Sunday, October 22nd, 2023

The Things That are Caesar’s, The Things That are God’s

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.  Let us pray.  O Lord, send forth your Word into our ears, that it may bear fruit in our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen.  Over the last several years, the term click bate has become common in our everyday social conversations, maybe not for you. For those who don’t know, click bait refers to headlines, maybe a picture, some sort of article that’s written in such a way that you just have to click it to see what’s in there, only to discover there’s really not much in there: celebrity scandals, sports rumors political rumblings. The main purpose of clickbait is simply to attract attention, it’s not to deliver news, and in many ways, the conversation about Cesar in today’s gospel reading is nothing more than first century click bait. Matthew includes this conversation, along with two other questions that people come to ask Jesus during Holy Week, and none of these questions are asked from a place of honest curiosity. No one is simply looking for Jesus’ guidance. Every single one of these questions is just an effort to get Jesus to say something that would get him in trouble, to say something scandalous, to say something illegal. It’s all just clickbait. There’s the Sadducees. The Sadducees don’t even believe in the resurrection. The Sadducees don’t even believe in the new creation, and they come to Jesus to ask him a hypothetical question about a woman who had seven husbands on earth. Whose husband will be her husband in heaven? They don’t really want to know. They don’t think heaven is even a real thing. They just want Jesus to look foolish in front of the crowds. Then you have the Pharisees, of course. The Pharisees consider themselves to be the experts in God’s law, and so they asked Jesus “What’s the most important Bible verse?” “Which is the greatest commandment?” They’re not asking from a place of curiosity. They think they’re ready to pick apart whatever answer He gives. It’s all just clickbait. And so also the question in today’s text. The question about taxes to Caesar is not an honest question from people just trying to figure out how to navigate a complicated life in a broken world. No, it’s just clickbait. Look at who it’s asked by. A couple of really strange allies, the Pharisees and the Herodians. We know who the Pharisees are. They come up all the time in the gospels. They’re a group of people who believe that the Messiah would come once enough of Israel was pure, once enough of God’s people kept enough of God’s law, just good enough to bring about a certain level of purity into the promised land, and so they hate the Romans and the impurity that the Romans bring. The Pharisees are a constant opponent of John the Baptist and of Jesus, so we know who the Pharisees are, but the Herodians, now there is a new group. They’re actually only mentioned in the entire New Testament in this story both, in Matthew and in Mark. Now we’re also told in Mark, very early in the ministry of Jesus, that the Herodians and the Pharisees were working together to silence Jesus. But think about them. We don’t know much about them beyond their name, but their name speaks volumes. The Herodians, named after King Herod. King Herod, a man who became king by allying himself to His Roman overlords. And so the Pharisees, who saw the presence of the Romans as an impediment, stopping the arrival of the Messiah, joined forces with the Herodians, who were in league with those very same Romans. It’s been said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Apparently, nothing brings rivals together more than a shared hatred for the Son of God in human flesh. These strange allies come to Jesus with all kinds of flattery, but Jesus sees right through it, because Jesus knows. They comment that He’s not swayed by appearances. Now that’s actually something both the Pharisees and Herodians are guilty of. The Pharisees who practice their righteousness, so as to be seen by men, and the Herodians who betrayed their people so they could live in palaces built by the Romans, they comment that Jesus is true, that He teaches the truth. Something our Lord demonstrates by His response to them, “Why do you put me to the test you hypocrites?” He speak the truth. He sees right through, and there is in His response a word of judgment for the flatterers, but also a word of comfort for us. Something that’s not even really the main point of the story, but it’s worth a moments reflection this morning. And it’s simply this. Jesus knows. He knows. He knew what was in their hearts. He knew what was behind their flattery. He wasn’t fooled. He wasn’t lulled into a false sense of friendship only to be blindsided when they spring their trap. No Jesus knows. He knew them. He knows us. The caution is that Jesus knows all too well what lies behind our flatteries too. He knows what lies behind our false promises, our attempts to earn His favor, or earn His blessing. He knows what we really want to say, but that’s also the comfort. He invites us to say it. More than just caution there’s comfort in knowing that our Lord knows what we need even before we ask it. He knows the frustration that’s on our hearts. We don’t need to gussy it up with fancy words. He knows when we’re getting tired of praying for the same thing over and over again, feeling like no one’s listening. He invites us to pray anyway. He knows