Homily for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ: “Render unto Caesar the things
that are Caesar’s.” Oh boy. We don’t always like to hear that, now do we? You know, the
fourth commandment also applies to our civil rulers, as much as that grieves us to admit
on occasion. And even when our overlords are no good—which is quite often, most of
the time, let’s be honest—our civil and, yes, our annual financial obedience to them is
nevertheless due. Hard to hear, yet regardless true. But let’s back up just a moment,
friends, and answer the obvious question: what exactly is going on in our gospel text
today? What precisely is the core message from our Lord that we should take away? I
mean, is He merely telling us that we should be good responsible taxpayers? Certainly
there’s much more to it than all that. So let’s find out by starting from the top.
St. Matthew informs us in our reading that the Pharisees along with their disciples
and some Herodians once set about to entangle Jesus with His own words. This is
surprising and interesting, because one would be led to think and expect that the
Pharisees would want to have nothing at all to do with the Herodians to begin with. You
see, the two factions were something like sworn enemies. The Pharisees, being hyper-
observant Jews, were all about restoring the Davidic kingdom in a geopolitical sense,
right? That’s why they anticipated a political Messiah. Whereas the Herodians, on the
other hand, who were ethnic Jews though not necessarily super faithful in their religious
observance, they were at the end of the day what we would call loyalists to Herod and his
legacy and to the prevailing status quo of the Roman Empire’s control over Judea. The
Herodians did not really want to restore the Davidic kingdom because they were pretty
much satisfied with the way things were. They were turncoats in the eyes of many Jews,
the Pharisees very much included here.
But in their impious and villainous desire to entrap Jesus with His own words, the
Pharisees and their disciples teamed up with those they considered impure and
treacherous, the collaborating Herodians, all for the sake of undermining this so-called
Messiah they had no interest in ever acknowledging.
So these two opposing religious and political groups got together and they went to
test the Lord. The conversation, as St. Matthew relays it to us, begins with an awfully
ingratiating and honey-tongued tone: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the
way of God truthfully, and that you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not
swayed by appearances.” But immediately following all that duplicitous smooth-talking
on the part of the cunning Pharisees and Herodians, the trick question comes quickly – a
trick question which, in their minds, would entangle Jesus by forcing Him either to
profane a religious ordinance by agreeing to pay a tax to an emperor who considered
himself godly and divine, as evidenced by the narcissism of his own facial inscription on
the Roman currency, which was of course a form of blatant blasphemy in the eyes of the
strict and devout Pharisees, or it would force Jesus to refuse the Roman tax ordinance
altogether, which would have been unthinkable and a form of civil disobedience to the
servile and indeed sycophantic Herodians. It was a lose-lose scenario in the mind of our
Lord’s antagonists. Jesus’s answer was either going to demonstrate loyalty to the
religious law or at least to the predominant religious sentiment against the ruling
authority or, alternatively, He would have to show fealty to the empire itself, an empire
which frequently oppressed the religiously-observant Jewish population by powerful
military presence and force. What a perfect trick question, so they thought. Someone
wasn’t going to like the answer, someone wasn’t going to be happy, no matter what Jesus
But let’s pause here just a moment for a little reflection. It is incredibly easy for us
to condemn both the Pharisees and the Herodians in our narrative. Our Lord’s enemies
had been trying to ensnare him for quite some time. And at last, they thought they had a
full proof plan to put an end to this would-be-Messiah.
Now that is despicable from our pious perspective, right? – from our advantageous
vantage point this side of the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of that very true
Messiah. Yet let us stop for a second and contemplate the matter of intention. What was
really behind and beneath their spiteful and malevolent plan? Think about it. What likely
motivated our Lord’s adversaries here? Well, as far as I can tell, in a matter of words – it
was an inclination toward deceit; toward dishonesty and trickery; it was a matter of self-
serving motives; a proclivity toward pride and self-interest and an enthusiastic
willingness to destroy a good man’s reputation; and above all else, it was a readiness to
test and tempt God Himself. Which are far from wholesome intentions, clearly. But let
me ask you, dear faithful, are those qualities and characteristics specific to those two
opposing religious and political sects two thousand years ago? Or are they not equally
pervasive to this very day, ubiquitous, ever-present all over the world, and in truth, in the
very heart of every last man and woman?
Have you ever lied? To others? To yourself? To your God even? Have you ever
used manipulation to get what you want at work or at home, or heaven forbid, here amid
the congregation of the faithful? Even slight deceit – have you ever once relied on it –
and maybe even justified it to yourself after the fact, as if it were okay? Or have you
recently spoken uncharitable and even untrue things about your neighbor behind their
back? Maybe what you spoke was socially acceptable – gossip generally is these days,
sad to say. But did what you said help your neighbor, or did it harm their good name?
