“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Well, here we are again in the chapter 22 of St. Matthew’s Gospel for the third time. It is clearly important to the Fathers of Anglicanism that we spend a lot of time in chapter 22 of St. Matthew. Why? Big events unfolded in Jerusalem in the last week of our Lord’s earthly ministry. Prophecies were fulfilled that week and Jesus brought his struggle with Satan to an epic end on Good Friday. But, at the center of Holy Week is temple worship. In chapter 22 of Matthew we have the account of our Lord taking up residence in his own House – the Temple of God – where he began by driving the moneychangers out of what he called the “House of Prayer.” And then he proceeded to turn Jerusalem’s whole world upside down. In the last, most sacred week of his ministry of flesh, once again, he draws attention to his Father’s love and solidarity with the poor, the sick, the blind, the lame, the outcasts of Israel. God’s judgment falls upon those who mistreat poor and presume to think themselves above them. It does not take a genius in New Testament Greek to see over and over again that if I set myself against the poor as a group, I have set myself against Jesus Christ and his Father. If ever there was an unambiguous alignment it is this: If I by my own words and deeds judge and despise the poor, the broken, the miserable, the unclean, and the outcasts, then I have cast my vote against Jesus Christ.
Jesus preached his first sermon –- at least the first one we have recorded — in his hometown synagogue. The scripture he selected for his text was taken from Isaiah 61:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and the recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised.
Not long into Jesus’ ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, lay in prison awaiting sure death, and sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he were indeed the Messiah. A man wants a clear and unspotted conscience when he is about to stand before his Creator. Jesus sent this message back:
Tell John the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised… and the good news is preached to the poor.
In chapters 21 and 22 of Matthew’s Gospel we see the full ripening of Jesus’ ministry to Israel. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, mocking the vain pomp and glory of earthly kingdoms. He suddenly and publicly dismissed all the so-called powerful who had social status in Jerusalem; the wealthy Pharisees and Sadducees, the well-to-do and well connected politicos, the grand leaders of the city:
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you…
Then the Son of God turned his attention to those to whom the Kingdom of God had come: the poor, the blind, the de-graded outcastes, that unwashed band of perpetual misery, and he opened his arms up to them and they poured into the Temple. As I have pointed out back on Trinity XVIII, that is when the political machinery of Jerusalem when into overdrive and a plot was hatched to trick Jesus into saying something they could use against him.
And remember this, as well: the Temple, not Pilate’s palace, was the most political site in Jerusalem. Why? Not because the Jews plotted against Rome in the Temple, but because that is where they worshipped God. And at this point in the account, the Son of God had taken his House and true Worship was filling the Temple. True worship is political and subversive, and I submit to you that the true worship of God is the only source for true politics.
As we worship God, in the Liturgy, we acknowledge that we are in St. Paul’s words, citizens of Heaven:
For our citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ… (Who will) subject all things to himself.
How ironic that King Jesus begins his subjection of all things to himself by riding a donkey into the Holy City. When we sing the Te Deum, we sing to him as the gathered Body of Christ and we declare that Jesus is the only King to whom we pledge our full allegiance and we pray for his government to order our lives here and now so that we too may “overcome the sharpness of death.” As we worship God, as we bow our knees to him, as we adore him, we become aware that the collected voices of an army of Martyrs have joined our song of praise to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Ghost. And we see once again that we have become part of a cosmic struggle, a cosmic movement, a cosmic invasion, that is ushering in truly New Order, the Rule of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
By inhabiting this perspective in worship, by the grace of God, we begin to understand why the old Prophets warned the people of God not to put their trust in princes, not to put trust in chariots or strong horsemen. When we pray the Collect of Peace for Morning Prayer we acknowledge our complete dependence and trust in the King of Kings:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, who service is perfect freedom: Defend us…
True worship clarifies one’s understanding of the really real. The Psalmist declared a long time ago:
It is better to take refuse in the Lord than to trust in princes.
It was that Gospel, that Biblical understanding of the really reality that was entirely missing that day in Jerusalem as the plotters approached Jesus and placed before him the person most of them considered the most powerful, unrivaled prince in the world – Caesar.
Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?
As I pointed out back on Trinity XVIII, this tax had to be paid with a coin specially minted in Lyon. It appears that neither Jesus nor his disciples were carrying the coin. Jesus said, “Show me the coin for the tax.” The Pharisees produced a coin. Then we have this quick dialogue that took no more than a few seconds to complete:
And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’
They said: ‘Caesar’s.’
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Just like that, in little more than 15 seconds, assuming someone had to pull the coin out of pocket – 15 seconds and it is done. As I pointed out a few weeks back this silver denarius was directly related to the Roman imperial cult. The side bearing Caesar’s image has the superscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” The flip side has a feminine image, an icon of the goddess Roma. Tiberius controlled the production of these silver coins and they were in fact his property, stamped in his image, and everyone knew that. And that is exactly what Jesus meant. That coin, vile pagan artifact that it is –- that is Caesar’s property. Give it back to him.
The Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Herodians had not counted on Jesus turning their political trick into a theological dispute. They said nothing about God. Why? Because, like so many Americans today, their real religion was politics and it was driven by their love for wealth and power and their fear.
Back then most Jerusalemites would have preferred death to allowing Caesar’s image to be publicly pasted up in the City of David. They despised watching the imperial standard – Roman eagle with wings spread –- as it was paraded through their streets. And yet these hypocrites had these silver coins with blasphemy stamped all over them jingling in their pockets.
I will end with two points. I want you to understand that Jesus is not calling us to straddle two loyalties. You all have seen sufficiently over the last few months from the Gospels that Jesus does not tolerate a divided loyalty. Every Caesar stands or falls by skillfully playing upon humanity’s love for material things and our need for security. By contrast Jesus taught that the day will come when possessions will be worth absolutely zero and those who poured their energy into acquiring them, those who measure their life-worth by what they have acquired are in danger of losing their souls. If I think that what I have, is what I am, I am truly the poorest of the poor. Give back to Caesar what belonged to Caesar in the first place.
Our heavenly citizenship conditions all other citizenships and the really real authority of the King of Kings actually establishes the reality of any other political authority. One cannot be a good citizen of any nation unless one is first a devoted and dutiful citizen of Heaven. And it is abundant clear from St. Paul’s epistles that if one’s first allegiance is to the City of God then every nation is one through which the people of God are making pilgrimage.
My final point is that, quite apart from the business of Caesar’s coin, the Church and Christians owe a duty to Caesar and that duty is to render unto Caesar a Gospel account concerning his duty, to imprint upon their minds what treasure has been committed to their office and then to assist him in every manner appropriate, but especially with intercessory prayer, to fulfill that duty and office. And both of those should be without ceasing; we must not grow tired instructing Caesar how to rule and we must not grow weary in our prayers on his behalf. The petition on behalf of Rulers in our Liturgy is very specific: we ask God to direct and dispose the intentions and decisions of Rulers, and especially of those who have the rule over Christians, that they might restrain sin throughout the nation so that the Church of God may go about her work of bringing the peace and happiness of Christ to the world. But remember this: The Church of God is eternal. Every nation is temporary and will come to an end. A nation may over the course of its life become a Rome, a Jerusalem, a Babylon, or a Shinning City upon a Hill — but no nation will ever become Zion, the Church of Living God.
For our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.