Sunday, November 15, 2020

Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity - Mt 22:15-22


                                                                                                Trinity 23

                                                                                                Mt 22:15-22



            At the beginning of the sermon this morning, let me ask you to engage in a little thought experiment with me.  What would happen if next week, President Donald Trump announced that by executive order he had directed the U.S. Mint and the U.S Bureau of Engraving and Printing to put his image on every single coin and currency produced by the United States?

            Well, it’s really not much of an experiment. I think we all know what would happen. Based on four years of evidence, we can be pretty sure that the media would go completely crazy in condemning the action.  Certainly the people who voted for Joe Biden would be outraged.  And then, a very large portion of the people who voted for President Trump would be shocked and ask: “What in the world is he thinking?”

            The fact of the matter is that we just don’t do this in the United States.  American Presidents don’t produce coins and currency with their own picture on it.  Instead, we have pictures of past respected and influential presidents who have died. So on our most used coins there is Abraham Lincoln on the penny; Thomas Jefferson on the nickel; Dwight Eisenhower on the dime; and George Washington on the quarter.

            Beyond that these coins all have statements that are meant to express beliefs and values of our country.  Each of these coins has “Liberty” and “In God we trust” on the face side of the coin.  They have the Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” – “one from many” on the reverse side.  Our coins and currency are not used to promote the living President.

            Things were completely different in the first century Roman world.  Even though emperors during the first century did travel, most people in the massive Roman empire would never see the emperor in person.  However, that did not mean they wouldn’t see the emperor.  Instead, the emperor’s presence was made to be felt everywhere by putting his image – his likeness -in every conceivable location and form where people lived.

            And of course, what better way to do this than to put the image of the emperor on something that people had to use on a regular basis – by putting it on the money in their hand.  And so the denarius at the time of Jesus had the image of Emperor Tiberius on it.  It also had the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus and High Priest.”  At his death, Augustus had been acknowledge as being a god.  According to this inscription, Tiberius was the son of a god. And of course, especially in the eastern part of the empire, Tiberius received worship as a god in the cult of the emperor.

            This denarius with the image of Emperor Tiberius and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus and High Priest,” stands at the center our text this morning.  We hear about events that took place during Holy Week.   Matthew tells us, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.”  More literally, the Greek says that they sought “to trap him in a word.” The Pharisees were out to get Jesus.  He had been a thorn in their side for some three years, and they were desperate to catch him saying something that they could use against him.

            Now you have to give the Pharisees credit. They had devised a really brilliant plan. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians – people who supported the rule of Herod Antipas in Galilee and Perea - 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.”

            Of course their description of Jesus was completely fake and disingenuous.  It was meant to set Jesus up so that he would inclined to say something that opposed the emperor. The irony was that while they didn’t mean a word of what they said, every word they said about Jesus was true.

            And then they laid the trap for Jesus by asking: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  In this question they had Jesus perfectly set up.  If he said that the Jews should play taxes, it would discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people who hated Roman rule. 

            The tax on individual subjects of a Roman province was the most direct way that people experienced the impact of Roman rule.  When the Romans took over a province, the first thing they did was to take a census and implement a tax.  In 6 A.D. Rome had made Judea a province, and the census and tax caused an uprising that was serious enough that a senior Roman official had to bring legionary troops down from Syria in order to suppress it.

            On the other hand, if Jesus said that Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to the emperor, they would immediately have evidence against Jesus that they could take to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.  You did not mess with the Romans when it came to taxes and revenue, and they could be sure that Pilate would take care of their “Jesus problem.”

            But the Pharisees had no idea with whom they were dealing.  Jesus knew their intent and said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” They brought him the denarius I described earlier in the sermon.  Then Jesus asked: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The Pharisees gave the obvious answer: “Caesar’s.”  Jesus replied, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

            The Lord had escaped their trap.  The coin had the emperor’s image and inscription on it, so Jesus said, give it to him. But Jesus also said, give to God the things that are God’s.  Of course, everything belongs to God, the Creator of all things. And that included as well that little piece of silver which bore the image and inscription of a mere human being.

            There are two sides to Jesus’ statement, and it is the second one that runs everything.  Render to God that things’ that are God’s.  You belong to God. He created you.  Everything you have belongs to God. He gave it to you.  Our Lord Jesus would have us live all of our life directed towards God.

