The Things That Are God's
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“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord 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 despise because of their cooperation with the Roman government. This would be kind of like the members of the Tea Party actively promoting Hillary Clinton for President in 2016. 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 appearances. Tell us, then, what You think.” Obviously, the Pharisees are not afraid of dishing up a bit of flattery to achieve their objectives.
Thinking they’ve sufficiently buttered up this teacher, these legalists pose their carefully worded question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But what these legal experts don’t explain is according to what standards they are asking is it lawful: civil law or the Law of God?
That omission, of course, is intentional. It’s a 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.” Yes, they’ve got Him right where they want Him.
Or do they? You see, when you try to trap Jesus, you’ll wind up getting trapped yourself like Wile E. Coyote going after the roadrunner.
“Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites?” Jesus says. “Show Me the coin for the tax.” And so they bring Him a denarius, the Roman coin equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Jesus asks.
“Caesar’s,” they begrudgingly reply.
“Well then, there you have your answer. Render to Caesar the things that are 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.
And then Jesus turns the tables on those legalists who would test Him. “Oh, by the way… render to God the things that are God’s.” “Render to God the things that are God’s.” And what, pray tell, might be “the things that are God’s”? 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: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” St. James echoes that thought: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9).
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 exchanged 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 borne 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 of God 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 God’s 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.
Ted asks, “So Caesar gets the money because his image is on it?”
“Then what does God get?”
“Well, you were made in the image of God…”
“The board of stewardship put you up to this, didn’t they?”
No, you can’t blame the board of stewardship for putting this in the bulletin, since we don’t have a stewardship board. But it sounds just like something we would expect a stewardship committee to do, doesn’t it? And Ted’s response is probably a lot like yours. 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, and 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, do anything to give less to Caesar. Render to Caesar what he asks for (what he demands under penalty of law), but not a shiny penny more. That’s how it works with the tax game, doesn’t it?
Can you imagine someone filling out their 1040 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. Everyone wants to pay the bare minimum.
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 of people looking for the loopholes—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, would that count?” 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 good list. Give to God the things that are God’s. What does that mean? A tithe? 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 work 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 collectors 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 to the Pharisees. He wants to trap them in their words, those religious hypocrites who look down their noses at others, who pick 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. You can’t. And God knows that. That’s why He sent His Son in your place—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 currency of the kingdom. Jesus rendered to God what is God’s—His very body and soul given into death and hell. He gave up everything for you. He did it all for you, solely out His mercy and grace, without any merit or worthiness on your part.
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, partaking of His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. You can bring your offerings, not thinking of them as an obligation, but as a 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. Good works done in faith, help our neighbor and bring glory to God.
And when that old sinful nature pops up again and again, changing your work for your neighbor back into work for yourself, turning the things of God into “my things”? What can you do with such a wretched man? Put him to death! 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, even now for His sake, you are counted righteous and pure. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.