Today’s Gospel requires some explanation. In Jesus time Jerusalem and Judea were under direct Roman military occupation and had been so for the last 25 years after Roman emperor Augustus deposed King Archaleus (in 6 AD) as incompetent. Archaleus was a son of Herod the Great. His brothers continued to rule in
Galilee, Syria and . The Romans feared a popular rebellion, and Jesus’ opponents tried to trap him into advocating such a political rebellion. The Pharisees and Herodians came with flattery. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” They thought they were lying, but in fact they told the truth. Jesus is truth. We can rely on Jesus to teach the truth and to be the truth. And when we do Jesus’ will we do Jesus’ truth. Jordan
When they ask Jesus the trick question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” his response is, “Show me the money.” And they do. Roman coins had the face of the emperor and an inscription that he was divine. To bring the images of false gods into the
was an offence against the Law of God. The Temple Temple head tax was paid in old money with no face and no inscription, money from the old days of independence bought from the money changers who had set up shop in the . The man who brought the Roman coin into the Temple was violating his own interpretation of the law. He was a hypocrite. And it was the hypocrites who said, in their hypocrisy, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Temple
Jesus’ true teaching is, “Show me the money.” If we use the Roman money we obey the Roman law, and pay the Roman tax. If we enjoy the benefits of the social order we fulfill our responsibilities to the social order. That is the short answer and the easier answer.
But Jesus went on, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.” In the King James version, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
That is harder, and we’ve been working on it for over 2000 years. The eternal God made us all, and all the world. He is the final source and ruler of everything that is. In the last day we will all face his just and final judgment. In the mean time we are guided in our lives by his revealed word written in the Bible, by the life and teaching of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of his only Son Jesus our Lord, and by his Holy Spirit of truth and power.
And in the mean time we live among the present powers of the physical world. History tells us that the powers of this present world continually seek to control more and more of the world. The powers of this world exercise temporary and limited human judgment. The judgment and the power of God are eternal, just, and final. The Christian task is to seek to discern the will of God by the grace of the spirit of truth and to do the will of God by the grace of the spirit of power.
The Christian church, as an institution in time and space, has a very mixed record in discerning and doing the will of God, particularly in its relationship with the present powers of the physical world. Some times the church has stood on the teachings of the word of God written and rightly proclaimed God’s judgment on particular actions of civil government. Some times the church has failed to live up to the biblical standards even in its own internal life and has failed to witness to truth. And some times churches have allied themselves with unjust civil government and in doing evil have taken the name of God in vain.
But by God’s grace we are forgiven sinners. When we confess our sins and hypocrisies God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and renew our minds and wills by his Holy Spirit so we can begin again to seek to know and do his will.
God is creator and eternal just judge. God is first and only. Human institutions are second and many. The early church obeyed the laws of the
Roman empire but always judged human law by the law of God. Christians refused to acknowledge the Roman emperor as divine. In times of persecution they were brought into court where there was a little charcoal fire burning under a bust of the god-emperor. “Just throw a pinch of tree sap incense on the fire and we’ll let you go.” And thousands refused and died horrible deaths in the arenas, torn alive by the wild animals. We honor the sacrifice of these martyrs.
There are limits to what the state can require. In the 1930’s and early 1940’s Christians resisted the power of Nazi Germany. From the 1920’s for 70 years Christians resisted the power of Communist regimes. In our own time Christians resist the power of the state in
China, India, Egypt, , and other places. More Christians have suffered martyrdom in the past century than in all previous centuries combined. Zimbabwe
We are fortunate in a Constitution that forbids government from establishing any religion ‘or prohibiting free exercise thereof.” For most of American history we have had an official or unofficial establishment of biblical religion. In our time courts and society are taking seriously the establishment clause. Some of us educated before the early 1960’s remember prayers read in school. The present rule seems to be that voluntary activities may include prayer; where attendance is compulsory public prayer may not be said.
As Christians and as citizens we recognize God as creator and eternal just judge. God is first and only. Human institutions are second and many. As we participate in them we seek to recognize how God is at work in and through them and to look for the opportunities to know and to do God’s will, following our Lord Jesus Christ. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” As with Jesus, so with us, who are members of his body, fed on his body and blood, to show forth his glory in the world he has redeemed. Amen.