Sermon for Sunday October 22nd, 2017, the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
The Lessons: Psalm 99; Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22
The Text: Matthew 22:15-22
The Topic: Rendering to God and to the State what is due to each
Cheating is a prominent feature in just about every human endeavor. So says economist Steven Levitt in Freakonomics. Although he doesn’t declare cheating part of human nature, Levitt notes the prevalence of it among ordinary school-teachers, wait staff and payroll managers.
While evidence for cheating is often hard to uncover, at times it is overwhelming. Consider what happened one spring evening at midnight in 1987, when 7 million American children disappeared. It was April 15, and the Internal Revenue Service had just changed a rule. Instead of merely listing the name of each dependent child, tax filers were now required also to provide a Social Security number for each child. Suddenly 7 million children who had existed only as phantom exemptions on the previous year’s 1040 forms, vanished, representing about one in ten of all dependent children in the United States.
– John Beukema, “Phantom Exemptions Show the Prevalence of Cheating,” PreachingToday.com
In first century Judea, tax-collectors themselves often cheated by withholding more tax than they were permitted by the Roman government to withhold, but cheating on taxes would have been a great temptation to those Jews who believed the Roman government, being pagan, should not benefit from their taxes. Especially vexing to the Jew, was the Emperor Tiberius’s inscription on his coinage Divus et Pontifex Maximus (“God and High Priest”). The question of paying taxes to the Roman Empire was such a controversial topic, that the Pharisees used the issue of paying taxes as a means to try to trap our Lord Jesus Christ through a catch question. The Herodians were sent together with the disciples of the Pharisees to put to Jesus the question about taxes. These two groups actually held opposing views on the payment of taxes to Rome. The Herodians were a small number of Jews who were loyal to King Herod and to the members of his family. They saw the payment of taxes as fulfilling their civic duties, and the best way forward for the Jewish nation. On the other hand, the Pharisees resented the payment of taxes to Rome as contrary to Jewish Law, and to the purity of the Jewish nation. Had our Lord answered simply that it was right to pay taxes, the Pharisees would have denounced Jesus to the people as one who had no care for the Jewish nation but regarded it as a slave to the Roman Empire. On the other hand, if he had declared that it was not right to pay taxes, the Herodians and Pharisees could have denounced him as a rebel against the Roman Empire, and teaching rebellion. But our Lord’s answer baffled them. He asks to see the money with which the tax is paid. Being shown a denarius, he asks whose image and description is on the coin. The coin bore the image and inscription of the current Caesar, who was Tiberius Caesar (AD 14-37). Their reply that it was Caesar’s image and inscription, leads to the logical and inevitable conclusion that the things belonging to Caesar must be returned to him. To make it clear that he was not excluding the worship of God or tithing to God, our Lord adds the words, “And unto God the things which are God’s.” (Matthew 22: 21)
This surprise answer to a catch question left the Herodians and disciples of the Pharisees marveling at our Lord’s superior wisdom. But it is easy for later generations to misunderstand our Lord’s saying when taken out of context. His saying does not simply mean, “Pay money to the government, because the government mints it, but give God spiritual things, like faith, obedience, worship and the fruit of the Spirit.” But in the time of our Lord Jesus on earth, the Jews not only paid the Romans tax, but also the Jewish Temple – this was the half-shekel tax. Our Lord could simply have been saying, “Pay to the government the tax due to it, and to the Temple, the tax due to it.”
What many people often fail to realize is that all things belong to God, and it is especially true of Christians, that all our lives, our money and our possessions belong to God. God has clearly instructed us through our Lord’s teaching here and other commandments in Holy Scripture to pay the government taxes due to it. But in this passage, too, we are commanded to give God the things that are God’s. It has been too easy to assume that God does not require us to give money to the Church. But the proper worship of God entails giving back to him a portion of that with which He has so generously blessed us. The Old Testament taught the necessity of tithing as part of worship. The New Testament clearly teaches the principle of giving to the Lord what is his due, what we can willingly afford to give. It is clear from New Testament teaching that the dominant principle is generous and willing giving for the sake of ministry to fellow-saints, rather than the idea of payment of a tax to God. The Greek verb used in Matthew 22:21 is “apodote”, which means “give back”, “return”, or “render”. Why is this important? In paying taxes, we are giving back to the Government a portion of what is theirs – they minted the money. In giving money, worship, time, praise, obedience to God, we are giving to God what is rightfully his, what He owns.
Another passage which expresses the New Testament doctrine of giving is found in 2 Cor. 9:1-15, of which the following verses bear consideration:
But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly, and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.
Now, what is the lesson for us from all this? God, in his mercy and love for all mankind, gave His only Son to die on the Cross for our sins, and in Christ has given us all that we need for eternal salvation and growth into the full maturity of Christ.
Our logical and worshipful response to Christ’s saying, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” is to give back to Him all that He requires of us, to pay our taxes and all that we owe the authorities, as well as to give to His Church all that we can willingly and cheerfully afford to give, in thankfulness for all that He has done for us!