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Sermon for Trinity 23

by Rev. Brian Hamer ~ November 13th, 2012

Sermon on St. Matthew 22:15-22

Trinity 23

11 November 2012

+ Render to Caesar and to God +

It was called “The English Act of Supremacy.”  In his conflict with the church of Rome over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII made the following decree:  “[The King] is . . . the Supreme Head of the Church of England,” indeed, “the only Supreme Head on earth of the church of England.”  The decree went on to claim for the King “all honours, dignities, pre-eminences, jurisdictions, privileges, and commodities,” and much, much more (cited in Noll, Turning Points, p. 178).  The English Act of Supremacy reminds us of today’s Gospel Lesson and the proper distinction between two kingdoms:  the church and the world.  The Act of Supremacy confused church and state, claiming secular authority over the church.  Other movements through the years have separated church and state, such as the claim that Christians should not have to pay taxes.  But Jesus teaches two realms with two sets of benefits, all from one Lord:   Render to Caesar and to God.

It began with talk about the Kingdom of the Left, God’s provisions for our daily living, including His gifts for all evil people:  “Tell us, therefore, what do you think?  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  The question about paying taxes to Caesar was loaded with political and religious overtones.  We might rephrase it as follows:  Should free Jews pay taxes to a Roman Empire?  Recall that the Jews prided themselves on being free.  Some of them even seem to have forgotten that they were once captives in Egypt and later captives in Babylon (John 8:33).  Were they captive to Rome, the Kingdom of the Left?  Rome ruled in the Holy Land.  At their height of power, they even ruled over Egypt.  And the Jews, as you know from the Christmas story, had to pay taxes to Rome and even go to the occasional census.  So should they pay taxes to Rome or not?  If Jesus said to pay taxes, they might accuse Him of allegiance to a foreign ruler, which did not sit well with people who were free.  But if He said to not pay taxes, then the Jewish leaders might report Him to the local IRS office for tax evasion.

How did Jesus respond to their trap?  He asked to see the coin they used for paying taxes, the Denarius.  Similar to our own custom, one side of the coin had an image of the Emperor.  He was adorned with a laurel wreath and an inscription, such as “One worthy of divine honor.”  The other side sometimes featured another member of the imperial family, depicted as a god or goddess of prosperity (Concordia Journal, October 1990, p. 385).  And so Jesus asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?”  It was, of course, Caesar’s image, the title “Caesar” being used as a catch-all term for the Emperor.  And then the answer to their question:  “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

So what do we owe to Caesar?  In other words, what do we owe to the powers of this world, especially the government?  Yes, we owe taxes.  Here Jesus laid the groundwork for Romans 13, where St. Paul says to pay our taxes.  We are members of the Kingdom of the Left (God’s rule over the world) by virtue of our birth or naturalization into our country.  Pay your taxes.  Render unto Caesar.  Participate in the census.  Stop at red lights.  Obey the laws of the land.  Report for jury duty.  Pray for those who were elected this past Tuesday, ever if “your” candidates were not elected.  These are all ways that we participate in the work of God’s left hand, His rule over the world in general.  And rejoice!  For membership has its privileges.  Through the Kingdom of the Left, God provides daily bread, public schools, and 911 and 311 services.  Through His left hand, God provides members of the military (whom we remember this weekend), police and firemen, disaster relief, and even the occasional tank of gasoline.  So render unto Caesar your taxes, your loyalty, and your support, as long as it does not involve a sin.  Good government is the work of God’s left hand for you.

So render to Caesar and render unto God.  If we are members of the Kingdom of the Left by our natural birth, then we are members of the Kingdom of the Right (the church) by our baptismal birth.  In Holy Baptism, God made you His own son or daughter.  You are His subject for life.  And what do you owe God?  What do you render to God?  Your render Him your fear, for He is God and you are but mortal.  You give Him your love, for He first loved you and commands you to love Him.  You render unto God your trust, for He alone is worthy of it and He alone can save you from your sin and keep you to everlasting life.  In short, give thanks  to God for your entire life, for He created you, He saved you, and He alone will keep you to eternity.

Having heard the requirement of the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right, we ask if there is anyone who can perfectly render all things to Caesar and to God.  There is One and only One who obeyed the Kingdom of the Left (except when asked to sin) and who perfectly obeyed God the Father as He rules the Kingdom of the Right.  His name is Jesus Christ.

Regarding the Kingdom of the Left, He was born in Bethlehem, some 90 miles from His hometown, because His parents obeyed Caesar.  Jesus was raised in righteousness before God and before men (Lk   2:52), including His life in the Kingdom of the Left.  In His public ministry, He reached out to Roman soldiers, prostitutes, and Gentiles, all the while using the roads provided by the Peace of Rome to preach the Gospel and work miracles throughout the Holy Land.  In His Passion, Jesus stood before secular rulers as an accused criminal.  Herod Antipus, whose disciples were present for this Gospel lesson, just wanted to see Him out of curiosity.  Pontius Pilate, a secular ruler appointed by Caesar, at least took Jesus seriously and tried to acquit Him.  A garrison of four Roman soldiers led Him to His death by crucifixion, which was the capital punishment of Jesus day.  And it was a member of the military, an unnamed centurion, who got it right after Jesus died, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Regarding the Kingdom of the Right, Jesus was a believing Jew.  He was circumcised on the eighth day, according to the custom of the OT.  Jesus was presented in the Temple on the fortieth day of His life, dedicated to God the Father.  He was raised in the Sacred Scriptures of the OT, was present for the major festivals in Jerusalem, and was even found in the Temple as a student of the Word in His earliest days.  Jesus did not object to the authority of God the Father, but proclaimed it for the life of the world.  He did not even object to Jewish worship in His day, but participated in it with the understanding that He Himself was the fulfillment of the OT.  In His Passion, He was arrested in the Garden by the Temple Guard, sort of the “churchly police” of their day.  Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, a religious council for heresy trials, but without capital punishment.  He was led as a Lamb to the slaughter because He did not deny the charge that He was the Son of God, and even claimed the power and authority of God Himself.  He was given a good Jewish burial, completed before the Sabbath, as was the custom of the day.  Risen from the dead, He rules the Kingdom of the Right from God’s right hand, with all the honours, dignities, pre-eminences, jurisdictions, privileges, and authorities of the Son of God.

In contrast, then, to the claim of King Henry VIII to be head of the church, Jesus teaches two distinct realms:   The Kingdom of the Left (His rule over this world, symbolized by the American flag to your left) and the Kingdom of the Right (his Lordship over the church, symbolized by the Christian flag to your right).  With His left hand, He daily and richly provides all that we need to support this body and life.  And we, along with all evil people, joyfully receive His gifts of daily bread.  With His right hand, God rules over the church with the scepter of the Gospel, forgiving our sins for Jesus’s sake.  He baptizes, absolves, and feeds the flock that He purchased with His own blood.  And we render to Him our worship, praise, and thanksgiving.

Perhaps a prayer by Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII’s former colleague who was later killed for his faith, best summarizes what it means to render to Caesar and to God:

“O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace: . . . as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one Hope of our Calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may henceforth be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in the holy bond of Truth and Peace, of Faith and Charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee:  through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen” (cited in Noll, Turning Points, p. 196).

Rev. Brian Hamer

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Bayside, NY

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