            The problem is that is not how sinful people work.  As I have mentioned before, Martin Luther described sinful man as being “curved in on himself.”  At our core, as fallen people we are focused inward.  We are focused on ourselves.  We are interested in serving a trinity – the trinity of me, myself and I.

            This is a basic issue of the First Commandment: “You shall have no other Gods.”  As the Small Catechism says, this means that we are to fear, love and trust in God above all things. And of course, we can’t overlook the fact that our text deals with money. As we live life, two things that hold the greatest value for us are our money and our time.  Look at how you apportion those – consider how much God gets in relation to all the other things we like and want, and you will soon find false gods all over the place.

            Yet remember where and when Jesus has this interaction with the Pharisees.  It is in Jerusalem and it is during Holy Week.  Just before our Lord entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told the disciples: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

            Jesus was in Jerusalem because we don’t render to God the things that are God’s.  Just after predicting his passion he went on to say, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Jesus was nailed to the cross in order to receive the wrath of God against our sin.  He cried out, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” as he experienced the judgment of God that should be ours.

            But this was the will of the Father because of his incredible love for us. It was his will to give us the forgiveness of sins through the suffering and death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  But for sin and death to be defeated, there must be life. And so on the third day, just as Jesus had said, God raised Christ from the dead.  God vindicated him as the One who had passed through judgment and death for us in order to give us forgiveness and resurrection life.

            Through baptism you have received this forgiveness.  Your sins have been washed away.  But your baptism is about more than the absence of something.  Through the work of the Spirit you have also received regeneration – you have been born again of water and the Spirit.  The Spirit of the risen Lord now leads and enables you to live in the ways that please God – to do the things God has given us to do.

            Things God has given you to do are your vocations – your callings in life where he has placed you. And this particular text in this particular month when we have had an election leads us to think about our vocation as citizens.   The verse from our text, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's,” is the first verse in the Small Catechism’s Table of Duties for the topic “Of Citizens.”          

            Everything does belong to God, and the government itself is part of his ordering.  Paul told the Romans, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

            God has provided the government to restrain evil.  He has given you resources to support the operation of the government, and he tells us to pay taxes.  Jesus says it. The apostle Paul says it.  He has told us to pray for our government – to pray for our leaders.  He has told us to obey the government, up unto the point it tells us to do things that are against God’s will.

            The government may be God’s ordinance, but the people who run the government are sinners. Some will do a better job than others.  Some will have better plans and policies than others. Some will do things are that immoral – things that are sinful. And let us be clear that any politician who promotes the murder of unborn children through abortion is doing something that is sinful and evil. 

            Things have not changed in this regard during the last five hundred years, because people have not changed.  Martin Luther was not blind to the reality of bad and even evil leaders. When he preached on this text, he said: “We, however, should retain this passage as a teaching for ourselves about how we are to act toward both kingdoms – God’s and Caesar’s – so that we give each its honor and due, since both of them are God’s ordinance and work.  We are not to look at the fact that, in both, the people to whom it has been entrusted are not righteous but abuse their office, especially against Christians, and blame and persecute us as disobedient and rebellious.  We should and must tolerate this, but only so far that we retain the right to rebuke them with our mouths and tell them the truth, and not let the blame imposed on us remain on us.  When we do this, we have done and accomplished what was ours to do. We commit the other part to God: how he will punish them and avenge us.”

            God has made us his people through faith and baptism.  He has given us forgiveness, and he has given us his Spirit who helps us live in ways that are true to his will.  We are true to God’s will when we live in our vocation as citizen: when we obey the government; when we pay taxes; and when we pray for the leaders of our government.  If the government tells us to do things that are against God’s will, then we are true to God when we disobey the government and tell it that we must obey God and not man.  When the government does things that are wrong, we use the opportunities we have to speak the truth and rebuke it.

            This may not change the outcome of what the government does.  It may even bring suffering and hardship to us.  We are able to live with both of these because as those who are in Christ we seek to render to God the things that are God’s.  We can trust God when either occurs because we know that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead.  And in the resurrection of our Lord we find the assurance that the justice of God will prevail and that eternal victory with Christ will be ours.






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