Have you at times cared nothing at all about the reputation of others? And have you
perhaps stooped to testing even your own God in recent memory? Have you given Him
ultimatums in your dark and desperate moments? Have you assumed that He is the one
Who serves you rather than the other way around? Now maybe you don’t do these things
on purpose, in a calculated and premeditated way like our Lord’s foes – but search your
heart – really search it. Are you always faithful? Or is your relationship with God
sometimes terribly transactional and conditional, corrupt and outright crooked?
And does that lack of fear, love, and trust—which is what it all boils down to—does it
manifest itself in how you treat others in your day-to-day existence? If you sometimes
use God to get your own way, and curve Him and His many gifts inward, upon yourself,
then it stands to reason that you’d just as well use others to do the same. Or, to be honest,
that common sense possibility works the other way around as well. If you misuse others,
you probably misuse your God now and again.
Personally, I know all this is painfully accurate in my life. I have sinned all these
sins over the course of time. I am no better than the Pharisees and Herodians at heart.
Had I been there in the first century, I may well have hollered with them: “Crucify Him!”
to Pontius Pilate’s offer to the vicious crowds. And really now, it doesn’t matter.
Speculation here doesn’t matter one bit. Because I did yell that in eternity. I absolutely
already did. Every sin I have ever sinned was a cacophonous cry out to the heavens:
Crucify Him! Every last fault of mine put my Lord and Redeemer on that cross. Every sin
secured His hands and feet with rusted nails, even and especially the socially acceptable
ones. I am no better than any other sinner who has ever lived. And in all likelihood, were
it possible, I would have been there that day in the midst of our Lord’s enemies waiting
for Jesus to get tripped up by this well-thought-out trick question, for the sake of curiosity
or even worse, for the sake of a petty laugh. That, or, at best, I would have been but a
clueless disciple, standing around with a dumbfounded look on my face, faithless in a
lack of certainty in my Lord as He faced a seemingly impossible inquiry. We are all
guilty, dear friends. We all crucified our God, if nothing else than by our lack of faith.
And we are all unworthy of what that crucifixion earned for us in eternity.
But let us return to the text. “Jesus, aware of the malice of the Pharisees and
Herodians, said, ‘Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin for the tax.’
And they brought Him a denarius, a coin. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and
inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Therefore render unto
Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.’” And there it
is, guys – right there.
The perfect answer to that supposedly impossible, unanswerable trick question. Jesus
responded to their malicious inquisition by pointing to a truth that we Lutherans like to
call the doctrine of the two kingdoms. There is the left-hand kingdom, the kingdom of
power, that of the world, of earthly rulers, of civil law. And there is the right-hand
kingdom, the kingdom of God, of heavenly law. They are distinct. The one is temporary
and fleeting, the other is eternal and unchanging. The one requires gifts of money to be
given to perpetuate its earthly authority, whether for good or ill. And the other is ruled
only by the Almighty, All-benevolent, All-gracious Giver of Gifts – by the liberal hand of
the one true God Who reigns from the heavens above, Who is always merciful, and
Whose good and perfect gifts are both temporal and eternal, for both body and soul, and
Yes, Caesar’s face was on the denarius, the coin. The tax was owed to him. But
God’s own image is imprinted, impressed, and inscribed upon the souls of all men, that
immortal coin within. The gift of creation and redemption is given to all freely – and all
that is due in return is fear, love, and trust in the one Who alone creates and redeems.
Jesus understood all this. And He knew likewise that in a short span of time, His own
blood would be the required tax to cover the iniquities of a fallen and undeserving
creation. In order for that divine image to be restored in the souls of believers, Jesus
would have to be betrayed, arrested, interrogated, beaten, mocked, stripped, nailed,
suffocated, and bled out on an ugly cross. But being God Himself and wholly sinless,
there was not an ounce of malice in His benevolent heart in that moment of interaction
with the Pharisees and Herodians and before their black-hearted trickery. Knowing all
things, He answered a question from wicked and malicious men with a plain truth: render
unto the world what belongs to the world, but more importantly, render unto God what
belongs to Him. And make no mistake, dear flock, through the blood of Jesus, all saved
by His sacrifice belong to God the Father. They are His possession. We are His
possession. Therefore, all buried and resurrected by way of a baptism into the Triune
name owe themselves to God and to God alone.
In space and time, in history and the here and now, pay the tax, by all means, obey. But
with a mind toward eternity, worship God and none other. Serve Him and serve Him
single-mindedly and unwaveringly.
