The Things of God


The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 22:15-22, which has already been read.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows.  That’s certainly the case here.  The Pharisees—ardent nationalists who opposed Roman rule—team up with the Herodians whom they despised for their cooperation with the Roman government.  This would be kind of like the Tea Party movement suddenly aligning itself with the campaign to re-elect President Obama.  You know that something fishy is going on here.

The Pharisees try to trap Jesus between a political hard place and a religious rock.  “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for You are not swayed by appearance.”  Anyone who starts off a sentence like that can’t be trusted with the keys to the house, much less the tenets of theology. 

But here’s the kicker: “What do you think, Jesus, man of integrity and teacher of the truth?  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Great chess move.  They’ve got Jesus trapped.  If Jesus says “no,” He’s a traitor to Rome, an insurrectionist, a tax dodger, a threat to national security.  If He says, “yes,” He’s a traitor to His own people, a Roman loyalist, a supporter of the occupation government, an enemy of Israel, an enemy of God.”  They’ve got Him right where they want Him. 

Or has Jesus got them right where He wants them?  Don’t think you can trap the Divine Fox quite so easily.  Or you might get caught in your own trap. 

“Hypocrites,” Jesus says.  “Show Me the money.”  And so they bring Him a denarius.  “Whose likeness is this?  Whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s.”

“Well then, there you have your answer.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  With that, Jesus dodges the political bullet.  He’s no insurrectionist.  He has no interest in politics, per se.  His kingdom is not of this world.  He’s the King of kings, and the Lord of lords.  So never mind old Caesar.  Just give him his coin and don’t rile a sleeping bear. 

Jesus also dodges the religious bullet and turns the tables on those who’d test Him.  “Oh, by the way… give to God the things that are God’s.” 

“Give to God the things that are God’s.”  And what, pray tell, might that be?  Jesus doesn’t say.  And the Pharisees and the Herodians aren’t inclined to ask.  But let’s follow it through.  Caesar gets the coin.  That’s because it has his likeness and inscription on it.  But what does God get?  Well, what bears God’s image and likeness?  What has God’s inscription?

You!  In the very first chapter of Genesis we read of the creation of man.  “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness…’” (Genesis 1:26).  Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, that is, they truly knew God as He wishes to be known and were perfectly happy in Him.  They were righteous and holy, doing God’s will.  Unfortunately that perfect image was lost when our first parents disobeyed God and fell into sin.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which all mankind retains the image of God.  Two passages of Scripture make this clear.  Genesis 9:6 records God’s words to Noah after the flood: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”  In James 3:9, we read: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness.”

God has begun to rebuild His image in mankind through His Son, Jesus Christ.  St. Paul tells us that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15).  Incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, the God-Man, Jesus Christ lived a perfect obedient life for you.   On the cross, Christ exchanges His perfect righteousness for your sin—that original sin that is part of who you are, and those actual sins that you have done or failed to do regarding God’s holy Law and will.  

Having risen from the dead, Jesus now leads His people into His kingdom one-by-one through the gracious water of Holy Baptism, inscribing on the foreheads of each one God’s holy name—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Consequently, St. Paul tells us that “Just as we have born the image of the man of dust [Adam], [you] shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49) and you are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 8:29).  In Christ you “have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).

Ultimately, that image will be restored to you fully in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting on the Last Day.  In the book of Revelation, St. John sees the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world, standing on Mount Zion and with Him, you among the multitude… you having His name and His Father’s name written on your forehead.

So, what are the things of God?

You, first and foremost… you are “the things of God.”  God has created you.  Christ has redeemed you, making you His own.  The Holy Spirit is at work sanctifying you, working a renewal of your whole life.  You bear His image and inscription.  And while you are not yet standing in Paradise, you stand here in anticipation of that joyful eternity.

So what does that mean for you today?  I’d like you to take a look at the cartoon in the bulletin.  It’s called Agnus Dei, a comic strip written by a Lutheran pastor that follows the regular Sunday readings.  These two sheep are Rick and Ted.  Rick is the sheep with the coffee.  He always has coffee.  He always has answers.  Ted is the guy with all the questions. 


No, you can’t blame the board of stewardship for this one.  I asked Pastor Nix to see that it was included in your bulletin.  But it sounds just like we expect a stewardship committee to be, doesn’t it?  And Ted’s response is just like you.  You don’t mind giving to the church, but you sure don’t want to be told what to give, how much to give, or when to give.  And this “giving yourself” idea sound just a bit cultish, a bit fundamental, doesn’t it?  And the truth be told, your Old Adam doesn’t want to belong to anyone.

But that’s what God wants from you… that’s what God demands of you… that’s what God commands you to render to Him… you!  God wants you, not your money.  You!  God doesn’t demand taxes; He wants you.  Your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength.  He wants your fear, your love, your trust.  He wants you.  All of you!

This is tricky business.  We’re inclined to withhold.  Pay the minimum tax possible.  Shelter income, divert investments, anything to give less to Caesar.  Render to Caesar what he asks for, but not a shiny penny more.  That’s how it works with the tax game, doesn’t it?

