MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH AND THE MEDITATION OF MY HEART BE ALWAYS ACCEPTABLE IN THY SIGHT OH LORD MY STRENGH AND MY REDEEMER
Who Do You Belong To
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God
the things that are God’s.” St. Matthew 22: 15-22
In today’s Gospel reading we see that the Pharisees and the Herodians have joined forces in an attempt to spring a deadly trap on Jesus. The Pharisees where a religious group, opposed to the Roman occupation of Palestine and the Herodians were a political group who supported Herod Antipas and the policies instituted by Rome. Most of the time these two groups tangled with each other however on certain issues they would form alliances to combat perceived threats to their power and status. This time in an attempt to allay suspicion they sent a group of the Pharisees disciples and some Herodian supporters to speak to Jesus. This group appears to have been well coached, for they approach Jesus with feigned sincerity and attempt to butter Jesus up with flattery. They tell Him that He is a true teacher of the ways of God, and that He “regardest not the person of men” – meaning He isn’t influence by appearances or people’s opinions. Next, they ask Jesus the question that they hope will snare Him in His own words: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”
This question is a trap because if Jesus answers that paying tribute (that is, taxes) to Caesar is okay, the Hebrew people who were chafing under Roman rule would turn against Jesus. Most of the Jewish people were looking for a militant Messiah who would lead them to overthrow the Romans not this Messiah who preached Love. On the other hand, if Jesus said it was NOT lawful and okay to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees and Herodians could turn Jesus in to the Roman authorities as a danger to the peace, a revolutionary seeking to overthrow Roman rule.
Of course, our Lord sees right through the feigned innocence of the questioners and confronts their evil intent, saying “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money.” They produce a coin, called a denarius which was a day’s wages and He asks them to tell Him what is shown on the coin. The coin had a picture of Tiberius Caesar with the Latin inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” around the perimeter and on the other side was the image of Pax (packs), the Roman goddess of peace with the inscription, “High Priest”. When the tempters respond that the image and inscription are of Caesar’s, Jesus gives them the memorable and perfect answer that allows Him to elude their grasp: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” This is not the answer the tempters were hoping for. They marvel at Jesus’ cleverness and went away. Perhaps they were too stunned to ask any follow-up questions at this point. But they may have had a question or two about what Jesus was really saying after they had time to think about what he said.
Because Jesus didn’t say civil government was entirely bad and that taxes shouldn’t be paid at all, you cannot conclude that Jesus is saying that political and religious matters are completely divorced one from the other. But that is a faulty conclusion some have arrived at through the centuries. This stance is one that is being pressed hard by our culture today that seeks to exclude any discussion or policy decisions based on Judeo-Christian values. Because of the very common usage of the "separation of church and state” phrase, most people incorrectly think the phrase is in the constitution of The United States of America. The phrase "wall of separation between the church and the state" was originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802. His purpose in this letter was to assuage the fears of the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists that the government intended to interfere with Church matters. So he told them that this wall had been erected to protect them. The metaphor was used exclusively to keep the state out of the church's business, not to keep the church out of the state's business. Knowing this one has to wonder why the elected leaders of this country have forsaken the Christian principles upon which the founding fathers of this great nation drafted the Constitution.
On the other hand, neither did Jesus say that the image on the coin should be one of a Jewish rabbi or an image of a phylactery (fel act ery) which is a container devout Jews wore on their foreheads to hold passages of scripture. In other words, there was no command by Jesus to install a completely religious government in place of the civil one. We can be quiet certain though that Jesus would have expected the government leaders to follow the commandments of God.
Instead, Jesus’ answer leaves unanswered exactly what matters belong under which realm – political or religious. He leaves to us the challenge of discernment, to work through difficult ethical questions that might be presented to us. But we aren’t left completely rudderless, are we? The early church, particularly Gentile Christians, took heart in Jesus’ answer, which led them to consider to what or who they owed their allegiance.
Gentile Christians were not chafing under the political demands of Roman rule like the Jews were. Instead, they took issue with the religious demands of the empire, which eventually forced Gentile Christians to pay homage to the divinity of Caesar under threat of severe persecution, torture, and death. They experienced a version of what is happening in some Islamic countries today where the religious establishment allows no deviation from allegiance to those in power and their interpretation of religious truth. When faced with the choice of loyalty to God or pledging loyalty to the false god of the state and its claims of divinity for its rulers, the Gentile Christians knew they had to claim Jesus as Lord of their lives, not Caesar. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit one of the catacombs outside the city of Rome. Some of these catacombs date back to the second century and may be the burial place of the persecuted Christians.
“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Can there be any doubt as to where Jesus felt our ultimate allegiance should be placed? That allegiance, and its cost, was signified clearly to us when Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Geth semin ee) fell with his face to the ground and prayed that the cup of His impending death pass from Him. And yet He finally prayed to His Father in Heaven, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” [Matthew 26: 39b]. It was this standard that the Gentile Christians held to, even under persecution and threat of torture and death. What does it mean for us to render …”unto God the things that are God’s?”
We mourn the passing this week of Peg McCarty who I first met just over eight years ago. Peg devoted herself to her Church much of her life, sitting as a member of the vestry, playing the organ every Sunday and always being there when the Church needed her. She was passionate and proud of her gypsy heritage taking great umbrage against the persecution of Romani people anywhere in the world. Now her soul has been rendered unto God.
Life is full of tears, sorrow and snares of the devil, but let us “render unto God what is God’s”. Pledge to Him your whole life – all of it – your joy and your sorrow, and He will transform you more closely into His likeness and you can dwell for all eternity in His loving care.
And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion as is most justly due this day; world without end. AMEN