Bible Passage: Matthew 22:15-22 Pastor: Pastor Schlicht Sermon Date: October 22, 2017
A Christian is a citizen of two kingdoms, one of heaven and one of earth. And that leads to difficult questions. I’ve heard a lot of them. “Pastor, as a Christian, can I ever protest against the government? Is it wise for a Christian to run for political office? How do I decide who to vote for? Should our WELS schools receive financial aid from the government? Pastor, how can you, in good conscience, pay taxes to a government that is going to misuse it?” Or like one confirmation student asked on Wednesday. “Do we really have to respect Donald Trump?” The separation of church and state is a cornerstone of American democracy, but it’s not as neat and tidy a separation as some like to imagine. The church and the state are not completely separate, In fact, there are even legitimate areas of overlap such as education, marriage, and sexual morality. It can get really complicated. For people living in two kingdoms, there’s rarely a “one size fits all” answer to our questions of church and state. I’m not here today to pretend any differently, but there is one thing that will help you in these questions; one vital truth that can guide you, as a Christian, in your relation to a secular state. And that truth lies in Jesus’ famous words, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”In that one, single sentence, as simple as it is profound, Jesus gives us the key to distinguishing church and state, to living as a citizen of two kingdoms. But in order to understand his words we need to know why he said them. And for that, we turn to Matthew chapter 22.
They were back again, this time sending their students and some Herodians, but it was the same Pharisaic flattery and hypocrisy that gave them away. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are truthful and teach the way of God in accord with the truth. You are not concerned about gaining anyone’s approval because you are not swayed by appearances.”Ironically, everything they said was true about Jesus, but they were just saying it to butter him up. “So tell us, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus says “Yes” they’ll say he is anti-Israel and his popularity would plummet, but if he says no, then those Herodians would drag him away and put him in jail for inciting a tax revolt. It seemed like a perfect question to trap him. But Jesus knew their evil purpose and said, “Why are you testing me, hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They brought him a denarius. He asked them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
Can you picture this scene? Jesus, in the middle of a crowded temple, holding up a coin up in front of some young Pharisees. I almost cringe, because this is seemingly a humiliating object lesson. Not just because this is a “type 1” question that a kindergartener could handle, but because they already knew the answer, they didn’t need to look at the coin. Caesar’s face was printed on every piece of silver in the empire and the Jews could never escape the blasphemous refrain inscribed below it, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Caesar was a god to the Romans and he wanted them to worship him as such. He also controlled the production of the coins; they were officially his property. Yet like it or not, the Jews had to use this coin; it was the required poll tax in all provinces.
I don’t know if I’m communicating this clearly enough. Some of you may think you really despise a certain political figure, but these first-century Jews would laugh you out of the building! They were offended every time they reached into their pocket! Socially, religiously, culturally, in every possible way, they hated Caesar and his little silver idols. And Jesus is holding one up in front of them, asking “Whose image and inscription is this?” I can only imagine the disgust written all across their face as they give the painfully obvious answer, “Caesar’s.” And then Jesus spits out, in one sentence, the key to a living as a citizen of two kingdoms. He says, “Therefore, give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
You see, the Jews thought that they shouldn’t give their money to a blasphemous Emperor. They asked is it lawful to pay taxes Caesar but in the Greek, the word translated as “pay” is δίδωμι, “to give” as in “give a gift”. But Jesus used the word ἀποδίδωμι, “to give back”. He said, “give it back.” You’re not giving Caesar a gift when you pay your taxes. He made it. He minted it. His face is on it. Give it back to him! “…give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” And likewise, to God the things that are God’s.” And that was the mic drop.
Give back to God the things that are God’s. What belongs to God? Where do we see his image and inscription? It’s on everything, all of Creation! His fingerprint is pressed into every particle of this universe, his words called every speck of matter into existence. And he also created you and me. He created each one of us with an immortal soul, he knit us together in our mother’s womb and breathed into us the breath of life. Everything in all creation, including us, including Caesar himself, belongs to God.
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Why did Jesus say it? Because he was talking to people who forgot that God owns everything. In other words, before you worry about giving to Caesar, have you given to God what is his? Jesus says to us, “Before we discuss any of this, let’s get one thing straight: God owns everything. Everything, including the American government, including you, including your money.” That is the key.
The implications are staggering. Firstly, the government, yes our U.S. government, derives its authority from God. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans, “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist have been established by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:1-2). You see when we disobey the government we disobey God because he established the government. And when we respect the government we respect our God from whom it derives its authority. That is difficult because Americans don’t usually see it that way. In fact, our Founding Fathers got that wrong. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” but the Apostle Paul said “the authorities that exist have been established by God” (Ro 13:1).