Can you imagine someone writing out their tax form and enclosing a check for an extra thousand dollars with a note?  “Dear Uncle Sam.  It’s been a good year and I thought you could use the extra cash.  Here’s a little deficit reduction.”  It’s never going to happen.  Even billionaires who say their taxes should be higher hire accountants to lower their tax bills.

I know of a congregation that has a school tuition discount for members.  The catch is that you have to show up to church at least twice a month in order to get the discount.  You wouldn’t believe the stories.  Or maybe you would.  People ask, “Do both parents have to come to church?”  “Do we have to bring the kids?”  “What if we dropped the kids off?” 

That’s the way the law works.  You’ll find the least you have to do to squeak by the bookkeepers.  If the law says, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you’re going to ask things like “Who’s my neighbor?” and define it so narrowly that walking the little old lady next door across the street qualifies as a full quotient of neighborly love.

And we’ll do the same with God.  When we treat God as the government we start to wonder what’s the least we have to give Him to stay on His A-list.  Give to God the things that are God’s.  What does that mean?  Ten percent?  Give God His ten percent tax?  Ten percent of your time, your treasure, your talent?  Pay your religious tax and stay on God’s good side? 

It may be that way in Caesar’s realm, but not in God’s.  The kingdom of God is different, remember.  Upside down, inside out, and sometimes just plain weird.  It’s where the last are first, the first are last, the losers are winners, and the tax agents and prostitutes slip through the pearly gates ahead of the lifelong Lutherans.  This kingdom doesn’t just want a piece of you, it wants all of you.  And God is restless until He has all of you—your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, your fear, your love, your trust. 

And you know what?  You won’t give it.  You can’t!  You are so wrapped up in yourself you simply won’t give to God the things that are God’s.  You’ll claim it as your own.  “It’s my time, my treasure, my talent, my life.  Mine, mine, mine.  And you can’t have it, God.  Oh, I’ll give you a Sunday or two, now and then, for no more than an hour or two.  But the rest of the day is mine.  And the rest of the week from Monday to Saturday, that’s mine too, and don’t You dare interfere with my plans.  I’ll pay my temple tax and put a few of Caesar’s coins into the offering plate.  But that’s as far as I’ll go.  Don’t ask me for more!”

Oh, you’ve maybe not been so bold as to say this aloud.  But you’ve thought it.  You’ve acted as if it is true.  And don’t think that God doesn’t know that.  He knows how it is.  He knows you’re not going to render to Him the things that are His.  Jesus knows that.  That’s why He says it.  He wants to trap them in their words, those religious hypocrites who look down their noses at others, who poke at the speck in their brother’s eye and can’t even fathom the two-by-four sticking out of their own.  Jesus knows, and He calls them on it. 

He calls us on it, too, when we feel oh-so-smug about all our “giving.”  Give to God what is God’s.  Everything… your whole life… is God’s.  He wants all of it, and you don’t want to part with it.  God knows that.  That’s why He sent His Son—to render to God the things that are God’s. 

Jesus is the image of God restored in humanity to its original luster.   He gave to God the things that are God’s.  His perfect obedience.  His innocent life.  His sacrificial death.  His holy, precious blood.  The image and likeness of God nailed to the cross—that’s the coin of the kingdom.  Jesus rendered to God what is God’s.  “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.”  He gave up everything for you.  He did it all for you. 

What can you do for Him in return?  The psalmist answers that same question: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts!  Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth!” (Psalm 96:8-9)

You can join your fellow Christians in worship, gladly receiving the Lord’s love and forgiveness in His Absolution, His very body and blood.  You can bring your offerings, not thinking of them as an obligation, but as privilege and honor afforded only those who bear the image of God.  You can leave this house of God, anxious to tell all your friends and neighbors the wonderful things that God has done for you in Christ. 

But really, rendering to God the things that are God’s isn’t necessarily about what happens with “church stuff.”  It’s also about you serving your neighbor in what you do every single day.  Moms and Dads change diapers and discipline their children.  Husbands and wives serve each other.  Teachers teach.  Students study.  Truck drivers drive.  Factory workers make things.  Farmers grow things.  Stockers fill the store shelves.  Each of these daily vocations is both rendering to Caesar and to God. 

And when that old sinful nature pops up again and again, changing your work for your neighbor to work for yourself, turning the things of God into “my things”?  What can you do with such a wretched man?  Drown him again in Baptism through contrition and repentance so that your new man should arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. 

Remember Jesus Christ died for that sin, too.  Indeed, for His sake, even now you are counted righteous and pure.  That is, you are forgiven for all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Comments

Michael G said…
Pastor Moeller,

Thank you for preaching this sermon tomorrow at Christ, Sioux Falls. It is another Christ-centered, cross-focused sermon.

One word is missing in the last sentence of the next-to-last paragraph: "...live before God in *righteousness* and purity forever."

Thanks again!

In Christ, the Lord of the Church!
Michael Grooms
Thank you for both the comment and correction.
In Christ,

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