“And To God What Is God’s”
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Matthew 22:20-22 They brought [Jesus] a denarius, and He asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then He said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… In our Gospel reading the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus in His words. They wanted to pull Him into a political dispute. They even brought the supporters of Herod with them, although these two groups had nothing in common except their perceived need to get Jesus out of the way.
The first thing they do is try to fluff up Jesus with flattery. “Teacher, we know You are a man of integrity and that You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because You pay no attention to who they are.” Now, you know that when someone approaches you like that, your first thought is, “Yeah, right. And just what is this going to cost me?” Children do that to their parents: “Mom, how pretty you look today!” “Dad, what a nice shirt that is; it really brings out the beautiful blue in your eyes!” And you know you’re being buttered up for something like a raise in allowance or permission to do something they do not ordinarily have permission to do.
For Jesus, the attempt to butter Him up culminated with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Now, to be sure, this was 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 Herodians will be the first ones to run off and report Him. If Jesus says, “Yes, it is right to pay taxes to Caesar,” then He is guilty of being disloyal to Israel, and the religious leaders would turn against Him. Either way, the Pharisees knew Jesus was going to be in trouble.
Of course, Jesus sensed their trap. He knew that “they had no King but Caesar.” He knew they had no interest whatsoever in taxes. So Jesus has them bring Him a coin. “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. The coin had a portrait of Tiberius on one side and a picture of him seated on his throne on the other. The inscription declared Tiberius to be “The Great Ruler.”
Actually, Tiberius wasn’t that great of a ruler. Though he was highly regarded going into office, history tells us that the reign of Tiberius was cruel and vindictive. But Jesus doesn’t say a word about that. He distinguishes the office from the person, and says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
So, the first thing we learn from this Gospel is to distinguish the office from the person. Jesus doesn’t say, “Give to Tiberius,” but “give to Caesar.” Tiberius was not a terribly moral or ethical man, but he was nonetheless the ruler. And St. Paul in Romans 13 declares that God works through the instrument of the government; and that is true whether the one who governs is a believer or a pagan, whether he is a good king or a bad one.
So, again, Jesus teaches us to look to the office, not the person. The person holding the office may be wicked, cruel, or unethical, but that does not entitle us to speak ill of the office. The office – the position – is God’s gift whether occupied by a scoundrel or a saint. If we use the wickedness of rulers as an excuse to despise and dishonor government, then we will bring down God’s wrath upon ourselves.
One of the big problems that we have with government is that we tend to tear down both the person and the office. No matter who wins the elections, we are to honor and respect the person for the sake of the office. Whether we approve of him or not, we are to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
The second distinction that Jesus makes is the proper distinction between Caesar and God. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This distinction is extremely important, and often misunderstood. We tend to confuse the two. We either turn God into Caesar, or Caesar into God. We either set God against the government or we make the government into a god. We either reject the gift of government, or we expect too much from it, as if electing the right Caesar would solve all our problems. Even if it were possible to elect nothing short of St. Peter as president and St. Paul as vice-president, we would still have the same problems because we would all be the same citizens doing the same things to each other.
Jesus speaks in terms of both God and Caesar, and He speaks of the two properly distinguished. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” We call that the “two kingdoms” or the “two-fold rule of God;” God’s rule of power and His rule of grace – the state and the church. Not separated, as some people quite erroneously think, but properly distinguished. You don’t cease to be a Christian when you walk into a voting booth or take public office. And you don’t cease to be a citizen of this country when you walk into a church. We have obligations and duties to both God and to Caesar.
To distinguish Caesar and God properly is to keep our verticals and our horizontals straight – our life before God and our life before one another. When our verticals and horizontals get confused, we get dizzy and disoriented; we don’t know up from down from sideways. When we get the two reigns of God confused, our public life gets disoriented, and we start thinking the state is a church or the church is a state.
The two rules of God are like God’s left hand and His right hand. By His left hand, God rules in power through whatever temporal government he has established – whether a representative democracy, a king, a dictator, Caesar, or whatever He has established. There is no divinely instituted form of government; God works through all of them.
By His right hand (the one where Christ is seated), God rules in grace over all things through the death and resurrection of Jesus so that all people might be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth, that in the death of Jesus the entire forgiveness of sins has been won for the you and for the world, and that in His name all people are offered the gift of eternal life.
With His left hand of power, God gives us earthly blessings, First Article gifts – daily bread. He defends us from danger and protects us from evil. He ensures that we have roads and sewers and police officers and fire fighters, and everything that protects our body and life. With His right hand of grace God gives eternal blessings, Third Article gifts – forgiveness, life, salvation.
God’s left hand punishes and restrains. The police officer that pulls you over for speeding is an extension of God’s left hand; so is the judge who sits behind the bench. With his right hand, God comforts and consoles us in Christ. The pastoral office is an extension of God’s right hand – offering forgiveness, eternal life, reconciliation, peace with God.
