Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2017)

Pentecost 20 - Series A - Proper 24 (October 22, 2017)

“What Can You Give to God?” (Matthew 22:15-22)

            There’s an old saying that goes like this: “A common enemy makes strange bedfellows.”  Sometimes nations ... and people ... who are sworn enemies get together when they have a common cause.  That was the case in today’s Gospel reading.  The Pharisees and Herodians were not the best of chums.

The Pharisees were patriots and no fan of the ruling Romans.  They hated the idea of paying taxes to the Roman Empire.   Every time they pulled a coin out of their pocket, they were reminded of the political situation in which they lived.  Caesar’s face was stamped right on the surface of their money.  And this wasn’t only a political issue.  It was a religious one, too.  Stamped on Roman coins in those days were inscriptions which gave Caesar divine honors.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were supporters of the family of Herod the Great, who ruled only because the Romans had put Herod’s family in power.  So, of course the Herodians would have been all in favor of paying taxes to Rome.

Either way, both the Pharisees and Herodians wanted Jesus out of the picture.

At this point in Matthew’s account, opposition to Jesus is increasing more and more.  His enemies are pulling out all the stops to trick him into saying something with which they can finally pin him to the wall.  And so they ask him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  If he answered “No,” then the Herodians would have him nailed as a traitor and a rebel, and they could hand him over to the Roman authorities.  If he answered, “Yes,” then the Pharisees would have him nailed as an idolater and blasphemer, since he obviously supports the idolatrous worship of Caesar and his rule.  Under Jewish law, then, Jesus would be deserving of death.

When the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians first came to Jesus, they said, “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.”  Now, they didn’t really mean all that.  They were just messing with Jesus, buttering him up, and trying to trap him in his words.  But what they said is absolutely true.  Jesus IS true and teaches the way of God truthfully.  He is the only way through whom anyone comes to God the Father.  He doesn’t care about anyone’s opinions nor is he swayed by appearances.  Moreover, he sees right through self-righteous pretense and calls it what it is.  Hypocrisy.  And so he says, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.”  They hand him a denarius ... one of those offensive coins with a picture of Caesar’s head and the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and “pontifex maximus” ... which the Jews would have understood to mean “high priest.”

Everyone would have expected Jesus to blast the Romans for such blasphemy.  Instead, Jesus’ answer surprises everyone: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  And Matthew adds, “When they heard it, they marveled.  And they left him and went away.”  They were speechless.  Jesus had stumped them.  This was a new idea with which they were not familiar.  Back in those days, government and religion were intimately tied together.  Faithful Jews could not stomach the idea of paying taxes to foreign and pagan rulers.  And pagan rulers often demanded their subjects to not only pay taxes, but also to pay homage to the rulers as divine.  This caused no small problem for Christians in later years when it was demanded of them that they offer sacrifices to images of the emperor.    

            “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  We get this ... especially here in our nation.  We have this idea of the “separation of church and state.”  And this really is derived from Lutheran theology which used the words of Jesus here in our text to clarify this concept at the time of the Reformation.  We call it the doctrine of the “two kingdoms” or the “two realms.”  Government we call God’s “left-hand kingdom” or “realm” and the Church we call God’s “right-hand kingdom” or “realm.”  These are the two ways in which God rules and serves the world.  He offers forgiveness and grace in the Gospel of Christ through his right-hand realm, the Church.  He maintains order through his left-hand realm, the government, so that people can serve one another with earthly goods and bodily care.  God even uses pagan rulers to do this, just like he did with Cyrus the Persian, who was mentioned in today’s reading from Isaiah 45.  Cyrus was used as a servant of God – even though he didn’t know the true God – to defeat the Babylonians and to give God’s exiled people permission to return to Judea and to rebuild Jerusalem.  So no matter who is in office in our land, they are “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4), whether you agree with them or not on all points in politics or religion.  We “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  Honor.  Respect.  Obedience when it doesn’t conflict with Scripture (Acts 5:29).  Taxes.  And prayer ... not TO them, but FOR them (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-2).

            “Render to God the things that are God’s.”  This one’s a bit more challenging.  We know what we owe Caesar.  But what do we owe God?  What shall we give to God?

Give your heart to Jesus?  Well, that’s a fine gift.  The prophet Jeremiah described the human heart this way: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  And here’s what our Lord Jesus says about our heart: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22).

            Give your offerings?  We do this as part of our worship.  But does God really need your money?  Every beast of the forest is his, as well as the cattle on a thousand hills, as he says in Psalm 50.  God owns everything.  Why would we think that a measly few dollars – which belong to him anyways – would somehow be an appropriate gift?

            How about this one: Give your worship?  This is probably closer to what Jesus is getting at here.  Remember that image of Caesar on the coin and that divine honor was to be given to Caesar.  But the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.”  Worship God alone.  But do we always give our undivided attention and respect and awe and reverence to God in our worship?  Do we listen carefully to every word in the readings and in the sermon and to all the words in our hymns and liturgy?  I’m afraid not.  Our minds wander constantly, as we look at what the person in the pew in front of us is wearing, think about what we’re going to have for lunch later on, worry if our toddler is making too much noise, get upset by the rude guy in the car at the stop light outside with the booming stereo.

            God demands 100%.  We fall far short of that goal in the things we should give to God.  Our hearts are sinful.  Our worship is imperfect.  Our offerings are meager.  Even if we could give 99%, that still wouldn’t be good enough.  We owe him everything.  We owe him our very lives.  But our lives are full of sin.  And “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). 

            We have nothing to give to God.  All we can do is approach him empty-handed like beggars and rely on his mercy given to us in Christ Jesus, who gave to God the Father what was demanded of us.

The heart of Jesus was always given over to complete devotion to his Father and his will.  Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).

And Jesus gave to God the Father his life in exchange for ours.   Listen to how St. Paul describes this gift that Jesus gave for us.  He “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2).  “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Through faith in Jesus, what Jesus gave to God is yours.  The perfect life of Jesus is credited to your account.  The shed blood of Jesus washes your sins away in Holy Baptism.  God now sees you as “holy and without blemish” because of what the unblemished Lamb of God did for you in his death and resurrection.  “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift” ... the GIFT, what God GIVES to YOU ... “is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

And what do you give to God after all that?  Thanksgiving.  Praise.  Faithful worship which continues to hear his Word and receive often the Body and Blood of the One Crucified and Risen for the forgiveness of all our sins.


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