Rendering to God and Caesar
Matthew 22:15-22 (ESV) Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
In the Gospel reading for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity, the Pharisees were flattering Jesus, hoping to trap Him in His own words by fawning over Him. They said, quite insincerely, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” Ironically, all of that was true, though the Pharisees hoped that when Jesus heard those things He would be made to trip up, play the hypocrite, and give them cause for bringing public charges against Him and discrediting His movement.
Their entrapment goes like this: “Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
If Jesus were to answer, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then He would have alienated Jewish nationalists who wanted independence from Rome for Israel and who said that God alone was their King, to whom they owed tribute. Jesus would have lost support of the people by saying, “Yes.”
If Jesus were to answer, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then He would have pleased the nationalists but would have been guilty of sedition, incitement of resistance to lawful authority. This would have made Jesus an enemy of Caesar, which surely would have caused Him to lose His head.
So Jesus appeared to be trapped. But then He called their hand, and their hypocrisy. “Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius.”
Obviously they were not opposed to using pagan money, because they had some on hand.
“And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”
Jesus simply speaks the truth. He offers a brilliant answer that springs Him from the trap set by the Pharisees and makes them look like fools, simply by being honest and true to God’s Word. No doubt, this reveals Jesus as a master teacher, clever, and wise as a serpent while innocent as a dove. He upholds the Fourth and First Commandments: we are to give to the government what is owed to the government, and we are to give back to God what is owed to Him.
But there is something far more profound in Jesus’ words than the simple teaching that we owe taxes and obedience to the government, and total obedience to God. Jesus here describes His own way of life.
In His life, Jesus never broke the Fourth Commandment, which requires obedience to Caesar. That would have been sin. Even when He was unjustly convicted and sentenced to death by Caesar’s government, He did not protest. Because of that conviction, the life of Jesus was owed to Caesar, and He willingly gave it up on the cross. Jesus did not resist, but knew that through Caesar’s unjust execution, He would die for the sins of all people of all time.
But even more profoundly, Jesus rendered to God the things that are God’s. He always rendered perfect, unwavering trust, love, and obedience to His Father. He did not doubt His Father’s love, did not forsake His Father’s will, did not place His confidence in anyone else than in God alone. As He died, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last (Luke 23:46).
Just as Adam’s sin caused all of us to be sinners and receive the sentence of temporal and eternal death, so now Christ’s perfect obedience has caused all of us to be declared righteous, as St. Paul wrote: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19).
Just as Adam’s sin happened only once but its effects span the ages, so also Christ’s death has an eternal impact. The Epistle to the Hebrews (10:12) says, “When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” A single sacrifice for all the hypocritical sins of all times, and that forgiveness has been accomplished for you, too.
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessèd is the man who takes refuge in him!
What shall I render to the Lord
for all his benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the Lord! Amen.