23rd Sunday after Trinity November 15, 1998
Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way. These are the Words.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Who is the Christian’s Commander in Chief, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Imagine what it would be like if you could be a citizen of two different countries at the same time! Actually, I know several people for whom that is true. Some of you have met the pastor of our sister congregation in Columbia, South Carolina—Pastor Warren Fanning; he was born in Canada, and although he hasn’t lived there for some time, he still maintains a “dual citizenship,” both in Canada and the United States. An acquaintance of mine is another example. He and his family emigrated from Liverpool, England, about ten years ago; and although he has long ago become a naturalized American, he still retains his British citizenship, as well.
And I know another person who has a dual citizenship. You! Of course, you and I are citizens of the United States. But we really do have a dual citizenship. Every believer, every person who’s had his sins washed away by Jesus, is also a citizen of heaven. With election day coming up this week, we will again exercise our citizenship in this great country of America. Sadly, though, there are a lot of Christians who hardly give their heavenly citizenship a second thought. They seldom think about the huge benefits of being a believer, not to mention the responsibilities. “Brethren, these things ought not so to be!” As Christians, we have a duty, both to our earthly country—our beloved United States—and to our greater, more permanent homeland: heaven. What is that duty? It’s to realize the blessings of both, and to shoulder the responsibilities of both. Jesus addresses the topic in our text for this morning; that’s why today’s theme is…
In our text for today, Jesus once again meets up with the hypocritical leaders of the Jews. This time it’s the disciples of the Pharisees who get together with the Herodians to confront Jesus. Now there’s an unlikely combination if there ever was one. The religious sect of the Pharisees normally hated the political party of the Herodians, and were hated by them in return. The only thing that was stronger than their hatred of each other—the only thing they agreed on—was their hatred for Jesus. If Jesus really was the Messiah, as He claimed, then the Pharisees were afraid He’d loosen their spiritual strangle hold on the Jews. If Jesus really was a great King, the Herodians feared, then their days as a political power were numbered. So they got together and plotted against Jesus. How to get this troublemaker out of the way…?
The scheme they came up with was an ingenious one. They’d entangle Jesus in His talk. They’d ask Him a question He couldn’t possibly answer: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If He said, “Yes, you must pay taxes to Caesar,” the common people would turn away from Him, because everyone hated the Roman government. They saw the Romans as infringing on their religion, by denying them their right to govern themselves as God’s People. On the other hand, if Jesus said, “No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar,” well, better yet! Then they could turn Him over to the Roman governor and He’d be executed as a rebel and a traitor.
They gave Jesus an “either-or” choice. “Either we allow the Romans to govern us, and deny our religion, or we acknowledge only God as our Ruler, and defy the Romans.” Jesus, of course, saw through their plot right away. Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Show me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. Then Jesus proceeded escape from their cleverly-laid trap, merely by holding up that coin and asking them a simple question—“Whose picture?” “Caesar’s,” they said impatiently; any child could see that! Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. With a simple maneuver, Jesus put His finger on the flaw in their reasoning—it’s not an “either-or” question at all…but “both-and”. Believers have a duty both to their government and to God. For us Christians in the United States, the meaning of Jesus’ lesson is obvious: we are both citizens of America and citizens of Heaven.
Jesus said, first of all, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” “Pay the government what you owe to the government!” our Savior tells us…and He’s not just talking about forking over our income tax on April 15th. We are citizens of this great, free country of America. The freedoms we enjoy bring with them responsibilities, however. If we ignore that fact, or take our responsibilities as citizens lightly, we’re not only being bad Americans, we’re being bad Christians.
There is a careful separation between church and state in our country, and we can be thankful that there is. That certainly doesn’t mean, however, that our God has nothing to do with our government! Ask yourself—who is it who gave us the democratic form of government we enjoy in the first place? The Almighty God is the One who established this government (and every other one, for that matter). The founding fathers of this nation recognized that fact, and no amount of sneering from the arrogant unbelievers of our own day can change it. We owe our allegiance to our country, first of all, because God gave us our country! Paul says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” Rom 13:1.
How does the Lord expect us to fulfil our duties as citizens of America? By obeying its laws. By paying its taxes. But also by being involved, as individuals, in shaping the course our country will take in the future. “Rendering unto Caesar” means that you’ve got responsibilities. You can’t just sit back with your evening paper and complain about the terrible shape our country’s in…that’s too easy. In America—thank God!—you can do something about it!
“But what can I do?” you ask. There are a lot of things you can do—first and most important, you can pray. Scripture promises that “…The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Pray for your local leaders, your state representatives, your congressmen and your president. Remember to regularly ask the Lord’s blessings on our government. Secondly, get informed on the issues. Find out where specific candidates stand on specific issues. It takes time, but it’s worth it. Write to your elected representatives. Let them know about the issues that concern you. Finally, get registered in your political precinct and vote. Do you think your one vote doesn’t make a difference? Believe it or not, every year in this country, hundreds of elections are won or lost by just one vote per precinct! If you value the blessings of free speech and freedom of the press, if you thank God for the blessing of freedom of religion…then exercise your American citizenship and work to preserve those freedoms!
Jesus reminds us that we have a solemn obligation to serve our government as citizens of the country in which we live. But He also reminds us of a greater allegiance we all have: we are first and foremost citizens of heaven! And Jesus says, “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”
I’m afraid that that heavenly citizenship is something we don’t think about too often. If someone asked you what country you were from, you’re answer would be automatic—“I’m an American.” In a more important way, though, we are citizens of heaven. Our president is Jesus, our nationality is Christian, and our homeland is heaven. A few minutes ago we spoke the Christian “Pledge of Allegiance” when we confessed our faith according to the Apostles Creed.
In the Second Article of that Creed lies the reason we can call ourselves citizens of heaven—“And I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell, and the third day He rose again from the dead…” You see, this isn’t a citizenship that we’re born into. This is a citizenship that had to be purchased for us. Jesus bought it for us when He gave up His life on the cross. We can’t work for it, or earn it; it is simply given to us as a free gift of God’s grace. When the Holy Ghost brings us to faith in Jesus, so that we place our whole confidence in our Savior for the forgiveness of our sins, then we’re members of God’s Kingdom, citizens of heaven by faith in Jesus. As Paul puts it, in Ephesians 2: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.” Eph 2:19-20. For Jesus’ sake, we’re headed for eternal life. It’s as sure as the fact that He lived, and died for us, and rose again the third day. We are, even now, citizens of heaven!
And, in the same way, our responsibilities as citizens of heaven really are more like blessed privileges than grudging duties. We have the privilege to gather here each week to listen to the Good News of the Gospel. We have the privilege of praising our Savior with words and hymns. We’re encouraged to call on His name in prayer to supply all our wants and needs. We’re honored with the privilege of teaching our children about Jesus. Right now, we members of Ascension have the privilege of participating in the extension of Christ’s kingdom by building a new church for the praise of His name. Above all, as citizens of heaven, we have the blessed privilege of bringing all our sins to our Savior in repentance, and of receiving His gracious forgiveness. In all of these ways, with our thanks and praises, our time and our offerings, our hymns and prayers, our teaching and our witnessing, we are “rendering unto God the things that are God’s.” After all the blessings He has given us, I think you’ll agree it’s little enough for us to give Him!
John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” As grateful citizens of the United States, we would do well to bear that in mind on this Election Day. As citizens of heaven, however, that quote is especially apt. We don’t even need to ask what our God has done for us—we all know that from memory: “He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” As citizens of heaven, waiting to inherit that life, our only question in the meantime is…what can we do for our God? In Jesus’ name, AMEN.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.