April 15. Most of us despise that day with a religious passion, the day we ante up to the IRS who has been picking our pockets and chiseling away at our paychecks all year long. Taxes. We hate them. Especially taxes on income. To tax the fruit’s of a person’s labor is burdensome, to say the least. It’s anti-work. But then again, the alternatives aren’t much better, I suppose. And we’ve gotten so used to the blasted system, we barely take notice. I don’t think most of us could muster up enough energy even to toss some tea into Boston Harbor let alone some politicians out of office.
The Pharisees tried to trap Jesus between a political hard place and a religious rock. They teamed up with the Herodians, an odd match if ever there was one. Kind of like liberal Democrates enlisting the aid of conservative Republicans. You know something fishy is going on here. “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.” Anyone who starts off with a sentence like that can’t be trusted with the keys to the house, much less the tenets of theology. There’s enough grease in that sentence to slick the way from Jerusalem to Rome and back again.
Here’s the kicker: “What do you think, Jesus, man of integrity and teacher of the truth? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Great chess move. They’ve got Jesus trapped between Jerusalem and Rome. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar? What do you think? If Jesus says “no,” he’s a traitor to Rome, an insurrectionist, a tax dodger, a threat to national security. If He says, “yes,” he’s a traitor to His own people, a Roman loyalist, a supporter of the occupation government, an enemy of Israel, an enemy of God.” They’ve got Him just where they want Him.
Or has Jesus got them right where He wants them? Don’t think you can trap the Divine Fox quite so easily. Or will you get caught in your own trap? “Hypocrites. So you’re trying to trap me, are you? Show me the money. Bring the coin for paying the tax.”
And so they bring Him a denarius. “Whose picture is this? Whose inscription?”
“Well then, there you have your answer. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. It’s his picture, so give the old by his coin when he asks for it.” Jesus dodges the political bullet. He’s no insurrectionist. He has no interest in politics per se. His kingdom is not of this world; He is the King of all kings, and the Lord of all lords. So never mind old Caesar. He thinks he’s a god anyway. Just give him his coin and don’t rile a sleeping bear.
“Oh, and by the way, give to God what is God’s.”
Gotcha! Jesus dodges the religious bullet and turns the tables on those who would test him. Give to God what is God’s.
And what, pray tell, might that be? Jesus doesn’t say. And the Pharisees and the Herodians aren’t inclined to ask. Give to God what is God’s. Caesar gets the coin. It has his image and inscription on it. But what does God get? Well, follow it through. What bears God’s image? What has God’s inscription written on it?
You do! You are made in the image and likeness of God, albeit tarnished by sin and death. You have His inscription written on you, handwritten in your Baptism. Marked, branded. God wants you, not your coin. You. God doesn’t demand taxes, He wants you. Your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength. He wants your fear, your love, your trust. He wants you!
Tricky business. We’re inclined to withhold. Pay the minimum tax possible. Shelter income, divert investments, anything to give less to Caesar. Tax avoidance is the name of the game. Not tax evasion. Keep the distinction clear. Avoidance – good; evasion – bad. That’ll land you in the clink, and is hardly in keeping with Jesus’ words, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Give to Caesar what he asks for, but not a shiny penny more. That’s how it works with the tax game, doesn’t it?
And that’s how it works with the law. Give what’s required and not a cent more. Can you imagine someone writing out their tax form and enclosing a check for an extra thousand dollars with a note. “Dear Uncle Sam. It’s been a good year and I thought you could use the extra cash. Don’t spend it all in one place.” No way, it’ll never happen.
A sister congregation has a school tuition discount for members. The catch is that you have to show up to church at least twice a month in order to cash in on the discount. You wouldn’t believe the stories. Or maybe you would. People ask, “Do both parents have to come to church?” “Do we have to bring the kids to church?” “What if we dropped the kids off at church?” Some school parents even teamed up and filled out attendance cards for each other.
That’s the way the law works. You’ll find the least you have to do to squeak by the bookkeepers. And you’ll look for ways to cheat. If the law says, “Love your neighbor as yourself, “ you’re going to ask things like “Who’s my neighbor?” and define it so narrowly that bringing a pie to the little old lady next door qualifies as a full quotient of neighborly love.