But the text continues: “When the Pharisees and Herodians heard what Jesus said,
they marveled. And they left Him and went away.” They marveled, yes, but their
marveling was all too brief. They would again soon scheme to get Jesus crucified
straightaway. And since all this was ordained by God the Father long before, their
schemes were ultimately successful, on the surface anyhow. Jesus, the Son of God, was
handed over and eventually executed. While that fact was a tragedy for our Lord’s poor
flesh on the cross, it is fortunate and favorable for those of us who so desperately need
the forgiveness of sins that His sole sacrifice was able to afford so many centuries ago.
So what’s the message for us today in 2023? Of course, pay your taxes. Of course,
obey your rulers, insofar as they do not transgress the clear law of God. And as Luther
tells us in the Small and Large Catechisms on the fourth commandment, don’t just obey
your sovereigns, but honor them, love and cherish them even. That’s not always easy. I
understand, trust me. I have always had a bit of a rebellious spirit myself – and to be
frank, it is has gone nowhere with the passage of thirty-three or so years. And there’s
always solid justification for rebellion and defiance, isn’t there? We can usually come up
with something or another. Our rulers fail us time and time again. But just remember that
when you do serve them, honor, love, and cherish them—which you are called to do,
however much of an annoyance or inconvenience it may be—you are really serving,
honoring, loving, and cherishing God in heaven. When you render unto Caesar what is
his, you are doing so foremost in obedience to God, Who, as St. Paul tells us in his epistle
to the Romans, establishes all authority on earth, even when that authority seems
precarious and downright unchristian. Yet here’s what is more significant for us to
remember this morning. Obey your earthly authorities for this your time on earth, but
worry much more about obeying God Who controls all timeless fate. That’s really the
takeaway from our present lesson.
As the Lord declares earlier on in St. Matthew’s gospel: “Do not fear those who kill the
body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear Him Who is able to destroy both body and soul
in Gehenna, in hell.”
Our frustrations with our worldly rulers often cause us to concentrate on the
“render unto Caesar” part of this Sunday’s text. But actually, that is entirely secondary,
beloved. That is not nearly as consequential at the end of the day. Render unto God what
is His. That’s what really matters. And you yourself belong to Him. You don’t own
yourself anymore. In fact, you never actually did. You once belonged to the prince of
darkness, to the ruler of this world, by your birth. But now you belong to God, the
heavenly King, by your rebirth. So render yourself unto Him as a living sacrifice, as St.
Paul encourages us. Fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. Study His Word
constantly, come to church regularly and joyfully, and eagerly receive the body and blood
of your Lord with a repentant and worthy heart. Come here prepared, in a deliberate and
conscious manner, having weighed your own sins and their horrible consequences for the
beaten and bloodied body of God, and anticipate good godly gifts nonetheless. Whenever
you act like a Pharisee or a Herodian – which I know you do, because like me, who does
that all the time, you are still a miserable sinner – whenever you fall short of the glory of
God and sin against Him and against your neighbor, seek His forgiveness immediately.
Do not procrastinate. Seek that forgiveness purchased not with gold or silver coins but
with Christ’s holy, precious blood at Calvary, spilled out and then spoken and delivered
without cost within the security of these brick walls of Bethlehem. Let that absolution
wash you clean. Obey God above all by letting Him forgive, heal, feed, strengthen and
sanctify you through Word and Sacrament.
Caesar’s face was on the denarius, true enough. And that hasn’t changed over the
last two millennia or so. The rich men north of Richmond, as they’re latterly called, the
emperors of the current day in the swampy suburbs of D.C. and on Wall Street, they still
rule the world and they still foolishly think they are gods just like that senseless Caesar
But the true God’s image, the image of the only God, is imprinted, impressed, and
inscribed on your very soul. So render yourself unto Him more than any other. Give Him
your all, that He may make you into so much more than you could ever dream of making
yourself. Every moment of this life is simply another chance to face eternity faithfully.
To look death and the life to come straight in the eye, like a man, in good faith and with
sure knowledge of your place in it. This life here with our obedience out there in the
world lasts for a little while – and it passes with great haste, as you well know. So we
should live it dutifully and meekly, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all
godliness and honesty, as St. Paul says. However, our obedience to the Heavenly Father
lasts forever. There are eternal gains and eternal losses involved. Therefore, again,
examine your priorities daily. Take that advice home with you this morning. And render
your body, your heart, mind, and soul, your time, energy, and your resources accordingly.
That is God’s good and gracious will for you and for His holy and everlasting kingdom.
In the blessed name of Jesus. Amen.