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Rendering unto God and Caesar

by J. Stuart Taylor III



And holding up the coin so that all could see; Jesus said Render unto Caesar what is Caesarís and unto God what is Gods. And they were astounded. This is one of the most spiritually and politically charged moments in the entire Gospel story.  Jesus was literally a hunted man, with his adversaries dogging his every step seeking to create a situation where he would be exposed before the Roman authorities and arrested.  Listen again to their words because this is more than insincere flattery. ďTeacher we know that you are forthright. (Telling the truth no matter what the consequences). This is a setup, a deliberate trapping strategy in which his adversaries sought to get Jesus to commit himself in a politically loaded situation that had completely polarized the nation of Israel. Do we pay taxes to the Roman Empire or not?  You see, ever since the year 6, when Judea was invaded by Rome and reduced to a colony, the Roman occupying power had levied on all Jews a census tax. There was widespread resentment of paying taxes that were further impoverishing the people and supporting the military presence there that was repressive.  It was these taxes that financed Herodís costly luxurious building projects like the Roman amphitheater near Nazareth that Jesus probably worked on as a young carpenter. Stirred by hatred of the Roman occupying force many Jews believed in active resistance and some like the Zealots in open revolt. Others like Jesus adversaries believed it would be best for Israelís survival to play along, not too antagonize this potentially brutal empire and learn to profit from it in active collaboration.

 

You see, no matter how Jesus answered this question, he was going to lose. If he said donít pay the taxes, the authorities could arrest him and take him out. If he said do pay, many of the people and some of his own followers would turn away believing that the famous teacher had failed to address a critical issue before his people.  So teacher, you are wise tell us what we should do because we know you are a straight shooter and always tell it like it is.  Interesting little detail: Jesus had no denarius. He had to ask for one.  And then that coin becomes the dramatic center of the story.  Whose head is this and whose title? They answered the emperorís. The coin bore the head of the Roman Emperor and the caption: Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus. And then Jesus takes the question put to him and turns it around and places it back on his adversaries. Render to Caesar what is Caesarís and render to god what is godís. His answer, on the surface, enabled him to escape the trap that had been set for him. But the meaning was clear.  Matthew says that those who heard him were amazed (v.22), You see No faithful Jew could have heard these words and seen any valid analogy between God and emperor. Jesus stated the polar opposites of the Living God and Caesar and challenged them to act according to their true allegiances.  Jesus words created a moment of decision for the people of Israel. This decision was to believe in trust and serve the one Living God. Or to give your allegiance to a false god of the emperor. In other words a choice between true faith and idolatry. Render to Caesar, what is Caesarís. And to God what is Godís. Ambiguous perhaps only to the Roman troops undoubtedly within earshot of this conversation. But crystal clear to all his followers.  Then and now Jesus puts the question back on us. Render to Caesar what is Caesarís and to God what is Godís. What are we called to do? And what do his disciples make of this today?

 

There is hardly any text in the Gospels that has been more debated than this one, subject to a variety of interpretations throughout the history of the church. For Martin Luther in the Reformation it was very clear that Jesus was drawing a line between the spiritual world where Godís authority is foremost. And the material world where the state held highest authority. So you render to God those things spiritual but you render to Caesar what is Caesarís due. This error had devastating effect during the emergence of Nazi tyranny and how many, not all but most believed they must always obey the state in material matters. The two realms world view of Martin Luther each with its own authority has been a most unfortunate teaching that holds sway throughout the Protestant denominations. Even among Presbyterians who should know better. For Calvin unlike Luther would never divide the world into a spiritual realm where we owe our obedience to God and a material realm where we owe our obedience to the state. For Calvin, Jesus was the lord of all life. And our spiritual obedience to God is practiced in all aspects of life our political and economic lives. Jesus proclaimed that there is a new order growing up from within society, and that order is the gracious, liberating reign of God. No other authority stands, ultimately, than the love and justice of the Living God.

