Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (October 16, 2011)

Wordle: Untitled

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

Whose likeness and inscription is on a dollar bill? Looking at a one dollar bill, you’ll see the likeness of George Washington, our nation's first president. What inscriptions do you see? “The United States of America” tells you which country the bill is from. “Federal Reserve Note” used to mean that the bills were backed up by gold and silver. Today, it tells you that the note is backed up by the “full faith and credit of the U.S. government” and its ability to impose taxes and pay its debts (at least we hope, right?). You also see the inscriptions of whomever the Treasurer of the United States and the Secretary of the Treasury were at the time the bill was printed. Other bills and coins have other images of past presidents. Since 1955, all our currency has also carried the words “In God we trust.” Which “god” that refers to is, of course, up for grabs nowadays. The way we act, our trust in the Almighty God is often displaced by trust in the almighty dollar.

In spite of what is printed on our currency, when Matthew wrote today’s text government and religion were more closely connected than they are today in our country. Back then, religious duty was intimately associated with one’s duty to civic leaders and obedience to the government. Rulers were viewed as divine. You owed them your worship and allegiance. Loyalty to the Roman emperor was accompanied by offering sacrifices and worshipping him. Every time you reached in your pouch and pulled out a denarius, you were reminded of that fact. The face of the emperor on the coin was surrounded with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar: Son of the Divine Augustus.” The flip side showed him seated on a throne with the surrounding words “Pontifex Maximus” … “High Priest.”

As you can well imagine, the Jews were completely opposed to this idea of offering sacrifices to the emperor. In fact, they were exempt from this but still paid their taxes. They freely used coins with Caesar’s image stamped on them, except in the temple. That’s why moneychangers were present in the temple. Their job was to exchange Roman coins for temple currency. You certainly would not want to use Roman money to pay for the sacrifices you were about to offer in the Holy Place.

Today’s Gospel reading shows the escalating conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders during the days leading up to his crucifixion. Here the Pharisees and Herodians join forces offering false flattery in an attempt to entrap Jesus in his words. They want him to answer their question in such a way so they can finally have a clear reason to do away with him. But Jesus calls them out. He sees right through them (and he sees through our false pretenses, too, doesn’t he?). Jesus truly is “not swayed by appearances,” but instead looks at the heart and knows everyone’s true motives.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” was the question. How should he answer? If he answers, “Yes” the crowds will desert him. They want him to be the Messiah who defeats the nasty Romans and their tax collectors. This would make the Pharisees happy. They were no fans of the Roman government.

If he says, “No,” then the Romans will arrest him for sedition. This would make the Herodians happy. They were fans of the ruling Herod family which collaborated with Rome. The Romans usually paid no attention to you as long as you minded your own business and paid your taxes. If you started a tax revolt, then they would tend to get upset.

How does Jesus answer? He asks for a coin and says, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” It was Tiberius Caesar, of course, the Roman emperor. So Jesus wisely answers, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

What’s the lesson for us here today? Think back to the Collect of the Day that we prayed earlier: O God, the protector of all who trust in You, have mercy on us that with You as our ruler and guide we may so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.

God is our true ruler and guide. In “things temporal,” He places authorities over us, to maintain order, to dole out punishment to wrongdoers. Sometimes God uses authorities to discipline his Church when she endures suffering for the sake of Christ. Nevertheless, God calls us to obey the governing authorities insofar as they do not demand we do something against God’s Word.

Close to 600 years before the birth of Christ, God used Cyrus, the pagan Persian, to release the people of Judah from their captivity in Babylon and send them back to Judea to resettle and rebuild the temple. Later, God used the Roman Empire and its Caesars to keep the peace and prepare the world for the spreading of the Gospel … not to mention that our salvation was earned for us on a Roman cross.

Our political environment today is polarized with passionate debate on both the left and the right. Talk of raising taxes brings joy or woe … depending on whose taxes are being raised. But however you feel about taxes, it’s part of our Christian vocation as citizens to honor our president and other authorities and pay taxes. And in our context, it is the calling of Christians – Lutherans, too – to get involved in the political process, to vote, maybe even run for office. That’s how we render unto Caesar.

On the other hand, we are often tempted to put our hope in the “things temporal” so much so that we lose sight of the “things eternal.” When we see things economically going to hell in a handbasket, we forget that God alone is our “ruler and guide.” We are tempted to despair because of the state of “things temporal,” and in so doing, we lose the “things eternal.”

But our salvation does not lie in the “things temporal.” Our salvation is not dependent upon the state of the economy or who happens to be in charge in the government. Our salvation lies in the fact that you and I bear the likeness and inscription of Jesus in Holy Baptism.

Humanity was originally made in God’s likeness, created in “true righteousness and holiness” (Gen. 1:26; Eph. 4:24). We lost that image and likeness when Adam and Eve disobeyed God for the first time and brought sin into the world (Gen. 3; Eph 4:22). The Son of God came to earth in the likeness of sinful men, although was without sin (Rom 8:3-4; Phil. 2:7). His innocent suffering and death was the payment for sin, so that we who are guilty are forgiven and freed from condemnation (Rom. 8:1). Jesus rendered his innocent life up to the death of the cross so that you and I might be forgiven and given the promise of resurrection, even as Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning.

In Baptism, you are made new. The likeness of God begins to be restored in you … “the new self,” Paul calls it, “which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Col 3:10; see also Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) You are marked with the sign of the cross of Christ. The holy name of the Triune God is inscribed upon you. You are declared holy and righteous in God’s sight. And you are given a new nature with new Spirit-led inclinations.

In Baptism, you now bear the likeness and inscription of your Creator and Redeemer. You belong to him. So render to God what is God’s. What does that mean for you? In the light of the cross, it means first giving to God your sins, your death, your fears, your pain, your sorrow of every sort. It means that God truly does rule in your life, but it’s a rule which flows out of his grace and love to your every blessing. The old man should be afraid of this rule because it means his final death. But the new man – the man God caused to rise up from the waters of baptism, the man whom he feeds at this altar, the man who waits with eager expectation to see Jesus on the Last Day – this man of new life loves the rule of God. He confesses with the psalmist that he loves the law of God. Giving to God the things that are God’s starts with letting him handle all the worst things in your life.

Having taken all the garbage of your life, your whole life now can be a service rendered to God. It’s not just limited to giving your offerings, as important as that is. Paying taxes, buying groceries, mowing lawns, weeding flowerbeds … all those things also belong to God. Being a good citizen, a faithful parent, a devoted spouse, a helpful neighbor … in all these things you are serving God. The whole package belongs to him, not just our moments in prayer, not just Sunday mornings, but the whole week, the whole person, the whole of you. [Thanks to Phil Brandt for the thoughts in these last two paragraphs.]

So, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Give thanks that you were marked with the inscription of the cross in your baptism, and that your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


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