God’s left hand works to make people outwardly good. God’s right hand works to make people inwardly holy.
Practically speaking, it means that God has not given Caesar the authority to tell the church how to worship. It also means that God has not given the church the authority to tell Caesar how to govern. Now that doesn’t mean Christians don’t participate in public life; we do. We vote, we hold office, we speak up in defense of others, especially for those who have no voice, we seek justice for the poor, the widowed and orphaned, the homeless, the alien, the oppressed and the unborn. And God honors that work and works through it, even if it is through the unbeliever.
God doesn’t explain what He’s up to with His left hand. “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, Yahweh, do all these things’ (Isaiah 45:7). That’s left-handed talk. The left and right hands of God work in different and opposite ways. It isn’t that God’s left hand doesn’t know what His right hand is doing; it’s that we don’t see how they are connected. All we know is that God is working with both hands for our earthly and eternal good.
God doesn’t explain why or what He is up to. We simply must trust that the God who sent His Son to die for the world knows best how to manage the kings and kingdoms of this world. God has his fingers on all the buttons, and He orders everything “for us and for our salvation,” as we confess in the Creed, working all things toward the day when Jesus appears and every king must bow down before the King of kings and Lord of lords.
In the meantime – that is, until Jesus appears in glory and we appear in glory with Him – we are to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” And what is it that we are to give Caesar? Taxes. Who would have thought that, yes, paying taxes is a holy work in God’s sight? But it is. And we hate the thought of paying taxes. We fought a revolution over taxes. We still revolt. We begrudge paying taxes, though we do expect Caesar to pave the potholes in our streets and keep peace in our neighborhoods. We expect lawbreakers to be caught, convicted and punished. We expect our toilets to flush and clean water to come out of our faucets. We turn to Caesar for help when winds, fires, floods and earthquakes attack us.
But, you see, Christians have an even higher purpose for paying taxes than for what we get back from Caesar. By paying taxes, we are honoring God’s left hand. St. Paul writes in Romans 13:6-7, “For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due; respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” If we were to sum up everything the New Testament says about what we owe Caesar it would be: taxes, respect, honor, obedience (when it is not against God’s Word), and prayer. That is true Christian “patriotism” – to pay our taxes, to give respect and honor to those who govern for the sake of their office, to obey them when it does not go against God’s Word, and to pray for them. By these things we honor God’s left hand, and so we honor God.
I just mentioned obedience when it is not against God’s Word. Acts 5:29 says, “We must obey God rather than men.” Here in Acts 5 Peter and the other Apostles had been imprisoned for preaching in Jesus’ name. However, the Lord had expressly commanded them TO preach in Jesus’ name. So, we have an obligation, when and if the government demands that we go against God’s Word, precisely to disobey Caesar and render obedience to God.
As Christians, dear friends, we hold dual citizenship. We are citizens of the nation by birth or by naturalization. And we are citizens of heaven by our Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. As dual citizens, we not only give to Caesar, but we “give to God what is God’s.” We honor both God’s left hand and His right hand. We know that Caesar wants our taxes, but what does God want? He wants our wholehearted fear, love, and trust. He wants broken and contrite hearts that grieve over sin and desire to be forgiven. He wants our faith, hope, and trust; our time, our talents, our treasures.
Psalm 116 says: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? 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, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.” (vss. 12-13, 18-19)
Our very selves belong to God because He has claimed us as His own in the water and the Word. The highest honor and worship that we can give to God at His right hand is to use Christ against our sin, to receive the forgiveness that Jesus won for us when He died on the cross to save us. We can never be sure about what God’s left hand is up to, though we trust that in the end it means blessing. But we can always be certain of His right hand, for Jesus is seated there for us to give us eternal life. And it is from the right hand of God that we receive all that Jesus died to give us – our Baptism, the forgiveness of our sins, the Body and the Blood, our citizenship in heaven.
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 both in the way in which we deal with God’s representatives on earth, and in our neglect of the gifts of our salvation. And for that and for all other sins, we deserve God’s judgment and eternal wrath.
But God in His mercy has extended his right hand toward us in His Son Jesus who came to live perfectly under both God and Caesar for you. He perfectly kept the Law for you. He died for your sins under the same Caesar who was pictured on the coin that the Pharisees and Herodians brought to Him. This 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. And there are no safer hands to be in than in God’s hands.
Remember what you are: you are condemned sinners and will face God’s wrath and damnation because of your sin. You cannot save yourselves. You cannot do anything to make God love you or forgive you. You can only plead for His mercy.
But remember also whose you are: you are a baptized child of God. You have been given the gift of eternal life through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – the same Jesus who took all your sins to the cross and took your place in being punished for those sins. You are a redeemed, forgiven, and saved child of God, set free from sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus for you and in your place.
Come, now, and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness in the most personal way – in your Lord’s own body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit.