Deuteronomy 34:1-12,Matthew 22:15-22
October 26, 2008
Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are Gods!” Well, we are sure hearing a lot about “rendering to Caesar” these days. Personally, I’m pretty tired of the whole political thing, and I’m longing for it to be over! But I have noticed that a lot of what’s been coming at me from my TV and radio in recent days is about who’s going to tax who, and who isn’t. And I think we have to agree that’s pretty important to people. And so I thought about this passage, “Render unto Caesar…”
Now, believe me! I don’t want to get political from this pulpit. And I hope you appreciate that about me. Because I know we all think differently about that stuff. But I did find myself wondering this past week, what would happen, if Jesus were running for political office? I wonder, would there be any parallels with what we hear today in the speeches of the various candidates? And I’m sure there were people in his day who believed he was running for office. They saw this as a political campaign! They wanted Jesus to become the new king! They saw him as their political savior!
We know that was the case, and we know that there were those who feared that very thing! Many in the religious leadership were afraid Jesus would start a rebellion, and they feared what Rome would do to them! Rome had been pretty brutal so far. In previous rebellions they had crucified hundreds of people. That’s why they trying to silence Jesus. That’s why they came to him this day and asked this trick question. They saw it as a no-win for Jesus. If he said yes to Roman taxes, the people would turn on him. If he said no, then the Romans would take care of him!
Instead, Jesus gave them this absolutely brilliant answer. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are Gods.” And I think that’s a good thing to think about, not only in light of the political campaign going on, but even more in light of our season of Stewardship. Jesus very cleverly sidesteps this tough question, and in doing so he gives some bold insight into the relationship between our earthly and our heavenly responsibilities. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s!” I hope we will take his words to heart.
When I was in college, I worked two Summers for the Montgomery County Board of Assessments! That meant I and a bunch of other silly college students went around the county collecting information for the re-assessment of taxes. They even gave me a fancy title. I was a “Field Representative!” If you’ve ever been through a re-assessment where the guy comes around with those large cards and takes down all the information about your house, that was it! I was that guy!
Actually, what it really meant was that the people who did the real tax work didn’t have to face the people!! They sent us young, naive college students! There we were with our cards and our tape measures, thinking we were just going to people’s homes and chatting a bit and collecting information! Silly us! People got mad when their taxes were being assessed or re-assessed. People cursed us. They yelled at us. They sometimes told us way more than we really wanted to know about what the government was “doing to them.” I even got bitten by a few dogs! Apparently dogs don’t like taxes either. That was my first experience of “rendering unto Caesar!”
Well, I don’t know your feelings about taxation, but a lot of those people were not very happy about it. And, if you think about it, we all render to Caesar on one way or another, don’t we? This is probably not a good message for the middle of April! You’ve all heard the old quote, that says, “there is nothing more certain in this life than death and taxes.” I Googled that phrase, and I found out that it’s actually pretty old. And it’s very cynical, isn’t it? But it does convey a certain powerlessness we humans have when it comes to such things. If you think about it, if we don’t render Caesar has the power to take!
Years ago, the IRS made a mistake with my taxes. Somehow the payments made by my employer got lost in the system. So, I was told by the IRS that I owed – a lot! And there was no way I could pay it! But let me tell you, I started getting letters! And they were more and more threatening. And they contained more and more red ink! I remember thinking they were kind of like those red letter bibles – you know, where the words of Jesus are printed in red? Those letters from the IRS started looking like that! Well, I finally got them to realize their mistake. (Which I suppose was pretty amazing in and of itself!) So finally they sent me a letter saying all was fine. There was no apology, mind you! But I guess in those days, that was the best I could expect!
Well, no matter what we think about taxes today, for those people in Jesus’ day, it was much worse! They really hated taxation! Because for them, it wasn’t simply a matter of being citizens of a nation and “sharing the burden of the cost of that nation.” They were an occupied people! They had been conquered! They were subjects of a military empire, and they didn’t like it! Then, to be made to pay taxes – tribute, really – that was even more incendiary to them! They were powerless, under the thumb of a military dictatorship!
Contrast with all of that, as Jesus did that day, the difference between the things of Caesar and the things that are God’s. Because, in the church, there is no such power over people’s lives. We can make appeals, but we don’t have the power to enforce. (And probably that’s a good thing!) So when we think about what we render to whom, it’s easy to think of the Church as a lower priority, or at least a lesser threat! But I think the point was made here so brilliantly by Jesus. The people needed to remember that earthly authorities were a fact of life. And they needed to keep them in perspective. But, they needed to remember to render to God the things that were God’s. And they needed to know which was really the most important!
In one sentence, not only did Jesus answer this trick question, but he put to rest the animosity toward the political state, and he turned the focus of people’s minds back to the kingdom of God. Who was really more powerful? Rome or God? That question was always in the background of the story of Jesus. And I think this was an amazing moment. And some of his opponents decided then and there that they weren’t going to try to trap him any more!
The other thing Jesus did here with this great answer, was to show the people that rendering to God had to do with more than just money. Clearly that was what was meant by rendering to Caesar. But when he said, “render to God the things that are God’s” it was much more. He wasn’t talking only about the giving of offerings. He was talking about the dedication of their lives! That was rendering to God! And that makes all the difference in this business of Stewardship, doesn’t it? You’ve heard the phrase, “Put your money where you mouth is.” Well in the case of Christian Stewardship, we need to think in terms of “Putting your money where your heart is.” That means the rendering to God our whole selves!
It’s funny. Sometimes you hear people say, “All the Church ever wants is money.” I overheard someone saying that the other day. I felt so bad for the guy. Because people who say that kind of thing really don’t understand the church at all, and it’s sad. The Church isn’t about “wanting people’s money.” The church is about – or should be about – wanting people to know the joy of God’s kingdom. That’s so much bigger than ledgers and budgets! The church wants people to know the reason they exist, and the reason they were created in the first place – to enjoy the fellowship of the creator! So the church needs to be able to continue for that reason! For that reason, it needs to be financial viable. But the Church should never exist just to exist!
I’ve heard people say that in churches. I’ve heard people talk about the need to “perpetuate” the Church. But that’s not the point. The Church is about doing the work of God. It’s about being that light of the world. It’s about sharing this life in a community of faith that gives joy and meaning to life, and offering that to others – others who are searching for it! And that’s exciting!
When we’re seeing that vision, when we are doing that, then we understand true stewardship. Then we will be rendering to God the things that are God’s! Then we will want to be sure to give of ourselves so that the Church goes on! Then we will want to be sure to do our part so we can “get beyond the financial worries and get on to the glory.” I’ve been saying those words to you ever since I came! We need to “Get beyond the worries, and get on to the glory!” That’s what we want to be thinking of in terms of stewardship! Yes, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” That is part of life. But! “Render to God the things that are God’s!” That’s the part too many people miss. That’s the part to which Jesus brought their attention back that day. That’s the part that calls all of us to bring all of ourselves into his kingdom!
Eternal God, you are the source of life. Sometimes we fail to see your kingdom in our midst. Then we think that this is all there is to life. Sometimes we miss your call to life and faith and joy and hope. Help us, Lord, even in the midst of all that this life calls us to do, to hear you, to share our lives more fully with you, to know your peace and your joy that are beyond our comprehension. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.