And we’ll do the same with God. When we treat God as the government we start to wonder what’s the least we have to give Him to stay on His A-list. Give to God what is God’s. What does that mean? Ten percent? Oh, that would be tidy, wouldn’t it? God gets ten percent. Caesar gets a lot more! Is that how it works? Give God His ten percent tax? Ten percent of your time, your treasure, your talent? Pay your religious tax and stay on God’s good side.
It may be that way in Caesar’s realm, but not in God’s. The kingdom of God is different, remember. Upside down, inside out, and sometimes just plain weird. It’s where the last are first, the first are last, the losers are winners, and the tax agents and prostitutes slip through the pearly gates ahead of the life-long Lutherans. This is a kingdom that doesn’t just want a piece of you, it wants all of you, and God is restless until He has all of you – your heart, your soul, your mind, your strength, your fear, your love, your trust.
And you know what? You won’t give it. You can’t. You and I are so wrapped up in ourselves as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we simply won’t give to God what is God’s. We’ll claim it as our own. It’s my time, my treasure, my talent, my life. Mine, mine, mine. And you can’t have it, God. Oh, I’ll give you a Sunday or two, now and then, for no more than an hour or two, and maybe a few more if I get a special member discount on goods and services. But the rest of the day is mine. And the rest of the week from Monday to Saturday, that’s mine too, and don’t you dare interfere with my plans. I’ll pay my temple tax and put a few of Caesar’s coins into the offering plate, but that’s as far as the claim of the kingdom goes.
God knows that. He knows how it is with us. He knows we’re not going to render to Him what is His. Jesus knew that. That’s why He said it. He wanted to trap them in their own words, those religious hypocrites who looked down their noses at others, who poked at the speck in their brother’s eye and couldn’t even fathom the two by four sticking out of their own. Jesus knew what they were about, and He called them on it. And He calls us on it too, when we feel oh so smug about all our “giving.” Give to God what is God’s. Everything, your whole life, is God’s. He wants all of it, and we don’t want to part with it.
God knows that. That’s why He sent His Son, to render to God what is God’s. Jesus is the image of God restored in humanity to its original luster. No sin. Jesus gave to God what is God’s, for us all. His perfect obedience. His perfect life. His perfect death. The image and likeness of God nailed to the cross, that’s the coin of the kingdom. He paid the penalty of our sin, He offered up the perfect sacrifice, the whole burnt offering that saves the world from sin and death. Jesus rendered to God what is God’s. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He did it for us all.
“What shall I render to the Lord, for all His benefits to me? I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call on the Name of the Lord. I will take the cup of salvation, and will 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 Lord’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem.”
What can we render to God? Our thanksgiving, our praise, prayer, our confession. We can take up the cup of salvation, the chalice overflowing with the blood of Jesus shed for the whole world, and we can lift it to our lips and drink deeply from it. We can worship, not as duty or obligation, but as privilege and honor and gift.
Caesar’s kingdom is coming to its end. Rome crumbled under its own apathy and hedonism. Our nation will one day too, probably under much the same. The coin of Caesar, that denarius that was held up as an object lesson, it now sits behind glass in some museum. An artifact of history. The kingdom that once proudly, arrogantly, defiantly stood behind it is no more. The same will be true one day of our pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and all the paper with famous names and images. The kingdoms of this world are destined to die. They serve the purpose of the law. That’s why God has them. And the end of the Law is always death.
But the kingdom of God, which has appeared among us in the flesh of Jesus, the kingdom that comes with His dying and rising. This kingdom has no coin because there are no transactions in this kingdom. No deals to cut. No taxes to pay. No tariffs or duties. It is all free, grace, gift, gratis, thanks to the king who hung on a cross to reign. And this kingdom has no end, but comes down from heaven on the world’s last day to gather to itself everything that belongs to God. And it will be on that awful, awesiome Day, that day the kingdoms of this world are plunged into darkness and fire, the day the dead rise in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, under the imputation of His shed blood, that the world will finally render to God what is God’s.
“Trust not in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.” Trust Jesus, who rendered to God what is God’s in His own flesh, all for you and in your place, that you may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
In the name of Jesus,