As a Christian, I disagree with a lot of things going on on top of Capitol Hill. As a Christian, and just as a human, I am saddened by some of the things our presidents have said and done. As a Christian, I do not like the corruption and the manipulation that happens on a national level every four years when election season rolls around. But just because I fundamentally disagree with things my government does, just because even some things they do dishonor God, I do not have divine favor in refusing to pay taxes or to hate a person. If our government does anything to dishonor God, you can be sure that he despises that a thousand times more than we do. But if he, in his infinite and hidden wisdom, has allowed these people to stand in a position of authority, then I should remain a respectful and obedient citizen. After all, that’s what Christ did. Think about that! If anyone had a right to disobey their government it was Jesus, the Almighty God himself! But he didn’t.
There was an incredible moment when Jesus was on trial and Pilate decides to use some of his authority. Pilate said “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19) Jesus says his authority is only derivative from God. And therefore, Jesus gave Pilot and the Roman government respect and obedience. Even to a blasphemous, idolatrous government, even to a government which will hammer nails into his hands, spit on his face, and watch him die, even about that government Jesus said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Because he knew that in submitting to governmental authorities he was submitting to God who was ultimately in control.
And imagine what people said after Jesus was killed. “That’s what he gets for submitting to Caesar! If he really was the Son of God he wouldn’t have let the government do that to him!” I imagine many faithful followers of Jesus thought there was no way that God could be in control of the Roman government when Jesus was crucified. But our God was more in control. He used the pagan Roman government to secure salvation for all humankind. He used a corrupt justice system to crucify his beloved Son so that we could be justly forgiven of our sins. He gave us his son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law. He purchased our souls back from sin and the devil and we now belong to him. So when we obey the government we do so, not because we are afraid of punishment, or because some human told us to, but because we trust God. We know that he is ultimately in charge.
I don’t always see how God is in control, or that he is always working for our eternal good. This world is a chaotic place and it is tempting to wonder if God is actually in charge. But that’s what faith does and that’s the comfort we have as Christians. We trust that God is working through the authorities to accomplish his eternal purposes even when we can’t see it. Even when it seems, to all the world, like things are going away from God’s control, he still owns everything and he is taking care of our souls. So we submit to the government because we trust in God’s control and every time we pay our taxes or say a prayer for those in office, we worship our Savior and show our thanks for what he has done for us.
That doesn’t mean you can’t shout and protest, argue and debate and try to persuade others about the proper policies. By all means, promote and support and vote for candidates and parties that best represent your views. And if you feel it in your heart to protest over a matter, go for it, but do so respectfully and with love that proves your sincerity to God and to people. We’re more privileged than those in Jesus’ time in that we have a representative form of Government. Whether it always works or not is another question, but we are truly blessed to live in America. We have a peace and security with freedoms and rights that people in other countries can only dream about. So make your voice heard. Just don’t let your politics turn someone off from ever hearing the Gospel. Use your relationship equity on a witness to Christ, not on political views.
Another huge implication of Jesus’ statement is that the government’s authority is not only derivative of God, but as such is it limited. The government has been assigned by God a specific sphere of influence and should not go outside of its role. The government is commanded by God to take care of law and order, to be the sword that is not yielded in vain (Romans 13:5). But they are not supposed to step into the spiritual lives of people and try to dictate what is taught or believed. And if a command of the government would be in direct contradiction of God’s Word, then we must choose to obey the greater authority, the one who owns our soul. A good example of this is in Acts 5 where Peter and the apostles are commanded by the Sanhedrin to stop teaching in the name of Christ and Peter says, “We must obey God rather than men”(Acts 5:29). You are God’s soul, one he thought so precious that he gave up his own Son to call you family. And there’s nothing any president or army can do to change that. Don’t ever let the government tell you what to believe or who to worship. That’s outside of their jurisdiction. God has reserved that right for himself alone.
You know, after Jesus said “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”, Matthew said that those young Pharisees marveled and walked away (Mt 22:22). This morning let’s not simply walk away. Keep this at the forefront of your mind. Be conscious of the fact that God owns everything and you will be comforted, not just in your discussions of church and state, but every second of your life. And thankfully we have a little something that can help us remember that. Our coins have a wonderful inscription on them: “In God We Trust”.Regardless of what that means to the rest of America, you can be reminded of the most important truth: “In God We Trust”. We trust in God because everything belongs to him and he has proven worthy of our trust, not just in our relation to the government, but in the salvation of our eternal souls. So give to Caesar to what is Caesar’s and to God’s what is his: your trust in every aspect of life. Amen.