The political strife and rancor of these past few years has made it all the more important that we hear and take to heart the Word of our Lord from this morning’s Holy Gospel, that we should “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Regrettably, this well-known saying of Jesus has not always been well-understood. In fact, it is oftentimes abused — for example, by those who take the separation of Church and State to absurd extremes, so as to say that God has His “place” over here, and the state has its “place” over there, and never the two shall meet. Yet, that is certainly not what Jesus says; nor can such a view find any support in the Holy Scriptures. For the whole earth is the Lord’s and all the fulness thereof.
What Scripture does say, both here and elsewhere, is that “Caesars” have been given a temporary place within the Lord’s governance of His creation. And so it is that, as Christians, we obey the governing authorities for the Lord’s sake, because of their lawful place under Him.
The Word of Christ at hand is therefore not a two-part equation. Whoever the “Caesar” might be in any given time or place, he is there by the tolerance of God; and he is there, as St. Paul writes, to serve as a minister of justice and peace. In rendering unto Caesar, you already begin to render obedience and honor to the Lord your God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth.
But the Pharisees were not so concerned about a proper understanding of political authority. Their real intentions were malice and hypocrisy. They hoped and assumed that Jesus would be trapped by their question: If He said that taxes should be paid to Caesar, then pious Jews would see Him as a Roman sympathizer, especially since He was known to hang out with tax collectors, anyway. But if He said that taxes should not be paid, then the Pharisees and Herodians could accuse Him of insurrection and rebellion. That was the plan. But Jesus saw the bigger picture and knew the treachery of their hearts, and He not only shut their mouths but revealed the higher order of God.
The bottom line is cut and dried: The Holy Triune God is the Maker and Preserver, the Ruler and Provider of all things. As the Author and Giver of life, He is the Lord of His entire creation. He is the One who stretched out the heavens above us, piled up mountains around us, filled up the oceans with water, and brought forth in His careful design — by the power of His Word — every living thing that lives and moves upon the face of the whole earth. From the tiniest grain of sand to the mightiest solar system, there is nothing in all the vast universe that exists apart from His grace and power and permission, including all political power and authority.
There is no authority on earth except what God Himself ordains and permits. And that is so, whether the leaders of this world acknowledge it or not. The Lord alone is in control of human history from beginning to end, as you have heard, by way of example, from Isaiah this morning.
The pagan ruler, Cyrus, was chosen by the Lord to be an instrument of His deliverance. Cyrus, like others before him, might have thought that he was in control, making his own decisions and making a name for himself. But that was not the case. Yahweh had chosen him; He had taken Cyrus by the hand and summoned him by name to free the Israelites from Babylonian Captivity.
The same reality is at work behind the scenes in the case of every other “Caesar” in this world. Which is not to say that any ruler is perfect, nor that any ruler follows the Will of God in all things. We sadly know better than that! But even among pagans, that which is “Caesar’s” is given to him by the Lord of lords and the King of kings, to whom all things in heaven and on earth must submit.
The same thing is true for you, as well. Though you may not be a “Caesar” with a nation to govern and protect, your office and station in life are no less a trust from the Holy Triune God.
What do you have from the Lord? Every breath and every moment of your life; the food that you eat, the clothes that you wear, the sunshine and rain. Your help comes from the Lord, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. He keeps you from all harm; He watches over your life; He guards your coming in and going out, now and forever. Your life and hope and strength are found in Him alone, who provides all that you need for both body and soul, for here and for hereafter.
One of the ways by which you acknowledge your dependance on the Lord is by recognizing His authority and His institution in those He places over you in this life: your parents and teachers, pastors and leaders, whoever they are. You serve, honor, love, and obey those authorities on earth out of “fear, love, and trust” in God, until such time when you must obey God rather than men.
In a way, that is the question of the Pharisees in this Holy Gospel — notwithstanding their wicked purposes in asking. In the case of a pagan emperor, such as the Roman Caesar who views himself as a god, does obedience to God require that the faithful should refuse to pay their taxes?
In His response to this question, Jesus begins with the coin that was used for paying taxes. That might seem strange, if this story were not already so familiar, but it actually made perfect sense. In their day-to-day commerce, the Jews were permitted to use special coins that were minted without the image of Caesar. But for the Roman tax, they were required to use the standard coin of the realm, the silver denarius. For a devout Jew, a coin of this sort — engraved with Caesar’s image and likeness — would have been useless for anything other than paying the national tax.
Beyond this point, there are several other factors operating just below the surface. For one thing, St. Matthew has already written of denarii in two other places — in parables that you have heard over the past month or so. In one case, the denarii signified the debt of forgiveness that you owe to your fellow servants; and in the other case, a denarius signified the reward of our Lord for all of His servants, for each and all alike. The denarius, therefore, is a gift from God with which you are to serve your neighbor. It comes to you from the Lord for the benefit of those around you. So, for example, in paying your taxes you are serving and supporting your fellow citizens.
