Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | July 3, 2011

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

God or government?  Or is it God and government?

  • Order of Service: Word and Sacrament (p26)
  • Lessons: Deuteronomy 6:4-7 and 17, Romans 13:1-17, Matthew 22:15-22
  • Hymns: 617, 253, 618, 619

In the Name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. 

The conspirators gather in an out-of-the-way room in an out-of-the-way house in an out-of-the-way part of town.  They gather to overthrow their government.  An evil, wicked occupying nation has marched its way into their homeland – their homeland! – and stolen everything!  And they aren’t going to take it anymore.

Their leader speaks:  “They seize our homes!  They rape our daughters!  They eat our food!  They steal our freedom!  They take our pride!”  He works himself into a lather, going on and on about the injustice of it all.  His voice trembles, his body shakes.  He fairly spits:  “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

And a quiet voice in the back says, “The aquaduct.”

“What?”

“The aquaduct,” referring to Roman innovation that brought water into cities and made plumbing possible.

“Oh, yeah, of course, the aquaduct.  But, apart from that, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Another voice, “Sanitation?”

“Oh, yeah,” another agrees, “remember how dirty Jerusalem was before the Romans came?”

“Alright, alright, I’ll give you the aquaduct and sanitation.  But, other than that, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

A babble of voices:  “The roads.”  “Law and order.”  “A stable currency.”  “New markets for our products.”

“Ok, ok, ok!  Other than the aquaduct, sanitation, the roads, law and order, a stable currency, and new markets for our products, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

This failed revolutionary meeting sounds like the meeting between Jesus and some Pharisees and Herodians.  An unlikelier pairing you can’t find.  The Pharisees hate the Romans.  The Herodians support the Roman-installed puppet government, the Herods.  Yet, when it comes to Jesus, they put aside animosities and team up, kind of like the X-Men and Magneto, or Batman and the Joker, or Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

They team up to get an indictable statement, something admissible in court, something that can put Jesus on a cross and out of their lives.  They try a political question:  Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not (Matt. 22:17)?  Not a random question, this.  In the pre-trap meeting held at Pharisee headquarters, just such a question struck them as perfect.  Phineas Pharisee stood up and said:  “Ok, ok, ok, ok, I’ve got it.  We’ll ask about taxes.  Nobody likes paying taxes.  And if He says that you should pay the tax to Caesar, then we can say He hates His own people, and they’ll turn on Him.”   Before even finishing, Harry Herodian jumped in to finish the thought, “Yeah, and if He says that you shouldn’t pay the tax to Caesar, then we can go to the Romans and accuse Jesus of rebellion.  It’s perfect!”  So, off they went.

And Jesus stumped them.  Being God and everything, He knew the intent behind their question.  He didn’t need to be God to figure out what drove these guys.  So He says, You hypocrites – you mask-wearing fakers – why are you trying to trap me?  Show me the coin used for paying the tax.  They showed Him.  Whose portrait is this?  And whose inscription?  Either because they couldn’t get around it, or because they didn’t get what Jesus had in mind, they said, Caesar’s.  Now the dagger:  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Matt. 22:18-21).

Pull a coin or a bill out of your pocket.  If you don’t have one on you, share with someone in the pew.  Seriously.  What’s written on it?  “In God we trust,” right?   While, unfortunately, in America that refers to God however you define God, still, we find it helpful to have that written there.  It reminds us that we have God, the true God, the Triune God we confessed last week in the Athanasian Creed, and we have government.  We have our Father in heaven, and we have our fathers in the fatherland, running the show on God’s behalf.  And both play roles in our lives.  Just like Jesus said to the Pharisees.

This Fourth of July, Jesus warns you against having the Pharisees’ either/or attitude.  Many would have you be “for” or “against” the government.  Jesus says no such thing.  He says that you are for God and you are for government.  But in different ways.  In the right order.  You are for government, because the government comes from God.  But not vice-versa.  You’re not for God because the government says so.

