what it doesn’t change is that God is the One who has established the authority of government and uses it preserve order. For us Christians, it also doesn’t change the fact that we are “Living as Citizens of the Two Kingdoms.” You are citizens of an earthly kingdom, and you are citizens of the heavenly kingdom. You have a temporary citizenship, and you have an eternal citizenship. And tonight’s text teaches that although these two kingdoms are very different from one another, both of them are from God. Therefore as citizens of the two kingdoms, we have duties toward God and duties toward the government.
First let us consider our duty toward the government. Why do we have duties toward the government? The Bible tells us that the authorities in the kingdoms of the earth have received their authority from God. As we read in Romans 13(:1), “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” Why has God established earthly authority? What benefits do we receive from God’s hands through authorities in the earthly kingdom? The duties of the civil government are listed in the table of duties in the Small Catechism. There we read from Romans 13(:4) that the authority is “God’s minister to you for good” and that the authority in the earthly kingdom is “an avenger to execute wrath on him who does evil” (Romans 13:4). This means that it is not inherently sinful for the government to carry out the death penalty or to engage in a just war. Now, if I were to take it upon myself to seek revenge or to punish some criminal in a vigilante fashion, that would be sinful, because God hasn’t authorized me to do that or put me into the proper civil office. But when government executes a criminal worthy of such a punishment, or when it wages just war, particularly in defense against foreign aggression or threat, it does not sin, for it is acting as God’s servant, on God’s behalf, to avenge evil and to protect its people.
What is our duty toward the government? It was with a question regarding responsibility toward earthly government that the Pharisees and Herodians came to Jesus. After trying hypocritically to flatter Jesus, they asked the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (v. 17) This is a subtle trap. If Jesus says, “No, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar,” 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 leaders could use threat to turn the people against Him.
How did Jesus answer this trick question and escape their trap? Jesus asked to be shown the money. Then Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21).
The name of the Caesar or Emperor at Jesus’ time was Tiberias. The denarius, a coin worth a day’s wage, had a portrait of Tiberias on one side, and a picture of him seated on his throne on the other. The inscription declared Tiberias to be “Maxim Pontiff,” great ruler. Tiberias was not a particularly savory or honorable fellow, but he was the ruler. Notice that in our text Jesus doesn’t say, “Render unto Tiberias,” but rather “Render unto Caesar” (v. 21). By His words, Jesus teaches us to look to the office which He established and not so much to the person in the office. The office is God’s gift, and we are to give to this divinely established office the honor it deserves. God is the One who has established the governing authorities. They may often abuse their authority. They may not even realize that they have a divine calling. But Christians are to honor them as servants of God nonetheless. For by honoring them, we are really honoring God Himself.
Are we always supposed to submit to our rulers? This issue is especially troubling when Christians live under bad or oppressive rulers. Were the Christians of Germany obliged to submit to Hitler and to participate in his murderous, blasphemous schemes? Are there not unjust laws, made by evil regimes, some directly contradicting the commandments of Scripture? For example, in the early church Roman law demanded that citizens burn incense as a way to acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor. Or more recently, the law in many Islamic states forbids anyone form trying to convert a Moslem to Christianity. Christian missionaries can be subject to the death penalty for telling someone about Jesus. Should Christians not evangelize the lost in nations whose leaders forbid it?
Is it ever right to disobey the authorities? In almost every instance a Christian should, in Peter’s words, “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (I Peter 2:13). We may or may not like a particular governing official. But if God has allowed him to be established in office, then we are to honor him for God’s sake, paying our taxes and obeying whatever laws are in force, as long as they do not cause us to sin against God. In the words of the Augsburg Confession, “Christians owe obedience to their magistrates and laws except when commanded to sin. For then they owe greater obedience to God than to human beings” (AC XXVI). The confessors cited Acts 5:29. When the disciples were forbidden by law to preach the Gospel, they answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”
“Render unto Caesar” also has special applications for those of us in the United States, who live in a democratic republic. Our governing officials are not imposed on us from above. Rather, we elect our governing officials. Ultimately, we rule them. Yet we also have a duty toward our government. As Christians and Americans citizens we are obligated to take an active part in government, obeying its laws, paying our taxes, voting, and honoring those in elected office. 1 Timothy 2 reminds also to pray for our governing officials, “ that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in godliness and reverence” (1 Tim. 2:1).
Secondly, as those who are “Living as Citizens of the Two Kingdoms,” we also have a duty toward God. As Christians, we are citizens of God’s kingdom of grace. This kingdom was established by Jesus’ life-giving death and resurrection, which set us free from the tyrannical rule of sin, death, and the devil. In this heavenly kingdom, peace comes through Christ’s death on the cross, which reconciled us to the Father. It is not a temporary peace between people but an everlasting peace with God. Citizenship in the heavenly kingdom is not something that we earned or deserved. We became citizens of the heavenly kingdom when God brought us to faith by His Spirit working through the Word of God attached to the water of Holy Baptism.
How does God rule the heavenly kingdom or Church? In the Church, the Gospel holds sway. The Church is not ruled by the sword but governed by the preaching of God’s Word alone. The Church operates not by threat but by gentle invitation, not by penalties, but by the forgiveness of sins. In the words of Luther’s explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, “In this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives me and all believers all our sins; and at the last day He will raise up me and all the dead, and will grant me and all believers in Christ eternal life.”
So what did Jesus mean when He said, “Render unto God the things that are God’s” (v. 21)? What do we render to God? 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, 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.”
How shall we render thanks to the Lord for all his benefits to us? In the words of the Psalmist (116), “I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and call on the name of the Lord. I will take the cup of salvation, and will call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the Lord’s house.” St. Augustine once wrote, “Give the money unto Caesar, thyself to God.” We give God ourselves, because He has claimed us as His own in the water and the Word.
In the end we must confess that we have not given to Caesar what is Caesar’s, nor have we given to God what is God’s. We daily sin much, in the way in which we deal with God’s representatives on earth, and in our neglect of the gifts of our salvation. God in His mercy sent His Son Jesus, who came to live perfectly under both God and Caesar. He perfectly kept the Law. He recognized Pilate’s authority as God’s authority. He died under the same Caesar who was pictured on the coin that the Pharisees and Herodians brought to him. The same Jesus now reigns at the right hand of God as the risen king of kings and lord of lords, whose kingdom shall have no end. The future of the nations, the future of His church, your future rests in His hands.
As those who are “Living as Citizens of the Two Kingdoms,” let us honor God in both the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. Let us show allegiance to our country and this good land He has given to us, honoring those positions of temporal authority whom He has placed over us. And let us, above all else, give allegiance to the eternal Father, to our Lord Jesus Christ and His saving Word, through which He rules His Church. Let us lift high the cross of Christ as our great flag, the banner of our salvation. For though Christ’s cross “is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles,” it remains the power and wisdom of God and the only way to enter God’s eternal kingdom. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria