21st Sunday after Trinity October 20, 2002
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5
358, 361, 566, 577
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In Christ Jesus, the Ruler of all things in heaven and on earth, dear fellow Christians:
It has been said that if you want to have a nice, safe conversation with someone, there are two topics you should never mention: politics and religion. There is a reason behind the warning. Bring up the subject of politics, and you will likely hear a long list of complaints: “Taxes are too high! The government doesn’t do enough for me. They’re all crooks!” The same thing happens when you bring up religion: “If God is so loving and powerful, why is there so much suffering and death in the world? If God really cares about me, why is my life such a mess?” Politics and religion often provoke strong negative reactions from people, to say the least.
Jesus’ enemies tried to take advantage of that and purposely brought up politics and religion in order to discredit Jesus and His message. It didn’t work. Jesus was not afraid to talk about the issues; and instead of launching into a long sermon about their evils, Jesus spoke about them in positive terms. In this way, Jesus teaches us about our responsibility to honor both God and government.
But why honor the government when there is so much wrong with it? We hear about millions of our tax dollars being wasted. Leaders in high office are convicted of unethical conduct. We know certain government policies are contrary to Scripture. This leads some to say that instead of honoring the government, it’s time to take action and chain ourselves to the doors of abortion clinics or blow them up, withhold our taxes, and practice other forms of civil disobedience.
The Jews felt the same toward the Roman government which ruled them. It grated on the Jews that they, God’s chosen people, should be under a heathen Gentile power. About the only thing the Jewish leaders hated more than the Romans was the religion Jesus was teaching. So they devised what seemed like the perfect scheme. They came to Jesus with the question: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” They wanted a straight “yes” or “no” answer. If Jesus said, as they expected, “No, it is not right,” then they could turn Him over to the authorities as a tax evader and rebel. On the other hand, if He said, “Yes, pay your taxes,” He would alienate the majority of the people who hated the government.
Jesus saw right through their ploy. He asked for a coin, and when they brought Him one, He said, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” With that one simple sentence the Lord teaches that government has a legitimate place in our lives, and that it deserves our honor.
Government comes about by God’s design. When we think about the birth and history of the United States, people like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln come to mind. But there is much more to the story than men and their accomplishments. Behind it all is the unseen hand of God directing events. He establishes every earthly government. We’re told in Romans 13: “There is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1). Jesus told the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11).
As God’s servant, the government has the responsibility of protecting the physical well-being of its citizens. That includes making and enforcing laws which allow us to live and work in safety. God’s blessing through government is evident all around us. If there is an emergency in your home you can dial 9-1-1 and, within a few minutes, help will be at your door. Police patrol the streets so that we can move freely around the city. The FDA monitors the food supply to insure its wholesomeness. Social Security, Medicare, and all kinds of other programs benefit many of us. The armed forces defend our borders from attack. In spite of all the complaints, government is a good gift from God!
The government has a God-given responsibility toward us. We also have a responsibility toward government. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says. The Roman government had every right to tax the Jewish people. The Apostle Paul writes: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good” (Titus 3:1 NIV). “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor” (Romans 13:6-7 NIV).
Today, however, we often see less and less honor paid to government. Instead, the flag is desecrated in the name of “art.” Government officials become the brunt of jokes. Sadly, we may be guilty too. We’re eager to exploit the faults of the President. We like to stretch the speed limit on the freeway as long as there is not a highway patrol cruiser nearby. The temptation is strong to not be totally up-front when it comes to reporting income on the 1040 form. We may try to justify ourselves with the argument that “I don’t owe the government anything,” and that “Our Christianity has nothing to do with our role as American citizens.” But Jesus tells us that they are linked. The Lord who laid down His very life for us has given us the government and asks us to obey it. Therefore, being a good citizen is more than just a civic duty. It is really part of our worship. Love for the Lord desires to follow His will in every area of life, including our relationship with the government.
How can we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s? First of all, pray! Prayer is a powerful and effective tool; but when was the last time you specifically asked the Lord to give our President the wisdom and courage needed to carry out his duties? When was the last time you asked the Lord to watch over and protect our police force? Have you ever prayed for the city council or the mayor?
We honor our government when we take an active role as citizens, instead of just sitting back and moaning about how bad things are. The Lord has given us the privilege of being able to have a direct say in who our leaders will be through our vote. Do you vote? Are you informed on the issues?
We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s when we willingly obey the law whether it is in little or major things, and regardless of whether or not we could get around the law without getting caught.
Because governments are made up of human beings, there is no perfect government. But even when the government does not always do what is right, its wickedness does not justify our disrespect. the government is still God’s servant. Both Peter and Paul insisted that Christians honor the wicked emperor Nero even though he was the one who ordered their own execution a few years later.
At His trial, Jesus was portrayed as a dangerous, anti-government radical who preached rebellion against the state. Nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus was a model citizen. He willingly gave the Roman government all the honor and obedience due it.
Today, some are calling on Christians to take the law into their own hands and work outside of it to effect changes—all in the name of Jesus. That is NOT what the Lord wants. Rather, He urges: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Whether it is by voting, paying taxes, serving on a jury, or obeying the other laws of the land, may we gladly honor our government and the Lord who gave it.
Jesus’ enemies asked only about taxes and the government, but in His answer Jesus pointed out that we also have a responsibility toward God. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” We have a dual citizenship. We are citizens of the Unites States and also citizens of the Kingdom of God. While earthly governments are to be concerned with our physical well-being, God’s kingdom has to do with the welfare of our souls.
We became citizens of the heavenly kingdom by Christ’s work on our behalf. We could never meet the necessary requirements of perfect holiness, but Jesus stepped into our place and met them for us. He not only obeyed the laws of the Roman Empire, He fulfilled God’s holy Law in every detail. More than that, He took all our sins on Himself and suffered on the cross as the guiltiest criminal of all time. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Eph. 2:19 NIV).
God looks for certain things in the citizens of His kingdom. He wants more than just outward obedience and “going through the motions.” “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17 NIV). The Lord urges us to come to Him confessing our sin and unworthiness, so that then He can comfort us with the full forgiveness of Christ.
We “give to God what is God’s” when we fear, love, and trust in Him above everything else, when we gladly worship Him as Savior, and when we share the good news of Jesus with others.
We honor God when our love for Him is reflected in love toward others, when we take time to show concern for the feelings and needs of our families, Christian friends, and even strangers.
We honor God when we beat back the temptation to “fit in” with the rest of the world, and instead say with Joseph: “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9).
We give to God what is rightfully His when we offer all we are and all we have to His service as a small token of our love for Him who loved us more than human language can express.
We are citizens of two kingdoms and there is a proper separation between the two. If either oversteps its bounds, there are problems. If the government mandates something which God forbids, or prohibits what God commands, then our course is clear. “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). At the same time, the church has no right to tell the government how to carry out its business. Jesus and the apostles did not lobby the Roman Senate nor dictate to the emperor how to do his job.
Religion and politics will always be controversial topics, but for the child of God they do not have to be subjects we would rather not hear about or discuss. Both play an important part in our lives. Both come from God and demonstrate His love and care for us, physically and spiritually; and both call for responsible citizenship on our part.
In love for the Savior, may we give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, and thereby honor both God and the government He graciously provides. Amen.
Christ, by heavenly hosts adored,
Gracious, mighty, sovereign Lord,
God of nations, King of kings,
Head of all created things,
By the Church with joy confessed,
God o’er all, forever blest—
Pleading at Thy throne we stand:
Save Thy people, bless our land.
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