 

So render unto Caesar what is Caesar and unto God what is Godís. This question of the Christianís role in society and our relationship to the state has been the focal point of a fascinating conversation in Adult education with professors Jack Marietta and Chuck Ares and Mark Chaves. Talking about the separation of church and state. Jack has been looking at how throughout American history we have wrestled with that as a nation and as individual states sometimes in contradictory and conflicting ways. Chuck Ares has been trying to address this moving target of separation of church and state by looking at some of the controversial stances of the Supreme Court. Next in this series, Dr. Mark Chaves will be looking at the whole issue of faith based initiatives that has been a central plank in the administrations position on public life. I will be leading a study on Jim Wallis Ďs new book entitled Godís politics. Subtitled how the right gets it wrong and the left doesnít get it.  I know Jim Wallis and he describes himself as a progressive evangelical. While believing that the Gospel has radical implications for political and economic life, Wallis says God is neither a republican nor a democrat. Christians can seek to live out Gospel values in one of two ways. The first way, God is on our side leads to triumphalism, self-righteousness, bad theology and dangerous foreign policy. The second way asking if we are on godís side, can lead to much healthier things, namely, repentance, humility, reflection and even accountability. Wallis decries much of the theology and ethics of the evangelical movement and the very serious and well-funded strategy of the religious right to take Americaís democracy and turn it into a fundamentalist theocracy.  But Wallis offers a prophetic critique of the left doesnít get it or at least Howard dean doesnít. Much of the political left of American politics has completely has bought into the ďtwo realms theoryĒ that religious faith has to do only with the spiritual and that when we come to political or economic life, we park our faith at the door.  

 

Well from the perspective of Biblical faith and reformed tradition, the message of Jesus is clear. His words, ďRender to Caesar what is Caesarís and to God what is GodísĒ was and is a direct challenge to the idolatrous pretensions of the state. Through this text, the Risen Christ challenges us to choose between true faith in the living God and the false gods of the state. This prophetic critique could not be more relevant today when what is called civil religion has corrupted Christianity to the point where God and country are almost synonyms deserving of our absolute obedience. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The choice before us today is the same choice before the people of Israel. Do we worship the one true living God or do we worship and idol whatever that idol might be.

Look at the words of our affirmation of faith printed in your bulletin.  We trust in God alone. We worship God alone. We serve God alone. Because whatever is our ultimate concern whether it is money, country or our own individual life becomes our god. Our journey as disciples of Jesus Christ is a constant choice between faith in the one living God and idolatry.

 

Another learning from this text: If we have relegated the one true living God to one compartment of our lives, the religious compartment that is segregated from the rest of life, then we are worshipping a false god. If we understand this text rightly, it is no longer possible to spiritualize our faith into one compartment of our life. There is no dimension of life that is excluded from the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We are called to obedience as disciples in every dimension of our lives, in politics and in economics. Wallis tells a tale about the bible and economic life. When he was in seminary a group of curious students decided to take a bible and cut out every verse that had to do with faithfulness in economic life. And when they were finished there was hardly anything left. The central message of our Bible is clear: Everything we have comes from God. And once we really get this we are called in gratitude to be faithful stewards of all that we have been given. Faithful stewards of our bodies and our health, of our freedom and our choices, of our relationships, faithful stewards of the common good, and of the world around us. You see the spiritual practice of tithing of giving 10% to the church is really just a sign that the other 90% is Godís as well, entrusted to us to use for the Reign of God in every dimension of life.

 

When Jesus held up that coin and asked whose image do you see? He spoke proclaimed the God in whose image we are made over the false god who has been made over in our image. What is in an image anyway? Lisa brought me a gift from her trip to china that was a wax seal upon which a personís individual seal could be put on correspondence by melting wax on the letter and then placing your seal in the wax.   In eras past the Emperor of china could use his official seal to communicate with his subjects. Seeing the emperorís seal, they would know for sure that this was the emperor and that this communication had the authority of the Emperor. Whatís in an image? Think of it this way: The image of the Sovereign Creator is imprinted on each one of us, the daughters and sons of God made in Godís image, like a seal pressed into wax. But a false god is one who has been made in our image. Jesus was implying that no one should turn that around and by his or her own image claim to be God. We owe our creation to God, as we are made in Godís image. We owe our new creation to God, who in Christ remakes us and restores us. This passage goes deeper than the ethical question of whether we should pay our taxes, but who we worship in our daily lives. Will we live out allegiance to the state, the economy, the mass media, consumerism, status-driven values and wealth? Or will we live out our allegiance to living God, and to Godís reign: the new community of upside-down kingdom values, which is the source of hope and transformation. May we choose this day and always the Holy Generous Living God in whose image we are made.

Amen!

Rendering unto God and Caesar is a sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 that was preached on October 16, 2005 at St. Markís Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona by John Stuart Taylor, III. Rev. J. Stuart Taylor, III has a Masters of Divinity and Bachelor of Arts in Religion. His published works include "Say to this Mountain: Mark Story of Discipleship," and "St. Francis and the Foolishness of God." It is his deepest joy to seek to follow in the ways of Jesus Christ and to live in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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