Pastor Scott Adkins
Isaiah 45:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22
Good Morning Everyone! Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ!
Well, Jesus was certainly in a pickle for this one. Jesus’ old debating “buddies,” the Pharisees, came back to him to ask him yet another question intended to trap him up and get him into trouble. However, this time, the Pharisees brought along some friends of their own. They brought along a different group of Jews, called the Herodians. The Herodians were Jews that were supporters of the reign of Herod, the Roman puppet-king of Judea. The Pharisees, if you remember, were Jews that emphasized obedience to the Law of Moses found in the books Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They also did not care for Roman rule. Jesus was in a no win situation here. If he said yes, pay your taxes, he would anger the Pharisees and those who opposed Roman rule. If he said no, don’t pay taxes, he would anger the Romans and their supporters. In the famous words of Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!”
Jesus has quite the answer to get out of their trap, though. He asks for a coin and simply asks whose image is on it. When they reply that it has Caesar’s image, Jesus says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, and to give to God what belongs to God.
The trouble is, the Caesars of the world were not and still aren’t always stand up guys. Tiberius Caesar was by no means a God-fearing man. He claimed himself to be a god, like the other Roman emperors. The inscription on the coin that Jesus held probably said “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus,” with a Roman god or goddess on the reverse. Looking at the coin itself was a reminder of Roman idolatry to the observant Jews. How can they give their allegiance to a man who consistently and unapologetically does what is contrary to our faith and breaks God’s law?
Well, our first lesson for the day talks about this. In our reading from Isaiah, God calls King Cyrus of Persia his “anointed.” If you remember what I said in my other sermons, guess what Hebrew word “anointed” is? You guessed it, it is “messiah!” In the Greek Old Testament Bibles that the early Christians of St. Paul’s time used, the word used here is “kristos,” or Christ!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing King Cyrus to Jesus. All I am saying is that God chose Cyrus to be the king, that he was “anointed” by God to do that. God does say in verse four that He summoned Cyrus by name and gave him honor and strength, even though he did not acknowledge God. In our reading, God says that he is choosing Cyrus “for the sake of Jacob my servant.” He did this for the benefit of his people, Israel. King Cyrus liberated the Jews from their exile in Babylon and gave the order to rebuild the God’s temple in Jerusalem. The idea here is that even though the ruler may not be a Christian, he is chosen by God for the benefit of His people, as long as the ruler does not forbid what God commands us to do. In such cases, St. Peter said in Acts chapter five verse 29 “We must obey God rather than any human authority!” (NLT).
Caesar’s reign was similar to Cyrus in some ways. While definitely not Jewish at all, Caesar’s Roman Empire provided the relative peace, common languages and infrastructure of that enabled Christianity to flourish from Jerusalem to all over the Roman Empire and beyond. This is why in Romans chapter thirteen St. Paul says to submit to the authorities and pay taxes, because they provide order and justice to society and therefore are servants of God.
It’s because of this that Jesus tells us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Even though the government may not be Christian, we still need to obey the authorities, because, as God said to Jeremiah the prophet in Jeremiah chapter twenty-nine verse seven, “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” It is clear that we need to submit to the authorities and seek the common good for the country and community, but there are two questions that I see from what Jesus said. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God?
Well, let’s talk about Caesar first. St. Paul tells us in Romans thirteen verse six to pay our taxes, and in our Gospel reading Jesus told us to pay taxes because the money has his image on it. But is there anything else that is Caesar’s? We know that we need to seek the good of the country, and to obey the authorities. I think in order to do this, we need to be responsible citizens, especially since here in America we choose who our “Caesars” are. Only by being involved citizens who vote, pay taxes, and take our part in the common good and defense of our country can we really “seek the peace and prosperity of our city.” Being an apathetic citizen and not voting or participating in civic life is not “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
With the discussion over the denarius, Jesus shared what belonged to Caesar. But he never specifically explained the second part of his answer to his opponents. All He said was “Give to God what belongs to God.” Well what in the blazes does this even mean?
Jesus doesn’t tell us specifically here, so we’ll take a look at what he said about the denarius. Why did Jesus say that the denarius belonged to Caesar? Remember, he pointed out two things. The image on the coin was Caesar’s, and so was the inscription. What do we have that has a similar image and inscription of God on it?
The answer is: us. Remember from the beginning of the Bible at creation in Genesis chapter one verse 27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them.” We are each created by God in His image. We also have God’s inscription on us. St. Paul said in Romans chapter two verse 15 that all people, believers or not, have God’s Law written on their hearts. This is God’s inscription.
Unlike our Caesars, who want our money, time, and possibly our military service, God wants all of us. Jesus quoted parts of the Law of Moses found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy when he summed up the Ten Commandments right after he spoke with the Pharisees and the Herodians in our Gospel reading for today starting in verse 37. He said “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
This is definitely a tall order. God demands all of us completely; heart, soul, and mind. Since we bear his image, God wants what belongs to him, just like Caesar. The problem is, none of us can completely give everything we are over to God nor can we love our neighbors perfectly. Even if we seem to be and try to be sincere, we always hold something back. “Ok God, you win! I believe in you and trust in Jesus! I give it all to you! Except this little piece of my life. That I keep for myself.” Maybe that little piece is your job, your family, certain relationships, a hobby, your secular reputation, a “favorite sin” that you seem to do over and over, or yes, even your money. Try as we might, we can never “give to God what belongs to God.”
Well folks, this sounds rather depressing. We have a debt to God that we can never pay because of our sinful nature. However, there is a bright spot. Has anyone here ever had to owe the IRS any money? Don’t raise your hands! If you have, you know that Uncle Sam always gets his due. Just like Uncle Sam, God is just as tenacious at pursuing us, but for a different reason than the IRS. While the IRS goes after what you have, God goes after what you are. Unsatisfied with what you are, God wants to change you with the Holy Spirit, to make you into something new and good through Jesus. He looks at that debt that you can never pay up, and marks it “paid in full” through the blood of Jesus. Nothing you can do, think, or choose can make that happen, only trust in Jesus can pay that debt off. Because of that gift, we are able to belong fully to God as His most precious possessions, ones that He will cling to. Remember that. You are precious to God.
Jesus told the Jews that tried to corner him to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to give to God what is God’s. We may not like or agree with our Caesars, but we still need to give them their due, even if our Caesar doesn’t believe. However, it is that second part of what Jesus said that is much more difficult to do. “Give to God what is God’s” God created us in His image, so we ourselves belong to Him, but we can never give God His due on our own. Only through the price paid by Jesus are we able to fully belong to God in the Holy Spirit, and He will hold on to us as His precious possessions.
Let us pray. Lord, thank you for setting up worldly authorities to keep order in the world. They are not perfect, but they carry out your will. Lord give them your guidance and wisdom to govern justly. Lord thank you for sending your Holy Spirit after us so we can be your people, and for giving us faith in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and paid the price for us to fully belong to you. Amen.