when we’re angry, He knows when we’re hurt, He knows when we’re upset, He knows every situation in our life. He knows and He invites us to pray anyway. And because He already knows, we can pray with boldness and with confidence. We’re bold in our prayer because He’s the one who told us to pray. We’re bold because we’re not telling him anything He doesn’t already know anyway. We’re bold because He understands our prayer even when we can’t put it into words quite the way we want to. And we’re confident. We’re confident that He hears us. We’re confident that He loves us. We’re confident that He is the only one who can truly help us. We’re confident that He will answer according to His gracious will. Jesus knows and so we are free to pray with boldness and with confidence. Go back to the question that they actually asked Him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or is it not.” The Pharisees are ready to pounce if Jesus supports and defends the Romans, and the Herodians are there ready to pounce if Jesus speaks against the tax, but Jesus won’t play their game. He’s not boxed in by their false dichotomy, their either/or. Jesus says “No render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Render to God the things that are God’s”. With these words our Lord reminds us that we are in fact citizens of two kingdoms, but He is Lord of both. The things that are Caesars aren’t really Caesars, as if they didn’t first belong to the king of the universe. It is the Lord of all creation who is ultimately in control of all things. That’s what we learned from Isaiah today, as we saw in that reading, He’s even been known to use earthly rulers to accomplish His will even when those earthly rulers have no idea that they’re being used as part of God’s plan. Even when those earthly rulers laugh in the face of God. Nebuchadnezzar did not know that in capturing Jerusalem He was being used as the Lord’s hand of judgment. And neither did Cyrus know that by returning the remnant back to Jerusalem he was acting as the Lord’s hand of restoration. But God used them anyway. We cannot say, with the same level of certainty, whether the Lord is maneuvering any political events in our own day, the same way that He did with Cyrus, but we can say with certainty that He is the king of all creation, and that all things are ultimately in His hand. That then serves as the foundation for how we live as citizens of whatever earthly nation we have to be part of. We render to Caesar the things that are appropriate to his office, we honor our offices, we honor the offices of our leaders, even if we don’t agree with the person holding that office, pay our taxes, advocate for justice and morality according to God’s design for creation, participate in elections. Some Christians even run for office, fill other vocations in government. That’s all well and good, but we always do it remembering the perspective that our Lord has given us in His word. Take Psalm 146. That Psalm exhorts us not to put our trust in princes or in the sons of man, but there is no salvation there. Princes die and when their breath departs, on that very day their plans perish. In the United States we don’t even have to wait for the rulers to die, we just wait until the next election. Soon the plans and visions of the American leaders come undone as a new group takes office.  Psalm 20 reminds us not to trust in chariots and horses. The war horse is a vain hope for salvation. Much of the world around us has looked to politics and earthly governments as if they can be sources of strength, hope, and comfort. Those hopes will collapse. Those hopes will fall because those governments and those leaders will eventually collapse and fall. But the Word of the Lord it stands forever. And Psalm 33 proclaims that the Lord can bring the plans of the earthly rulers to nothing. He can frustrate all people’s plans because He sees all and He knows all, and He’s not intimidated by the size of someone’s army, He’s not swayed by public opinion, by popularity. He is righteous and He is merciful, and He is our only hope of salvation. When times are good, or when times are bad, He alone is the Lord. So we render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, but we render to God the things that are God’s. We fear, love, and trust in Him above all things especially, above all earthly princes. We fear the one who can destroy body and soul in hell more than we fear the one who can imprison us, or the one who can oppress us, or the one who can tax us. We love the one who demonstrated His love for us, in that while we were still sinners, He died to make us His own. We love Him more than we love the one who flatters us to get our vote, who supports us with the tax credit, and we trust the one who sees through the flattery of men, the one who is not swayed by public opinion, the one who has promised to work all things together for the good of those who follow him. We fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and we ask our Lord to make the words of our closing hymn true in our lives, that Jesus would be our truest treasure, that we would prize Him above the flattery and praise of the world, that we would see our Savior and His gift of salvation as our true wealth. He is our life, He is our health, He is our joy, He is our crown. So that we always live as citizens of the Kingdom of God trusting in our Lord at every turn. May God grant it, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.