Text: Matthew 22:15-22
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The primary takeaway from today’s Gospel reading is generally the final words of Jesus. “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Do your civic duty. Pay your taxes. Obey the civil authorities as long as they’re not asking you to disobey God’s law. This is all fine messaging, but the real takeaway from this lesson should be much deeper than to simply obey those who have been placed in authority over us here on earth. The real takeaway should be our joyful response to the gifts we’ve been given by God. Render unto God the things that are God’s. Really render. But we have to ask ourselves is what it means to really
REALLY RENDER TO GOD THE THINGS THAT ARE GOD’S.
It seems like this debate between the Pharisees and Jesus has been raging for weeks now. This is now the fourth in a series of readings from Matthew 21 and 22 that highlight Holy Week confrontations between Jesus and the ruling parties of the Jewish church. Up until this point those opposing Jesus have failed to hide their contempt for the Teacher and seem to come out swinging as they challenge His authority. It seems they’ve now realized that this approach hasn’t worked as every assault has ended with Jesus on top and teaching a new truth to those who oppose Him. So now they’re taking a new approach. “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.” These seem like nice words, yet they come from what we’ve heard recorded at the beginning of the text which is that they, “went and plotted how to entangle Him in His words.” Under the guise of sparking a wholesome debate about God’s Law, they really just want to find a way to discredit Jesus. But Jesus isn’t willing to take the bait. The text tells us that He was “aware of their malice.”
Jesus has no intention of “winning” this debate by belittling or demeaning His opponents. He doesn’t need to be seen by them or others as brilliant. Just saying all that brings to mind current debates in the political realm. It seems these days the only intention of political candidates is to belittle and demean their opponents, as if dragging someone else down makes them look better. I think I’ve said this a few times in my life as a father and as a friend. “You don’t look any bigger or better by tearing someone else down.” And I’ve needed to hear those words more than a few times myself as well. Jesus gets that. And even though they’re just buttering Him up with their words, the Pharisees do speak the truth when they say that Jesus is true and teaches the way of God truthfully. When the truth is on your side, you don’t need to drag your opponent through the mud, but simply need to speak the truth. And by being the One who not only speaks the truth, but in fact is the Truth, Jesus is able to keep all of the attention on Himself. Which is His ultimate goal, because in just a few short days He’ll be the center of everyone’s attention as He makes His way to the cross at Calvary.
Political debates are a tricky thing. Engaging in them rarely increases relationships between people. One of the finest pieces of advice from seasoned pastors is not to engage in political debates in the congregation. I’d say it’s probably good advice for the family as well. Discussions of these sorts can pull you right in and once you’re in the debate it’s hard to retreat. And it’s hard to avoid the divisions they’re likely to create. Jesus doesn’t necessarily avoid the debate, but He doesn’t allow it to linger. And He makes it absolutely clear that His Word is what is to be heard, and heeded.
The debate is this. The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The law they’re referring to is Jewish law. The question they’re asking is outside that law and therefore irrelevant to the message Jesus is there to proclaim. After asking to see the coin with which they are to pay the tax and asking, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?,” Jesus gives them a straightforward answer. “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” We could discuss the fact that by doing our duty as citizens we are giving thanks to our loving and generous God for His gift of civil governance and peace, but I’ll save that for another message. Jesus simply sets aside their primary question by basically saying, “Do your civic duty,” and gets to the heart of what we all really need to hear. Which is, “Render to God the things that are God’s.”
We’re meant to understand in Jesus’ words what is meant by “render to God.” One of the very specific meanings of the word render is to give in return. To fully understand what Jesus is teaching we have to first realize that what we are giving is not from our own storehouses. We don’t accumulate a certain amount and then determine what portion of that we feel comfortable giving to God. The first key to understanding what God desires of us is to wholeheartedly embrace the truth that it’s all God’s to begin with. He has shared it with us for the good of His people here on earth, but rendering to God what is God’s is simply returning to Him what is ultimately His already.
It’s natural for this lesson to cause us to delve into issues of stewardship. And it’s natural for those conversations to easily devolve into a singular focus on money. We can’t avoid those thoughts. The issue of money and is there enough is easy to get caught up in. For our family, for the government. For the church. Yet, stewardship, as Jesus teaches it is not simply about the coin, or the bill, or the checkbook. It’s about every good gift given by our Father in heaven above. Stewardship is to see the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel. It’s to believe that same Gospel and recognize that faith in Christ is the greatest act of worship; the ultimate rendering to God. It’s to “take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,” receiving the bounty of His grace in the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and Absolution. It’s to cling to Jesus as the One who paid every debt we owe by His sacrificial death on the cross.
Luther also gives a great list of all the temporal gifts God has given to us in His explanations to the First Article of the Creed and the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer. It would be hard to ignore the fact that every single thing we have and every gift we’ve been given is a blessing from our Almighty Father. Therefore, we render to God the things that are God’s. I think the Pharisees understood what Jesus meant when He said these words. That to really render to God meant giving one’s whole self and everything we have. And like the rich young man who was told to sell all that he had and follow Jesus, this truth caused sorrow, and perhaps even anger. Which is why this was the beginning of the end for this debate. And “when they heard it, they marveled. And they left Him and went away.”
“Render to God the things that are God’s.” And do so with a cheerful heart. He has blessed us by entrusting us with what is His for a time. And in response, we return to Him all that is rightfully His. Our very selves. Our time. Our talents. Our treasures. Our praise. Our worship. Our thanksgiving. Really render it all to God. For this is our joyful response to all the gifts we’ve been given. And in our faith, we receive even more. We receive the eternal gift of salvation won on the cross of Calvary for all who believe. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.