The Pharisees, even in their wickedness and hypocrisy, must admit that Jesus is impartial and cares only for the truth. That’s why they want to destroy him. They try to do it with shallow flattery. “We know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully…” Don’t be fooled by the flattering words – they hate him! They want him gone. They say these things only to try and lull him into a false sense of security. It does not work. He knows their thoughts. He knows they want him dead – and of course, that is coming. He will be dead at their hands, but not until the appointed hour. For now, they try and embarrass him. You speak truthfully and don’t care what anyone says. So, will you speak truthfully and say we should pay taxes – in which case the people will abandon you as a Roman stooge – or will you speak truthfully and say we should NOT pay taxes, in which case the Romans will arrest you for attempting a revolt. Either way, problem solved. But Jesus is not so easily cornered.
He asks them for a coin – a Roman coin. And then asks them whose image is on it, and whose inscription. The inscription would have read “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus tells them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
The only childhood taunt comes to mind, “I don’t see your name on it.” This coin not only has Tiberius’ name, it has his picture. It was minted at his command, using silver from his treasury. Which is to say, it’s his coin. You can’t object if he wants it back.
The Jews insisted that temple sacrifices be paid for with specific temple coins. They had permission from Rome to make them just for that purpose. The money-changers in the temple were in the business of changing Roman coins for temple sacrifice coins. The Roman coins were Caesar’s, so they were not acceptable for the things of God. So, Jesus says, let them have their coins. What does that really matter? The governing authorities are instituted by God. Whether they be a Monarchy from Father to Son, or like Rome, from one Emperor to the whomever he appoints to succeed him, or our system where all the citizens also function as electors for the governing authorities. God places our leaders in office, and we are to obey them. The money has their picture, not God’s. So, if those same authorities demand the money back, it is not our right to refuse them. Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
But he does not stop there. And to God, the things that God’s. The people had their special temple sacrifice coins. Is that what he is talking about? Hardly. If you consider the Jewish law, you realize that he has caught them in their own hypocrisy. According to their traditions, any image was idolatry. They had an over literal reading of the first commandment. We’re used to the part that says “You shall have no other gods before Me.” It continues – and some wrongly consider this a different commandment entirely – Thou shall not make unto thyself a graven image…. Churches today that think this is the second commandment, instead of just an explanation of the first, generally do not have depictions of Jesus on the cross. An empty cross is what you see in their churches. Not a cross with Jesus on it – we preach Christ Crucified. Windows with no specific images if there are any stained glass at all, unlike ours which has the lamb, the dove, the water, grapes and wheat of the sacraments. The point of “no graven images” is to explain the first commandment – what it means to have no other gods. It doesn’t mean make no images. God himself commands that the Ark of the covenant in the tabernacle be covered with the image of two angels. So, the ceremonial law itself shows what a correct interpretation must be. The commandment continues “You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” It is commentary on the first commandment about having no other gods. Images, and statues were for important religious purposes, not just decoration around the home. So, in banning images God was not saying “don’t make any images”, he was saying, “Don’t make idol images for worship.” The people misunderstood. They insisted that there be no images at all. No pictures of any person or animal. When Pontius Pilate tried to place some shields in honor of Tiberius – no picture, just an inscription – there was almost a rebellion. The people were very careful – no images at all. But money? Well, a guy’s got to earn a living after all. They took their beliefs very seriously, but understood that sometimes beliefs have to give way to reality where money is involved. Which is to say, they were hypocrites. Jesus catches them in their hypocrisy. He says, “Look, it’s Caesar’s money- it’s got his picture on it. And you think pictures are idolatry. The inscription even calls him a god. More idolatry. And yet you live with that, because, well, money. But then you would say we shouldn’t pay taxes because of God. Your morals seem to always make way for you to get money. So what is your god? Is it the true god? Or is it money?”
Why does God give us material blessings? As we say in the First article “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, land cattle and all that I have…” Why does he give all these things? So that we would thank and praise serve and obey him. How do we do that? We live in faith toward God, and in love toward our neighbor.
We sometimes talk about the two kingdoms. The kingdom of Spiritual authorities (The church, pastor, district leadership, synod president…) and the kingdom of temporal authorities (The government: mayor, governor, president, and their representatives – police, military, and so on.) We do not pick one over the other. We obey both. The word of God, and the government. The only case where disobedience is allowed (and then it is commanded) is when the earthly authorities tell us to do something that would directly contradict the Word of God (bow down to the idol as with the Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, kill the innocent or helpless, as we see in Belgium and other nations with forced Euthanasia.) Then we must obey God, not man. But otherwise, we are content to live according to God’s Word peacefully in the world, obeying the governing authorities God has placed over us.
And we recognize that our physical possessions have been given by God in order that we might support the work of the Gospel, and help our neighbor. They are not really ours. We are merely stewards of them. Just as we are stewards of anything God gives us – up to and including our time in this world. We do not live for ourselves, we live for the one who has redeemed us. In Holy Baptism, we are joined to Christ and his death on the cross.
That is now our driving image. As we sang in the hymn “On my heart imprint Thine image… let the clear inscription be, Jesus Crucified for me.” We are not beholden to images of Caesar on bits of coin that can be traded for influence in this world. We are not impressed with displays of earthly power, and we have no need to chase after them. And most especially, as we learned last week, the “Things of God” are given to us as a gift. We have not earned our life in this world. Our birth into this world is gift of God. We have not earned the life and forgiveness given to us in Baptism. That is gift as well. No merit of my own I claim, but wholly lean on Jesus name. It is gift the whole way. Our treasure is in the forgiveness that has been won for us by Jesus. It is in the riches of the kingdom of God which we are given in Holy Baptism. And those riches are poured out on us each Sunday, when we gather to hear the Word of God, when the forgiveness which Jesus won on the cross is proclaimed to you, “Your sins are forgiven.” When we receive the gift of Divine life through the body and blood of our Lord, the food that does not spoil, but remains to eternal life.
If you found this sermon helpful, you might like “What every Christian Must Know”. It outlines Luther’s Large Catechism in a user-friendly way. Great for personal study, small group, or Sunday morning Bible Class.