The second underlying point is found in the question Jesus asks concerning the denarius: “Whose image or picture is this? Whose icon, and whose epigraph?” The first word, “icon” or “image,” is right out of the story of creation in Genesis, when “God created man in His own Image; in the Image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
So, if the coin with Caesar’s image should be rendered unto Caesar, then men and women, who are created in the Image of God, must render — not just their money — but themselves unto Him.
The truth is, though, that you have fallen far short of God’s Image. You have not lived to the glory of His Name, but like your father Adam you have lived in sin, even unto death. And yet, St. Paul writes that Christ Himself is the Image of God; and He has not fallen short at all. Christ has fulfilled every intention of His God and Father for you and your salvation; and He has also paid, on your behalf, the debt of all your failure. As the Image of His Father, the incarnate Son of God has rendered Himself entirely unto God — in His flesh and with His blood — for you and for all.
He did so on the Cross. And, lo and behold, that is where the other word shows up, that is, the “epigraph” or “inscription” of the coin. In fact, that is the only other time the word is used in the Gospels — when Pilate nailed the epigraph on the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Ironic, isn’t it? Crying out for the crucifixion of their Savior and their God, the Jews told Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!” Whereas the pagan Pontius Pilate, though he knew not what he said, rightly confessed that Jesus is the King of the Jews. He is all of that and so much more, hanging there on the Cross. He is the King of all kings and Lord of all lords, who holds Caesar and Pilate and Herod, the U.S. of A. and the whole world in His almighty, outstretched hands. Money and taxes and politics seem far less important when viewed from the Cross of Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Truth of God, who speaks the Truth of God in all things, without regard for human achievements or the standards of this world. This Lord is neither impressed nor persuaded by popularity or power, by appearance, personality, or wealth. All people are alike in His eyes: All are sinners, in need of His forgiveness by grace alone. All are His creatures, for whom His Blood is shed upon the Cross — for Caesars and peasants, Presidents and street people.
Now, by His grace and Holy Spirit, you do the same. That is to say, you look at people through the eyes of Christ; and so you pay your taxes to Caesar, and you love your neighbors, for the sake of the Lord. You serve and support the governing authorities as servants of God; and you serve the people around you — even the least, the last, and the lost — as an opportunity to show your thanks and love toward Christ Jesus Himself. Whatsoever you do for them, you do it for Him.
The fact is, that God doesn’t need your money. It’s all His in the first place, along with every other blessing in your life. Your neighbors may need your money from time to time, as the law of love demands. And the ministry and mission of the Church need your money and support, as does your country. But the Holy Triune God can get along just fine without your help, thank you very much.
What He does require of you, though, is not your money but your life. For you were created in His Image and Likeness; His Epigraph is written on your forehead and your heart — the Sign of the Cross, marking you as His. And His Word to you is clear: “Render unto God what is God’s.”
The beauty of it is, that in rendering everything you are and have to God, you find that all the while He is showering you with grace and every blessing: free and full forgiveness of your sins, eternal life, and salvation in Christ Jesus. That is what faith is all about. You trust Him completely with your entire being and life, and you receive all things from His hand with thanksgiving.
St. Paul thus writes about the Christian life as a stewardship of “faith,” “hope,” and “love.”
“By faith,” which is created and sustained in you through the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Gospel, “in the hope” which you have in Christ Jesus, who has suffered all the punishment of your sins, who has perfectly satisfied the demands of the Law on your behalf, and who, by the means of His Word and Sacrament, bestows on you His forgiveness, life, and salvation, and restores in you the Image of God, “you love” your neighbor, even your enemy, as Christ loves you.
That is what Christian stewardship really entails. It is not a little corner of your life that you set aside for the church or for charity. It is rather a commitment and a trusting of your entire life — everything that you are and all that you have — into the hands of your heavenly Father. When you entrust a portion of that total commitment to the Ministry of Christ and the Mission of His Church, you do so for the sake of the Gospel, as a confession of your faith and hope in the Holy Trinity.
You do the same thing by faithfully doing your job, whatever it might be; by faithfully taking care of your family and your responsibilities at home; and by looking out for the welfare of your neighbors and the needs of your community — as for example in paying your taxes to “Caesar.”
In all of these ways, you render the Image of God unto the Lord by receiving His many gifts with thanksgiving, and by using them to the glory of His Name for the benefit of those around you.
As you find that you still fail miserably on a daily basis to live in this way, as the Lord commands, in accordance with His holy Image and divine Likeness, repent, and believe the Gospel of Christ.
Were it not for Christ Jesus, you would find yourself hopeless and undone. Thankfully, the Image of God does not depend on you; not on your faith and sincerity, nor on your best efforts and stewardship. It depends entirely on Christ, and it is always upheld by Him. He has reflected that perfect Image, and He has rendered it unto God the Father, by going to the Cross in your stead; by sacrificing everything for you and your salvation; and even now, by forgiving your sins, and by feeding your body, soul, and spirit with His very own Body and Blood, unto the life everlasting.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.