Some examples.  In Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and 1 Timothy 2, the Holy Spirit says, in no uncertain terms, “Submit to the government.  Obey them.  Pray for them.”  Paul wrote that when Nero ruled the Roman Empire and had a habit of burning Christians.  Or, look at Daniel, a man serving in a non-Christian government.  Even when that government makes a law outlawing prayer to the Lord God, Daniel disobeys that law in an entirely respectful manner.  He goes off to his room to pray (Daniel 6).  Or Naaman, that soldier healed of leprosy by Elisha.  Having come to faith in the true God, he realizes that some of his behaviors as an officer of the state back in Aram might be sinful.  He says to Elisha, “Please forgive me, but when I return home, my king will ask me to accompany him to the temple of his god and I will have to kneel to support my king.”  And Elisha says, “Go in peace” (2 Kings 5).  These men did this because they knew that government served a good purpose.  Government provides peace, security, and freedom.  God said to Noah after the flood, “From now on, I assign men to punish other men.  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:5-6).

Nothing supports the position of the anarchist.  Nothing supports those who say that all government serves at Satan’s behest.  You cannot withhold your taxes because your government disagrees with you.  You cannot give it all as an offering to God and claim some sort of exemption when the IRS gives you the Al Capone treatment.  You cannot disobey police or the military or Congress and claim a higher power.

Unless…  Do note what else Jesus said.  He didn’t just say, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  He also said, “Give to God what is God’s.”  The greatest commandment isn’t, “Love the government with all your heart, soul, and strength.”  Rather, Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deut. 6:5).  There is God and there is government.  It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.  But you owe only one of them unconditional obedience:  God.  You don’t owe that to the government.  God gets your heart.  God gets your obedience first.  When Pharaoh demanded the death of all Israelite baby boys (Exodus 1), it would have been easy for the Israelite nurses to throw up their hands and say, “It’s a bylaw!”  When Nebuchadnezzar decreed, “Bow down to the idol of me or else!”  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could have looked at their 401ks and said, “We could lose our pension!”  When Daniel heard, “Pray to King Darius,” he could have got down on his knees and faked it just to keep out of the lion’s den.  When the disciples were told to stop talking about Jesus and His resurrection, they could have said, “Okay, you’re in charge.”  But none did.  The nurses lied to their king.  The young men threw their pensions into the fire.  Daniel prayed to the Lord.  Peter and John proclaimed, We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

And it’s not a question of what government’s done for us lately.  Our government’s done plenty.  Over the last 240 years America has experienced an incredible amount of peace, security and freedom.  Some of our poorest people rank among the wealthiest in the world.  You have water to drink, food to eat, clothes to wear.  Our government transitions don’t include murder, disappearances, widespread fraud and voter intimidation.  You can attend church wherever you want, believe whatever you want, and tell whoever you want about it.  But for that, you don’t treat government like God.  The state doesn’t save you.

The government comes from the God who saves you.  Who uttered the words in our text today?  Oh yeah, that’s right, Jesus.  He said, “Serve Caesar and God.”  This same Jesus obeyed His government, even when it falsely accused Him, falsely convicted Him, falsely murdered Him.  He did this to do what no government has ever, will ever, or could ever do.  He died for the sins of the world.  He saved, He rescued, He delivered sinners from death, from hell.  By His death.  By His resurrection.  He himself bore our sins in his body, Peter writes, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness (1 Peter 2:24).  Don’t put your trust in princes, but in the Prince of Peace.  Don’t rely on your nation’s armies, but on the Lord of hosts.  Don’t be happy that Senator What’s-his-name is on your side, but that God is on your side, the God who didn’t spare His own Son, but gave Himself for us all.

And then rejoice, that the God who brought salvation to you through the holy and precious blood of Christ, is the God who created government.  He brings Caesars and Obamas.  He’ll bring many more.  Some good, some better, some the best.  But regardless of whether we live under a tyrant or the enlightened one, we still have the greater government beyond that, Christ, risen and ascended, Christ who lived and died and ascended to sit in power and glory, to sit on His throne and rule, to govern, to provide eternal peace, security, and freedom for all who believe in Him.

It’s not either/or.  It’s both/and.  What has the government done for us?  Plenty.  Shoot off your fireworks.  What has God done for you?  More than any government of any time could ever do.  Thus Peter says, Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men (1 Peter 2:13).  And Jesus says, Give to God what is God’s.  Let Caesar take your taxes, because in Christ, God takes your soul, and in the end, your body, to heaven.  Amen.

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