In this, the heart of the football season, I am reminded of the story of a young man, who took his girlfriend to a football game for the first time. After the game he asked his girlfriend what she thought. “Oh, I really liked it,” she said. “But I couldn’t understand it why they were killing each other for 25 cents.” “What on earth do you mean?” “Well I saw them flip the coin at the beginning and then for the rest of the game all everyone kept screaming was, ‘Get the quarter back! Get the quarter back!’”
Okay, I’ll admit that was a bit of a groaner, but in a somewhat humorous way that story reminds us that things are often a matter of perspective. The young lady thought the football game was just a big fight over money, but there was certainly more to it than that. The same thing is true for our Gospel lesson for today where Jesus is asked a question about paying taxes. Now, at first glance it may seem like it is just a simple question about money, but when we look at it more closely there much more to it than that. It’s really about allegiance.
Our text takes place on the Tuesday of Holy Week, just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and just a few days before His crucifixion. His enemies are earnestly looking for a strategic way to get rid of Him. So it is that St. Matthew tells us the Pharisees and the Herodians banded together to trap Jesus in His Words. It is said that politics sometimes makes strange bedfellows and that’s precisely what is taking place here in our text. You see the Pharisees and the Herodians were very much on opposite ends of the political spectrum. The Pharisees were Jewish nationalists who despised their Roman conquerors and they hated paying taxes to them. The Herodians, on the other hands were collaborators with the Roman government and reported anyone who refused to pay their taxes or otherwise sought to rebel against them. Normally, these two groups would never think of cooperating with one another, but in Jesus they had a common enemy. Both of them feared him for different reason and so they joined together to lay a trap for Him. The Greek word for ‘entangle’ used in our text actually refers to a snare that was used to catch an animal. But they would find that they set a trap for a fox and caught a lion instead.
First, they try to butter him up a little by offering him idle flattery:
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.
One of the tricks that people who want to take you down or humiliate you have always used and still do is use is to build you up first or flatter you so that you will be off your guard when they slip the knife into your back. That is what they are attempting to do with Jesus. Then they spring their trap.
Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
On the surface a simple, harmless question, but beneath it they thought a fool-proof plan, a perfect “catch-22”. If Jesus said ‘no,’ He would be accused of treason by the Herodians and arrested by the Romans. But if He said ‘yes,’ He would be cast by the Pharisees as a traitor to the nation of Israel, and disloyal to their God.
But as I mentioned earlier they had not reckoned on who they were dealing with and their devious plan backfired. First he exposed them for the frauds that they are, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” Then He asked them to bring Him a coin used to pay the poll tax. The coin was a common denarius. On one side was a picture of the Emperor Tiberius and on the other side was the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Augustus.” Jesus pointed out that the coin obviously belonged to Caesar, since it had his image and picture on it. So, He concluded: Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.
Though many have falsely tried to paint Jesus as a zealot or revolutionary or a fanatic over the years, I even remember seeing a poster once where Jesus was depicted as a machine gun carrying Sandinista, He never was. In fact, the only kingdom he came to overthrow was the devil’s and he even did that non-violently. No, the clear testimony throughout the Scriptures is one of obedience to government and yes that includes even bad government. St. Peter summed it up well: “Show proper respect to everyone: love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” In other words, give allegiance to those whom you owe allegiance.
The question, of course, is to whom do we owe allegiance? Well, as Peter pointed out we owe allegiance to the government, because they are supposed to protect us and take care of us. That’s why we pay our taxes. We also owe allegiance to the church, because it’s God gift of the brotherhood to us for our spiritual welfare. But above all we owe allegiance to God, since He is our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
You see, to the Romans, Caesar was their god. There was no separation of church and state as we know it at all, which is why their coinage referred to Augustus as the Divine. But when Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” He was subtly pointing out that there is really only one God, the God of Israel, the True God, our Triune God. And He’s the One to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance.
But how do we express that allegiance to God? Well if we show allegiance to the government by paying taxes, praying for our leaders and being good citizens, then it stands to reason that we should also demonstrate our allegiance to God by giving our all to serve Him by devoting our time, talents and treasures to support the work He has given us to do in this time and place He has put us. But do we do always do that? Perhaps the real question comes down to who or what is your God?
Is it money or power or success? Is it material possessions or pleasure? Is it sports, recreation or leisure? Is it maybe something as wholesome as family, friends and loved ones. None of those things, of course are bad in and of themselves, but when we get our priorities out of whack and put those things above God or in his place we have misplaced our allegiance. The same is true with government, by the way, the moment we begin to rely too much on government and make it a God, we are in deep trouble.
Think about it, why do we render to Caesar and not to God? The obvious answer is: because Caesar makes us. For instance, if we don’t pay our taxes, we get fined or thown in jail. God, on the other hand, wants us to give ourselves to Him freely, voluntarily. God doesn’t command us to tithe, He encourages us. He doesn’t demand that we use our time and abilities to further His kingdom, He exhorts us to. In other words, He wants us to express our allegiance to Him willingly out of thanks for all He’s done for us.
It’s rather instructive that the word ‘render’ in our text actually means: ‘to give back or restore.’ That is, to pay someone what is due them. In fact, it can even mean: ‘to make atonement.’ And thankfully that’s just what Jesus Christ did for us. He died on the cross to make atonement for all our sins, to pay God back for everything with His blood – even the times when we misuse or abuse our time, talents and treasures.
Yes, in spite of our lack of allegiance to Him, He is always loyal to us – loyal and faithful to love and forgive us. Before we could even hope to give back to Him, He first gave to us the greatest gift of all – His life to restore us to God’s kingdom. And that, my friends, is why we render unto God what is God’s. Jesus surrendered His life for us on Calvary, so that we might be rendered His children – loved, cherished and accepted. And in return for all of that we want to render to Him our time, talents and treasures for service in His kingdom. We want to surrender our lives to Him, to be used by Him wherever and however He wants.
We might think of it like the woman, who wrote the following story: “Soon after our last child left home for college, my husband was resting next to me on the couch with his head in my lap. I carefully removed his glasses. ‘You know, honey,’ I said sweetly, ‘Without your glasses, you look like the same handsome young man I married many years ago.’ ‘Honey,’ he replied with a grin, ‘Without my glasses, you still look pretty good too!’”
Dear friends, the Good News is that that is exactly how God looks at you and me. He sees us as beautiful, precious and holy in His sight. You might say He has special glasses through which He looks at us – not rose-colored glasses, but blood-stained glasses that erase all our faults and flaws. No matter that we have sinned, no matter what terrible things we’ve said and done, God doesn’t see them anymore, because Jesus’ blood has washed them all away. That is the wonderful gift Jesus has given to us and that’s why we willingly render unto Him not only our allegiance, but all that we have and are in joyful obedience. May the H.S. empower and equip us to do that always, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.