Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
October 19, 2008
Text: Matthew 22:15-21
Election season, especially in a presidential year, can get pretty nasty at times. Candidates are placed under a public microscope where their lives and words are picked apart unmercifully. But it’s not just the candidates that are the focus of extreme scrutiny at times like this. It seems that government itself is often put on trial. Much ink is spilled during election years showing everything that is wrong and broken and misguided with government. And it’s easy to set the whole system up as a kind of “enemy” that is out to get us and our money.
As Christians we may feel this tension as well. Government becomes the “necessary evil” we must endure, but certainly not support. We live in a different kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, right? After all, doesn’t the Bible tell us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20)? Yet, on the other hand, could it also be possible that we instead actually live in two kingdoms at the same time - the Kingdom of the World and the Kingdom of Grace- and each is blessed and supported by God?
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus answers that very question by dealing with an issue about paying taxes. Which is kind of timely, wouldn’t you admit, given all the talk about taxes this election season? It turns out that a group from the Pharisees and from the Herodians came to Jesus with the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. By “lawful” they mean does it square with God’s law, His will. In truth the question was really a ‘set up,’ and Jesus was well aware of their evil intent. They really weren’t interested in what Jesus said. All they wanted to do was discredit him. And it didn’t matter which way Jesus answered. If he said “no” He would be branded as an insurrectionist in open rebellion against Rome. If he said “yes” He would be branded by others as a traitor to His own people. The Zealots of the time even said that for one to pay the tribute tax to Rome was to give up the yoke of the reign of God.
It seemed that Jesus was, as they say, on the “horns of a dilemma” from which he would not free himself. Yet his answer ended up surprising all of them in the end, for it brilliantly avoided the “either-or” bind they were trying to force on him. And it also helps us appreciate the truth that we also are not locked into an “either-or” bind with regard to our own support of government and church.
“Show me the coin for the tax,” Jesus told them. Someone in the crowd handed him a denarius, a common silver coin. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” he asked them, no doubt holding the coin up for them to see. There was no denying that the likeness or image was the Roman Emperor. And around his head was the inscription in abbreviated form: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus” and “Father of His Country.” If you were to flip the coin over you would see the figures of two Caesars, with the words above and around them reading, again in abbreviations: “Augustus” and “Pontifex Maximus,” referring to the Emperor as the “Highest Priest” or supreme religious ruler of the country, along with other references to his station as absolute monarch with total power. For a devout Jew it was downright idolatrous, with the image of a man claiming to be a “god.” Still, they had them in their pockets and used them. Talk about hypocrites!
“Well then, give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus instructed them. And then without missing a breath the second half as well: “and to God the things that are God’s.”
Did Jesus just support what was on the coin - Caesar‘s claim to divinity and all that? No. He simply acknowledged that “Caesar,” that is the government, owns the money which bears its image. The point was whether they had the right to demand money for the support of their work.
What is interesting is that those who confronted Jesus that day enjoyed much of what the Roman government did for them. They benefited from the army’s ability to maintain a lasting peace. They used the roads Rome constructed to aid their travel and help their business affairs. Truth be told, the government - even one like Rome - was helpful to them in many ways.
Which is true for us also. Say what we might about waste and mismanagement and heavy-handedness in our government, we all know that we would not want to live without the security and benefits it brings us.
And that is no accident. God has always intended that earthly government would be His servant for our greater good in this life. It is part of the gifts we confess in the First Article of the Creed where Luther reminds us that the God who created us is also the God who “provides me with all that I need to support this body and life,” and that He willingly “defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.” And how does He do this? In part through the servants of God in the government.
Note also Luther’s concluding words. “All this He does out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” The work of government, imperfect though it be, is part of God gracious love toward us.
Which is why we also owe God our prayers on behalf of this special servant. We serve God by actually praying for the government which God has given us. This is part of “rendering to God what is God’s.” As Paul told Timothy: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be make for everyone - for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” The governing authorities provide a safe and secure climate in which we carry out our most important work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Without their protection and stabilizing power that holds evil at bay, we might not be able to do what we are doing today - freely and openly telling everyone about the Savior Jesus who God sent into the world to save lost sinners for eternity. While we don’t mix these kingdoms - making one do the work of the other - even Paul realized that one can still serve the other.
Which now brings us back to our election season and how we as Christians can best serve God and Caesar. Many of you are probably experiencing a bit of election season fatigue by now with all the ads and debates and such. Maybe you are among those who say you just want to stay clear of anything that is political - including voting.
Yet voting is part of what we owe Caesar. Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto, in a recent article in the Lutheran Witness called “Priests in the Voting Booth,” writes that we are “divinely appointed sovereigns of a democracy and as such compelled to exercise [our] office by virtue of good sense.” He also states that “In these dangerous times [we] must have the courage to ask candidates to be brutally truthful about the dire state the world is in, and how they intend to deal with this, even at the risk of proposing unpopular measures. Should voters base their decision on prejudice, ideology, conjecture, ignorance, selfishness, and a sloppy desire for an easy way out, rather than informed logic and neighborly love, they neglect their priestly duties.” (Uwe Siemon-Netto, “Priests in Voting Booths,” Lutheran Witness, October 2008, page 23.)
This morning you are exercising your Christian calling as the “priesthood of God” through your prayers and praises in the Divine Service which you render on behalf of all people. But you also have a priestly duty as citizens, and you owe your services as such in both kingdoms. It is not pious to avoid your role in the worldly kingdom just because it is imperfect. You are called to serve in a sinful world. The Pharisees and Herodians had it all wrong. It has never been an “either-or” but rather a “both-and.” May God therefore bless your service as God’s priests in both of His kingdoms.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.