Sunday, October 16, 2011

LSB Proper 24A -- Matthew 21:15-22

October 16, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“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.’”

Standing in the Temple and teaching the people, Jesus is confronted with a question. The inquiry comes from the Pharisees, who have the Herodians—the political supporters of King Herod—in tow. They want to trap Jesus, to make Him say something that will lead to His downfall, whether it would come from the governmental authorities’ arresting Him or turning the people against Him: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle [Jesus] in His talk.” The planned entangling would be through asking Jesus a question that was tricky.

The question posed to Jesus is about the law. Introducing the question, the Pharisees indicate that Jesus has the ability to answer authoritatively: “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for Your not swayed by appearances.” Then the question is asked: “Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The question is loaded, since the questioners and audience have two different definitions of lawfulness. For the Pharisees, the law was the Torah, the instructions from the Lord and its accompanying tradition. For the Herodians, the law was the code that came from Rome that they had been appointed to enforce in Palestine. So will Jesus’ answer break the Divine Code or will it result in a treasonous statement against the emperor?

You heard how Jesus answered the question. First He has the questioners dig a coin out of their pockets: “Show Me the coin for the tax.” And when they produce a denarius, Jesus asks them about the coin: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” After the people state that Caesar’s imprint is on the coin, Jesus tells them to give it back to him: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ statement shows that everything has its proper sphere and place. That is how the Lord designed it to be. He is the One who places us in relation to one another, who gives us our stations in life. And as He has so willed it, the Lord delegates His authority to fallible human beings, even unbelievers, when He places them in positions of oversight.

This is why Jesus can rightly answer the question, even when the Pharisees and the Herodians have two different definitions of lawfulness. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Can the Lord’s people pay a tax that indicates that they are subject to a pagan ruler and earthly citizens of a pagan empire? Yes, it is lawful, it is even right so to do, for the Lord has delegated His authority to that earthly ruler, so that order can be kept on earth. Payment of taxes helps to further that purpose: giving the denarius back to Caesar allows the emperor to build roads, raise an army, run a judicial system, even issue more coins. In his sphere of influence that the Lord has delegated to him, Caesar has legitimately stated that the coin has value and he has put his image and signature on it. So if he demands it back for the purpose of fulfilling his duties of exercising authority on earth, you have no right to hold it from him.

Key to understanding this answer is the knowledge about vocation or the stations in life. The emperor has this authority because he occupies an office where the Lord has placed His own authority. The Lord establishes governmental authority to help keep order in His world. Paying the tax recognizes that divine authority behind the emperor’s office. In fact, paying the tax fulfills the second part of Jesus’ answer: “[Render] to God the things that are God’s.” As the earthly authorities are recognized as people who carry the Lord’s authority and the laws that do not contradict God’s moral code are followed, obedience to the Lord is offered. The Fourth Commandment is kept out of fear and love of God Himself, as we do not despise or anger our parents or other authorities.

But the second part of Jesus’ answer is fulfilled in more ways than abiding by the Fourth Commandment. “[Render] to God the things that are God’s” is a directive that has many different aspects to it. What are the things that belong to God? That question has nearly infinite true answers. The Psalter tells us: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” You can think on the instructions given by the psalm prayed this morning: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth!” All glory, honor, and worship are God’s, since He is supreme over everything in the cosmos. True understanding and knowledge of the Lord’s identity belongs to Him, as He prophetically states to Cyrus: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God.”

But perhaps there is something that is more specific that should be considered when thinking about Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question. Remember how Jesus asked to be shown a coin, so that He could give an answer. And when the denarius was produced, what question did Jesus ask? “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Because it was Caesar’s likeness and inscription, the coin was Caesar’s, so it should be given back to him. Now think about this for a moment. What are the things that bear God’s “likeness and inscription”? What things have been given a value because the Lord has placed His image and signature on them? Answer those questions, and you will know some very specific items that should be rendered to God, just as the coins with Caesar’s image should be rendered to him.

What has God’s “likeness and inscription” on them? You do. That is so, because you are human and all humanity bears God’s likeness. Remember the great truth that the Creation Narrative in Genesis states about humanity: Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
 So God created man in His own image,
 in the image of God He created him;
 male and female He created them.” And this truth was repeated at the conclusion of the Flood Narrative in Genesis: “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
 by man shall his blood be shed, 
for God made man in His own image.”

But not only do you bear God’s likeness, you also have His inscription on you. That is what has been bestowed to you in Holy Baptism. In that act, the Lord inscribed His name upon you, calling you His own people. That calling is similar to what Cyrus received, but even greater. The Lord told Cyrus: “For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know Me.” But you have been called by name, and you know the Lord. That knowledge is what has been given to you when you were brought to faith, when you experienced the same change and conversion as happened to the Christians in Thessalonica: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . . You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivered us from the wrath to come.”

Faith in the Lord is given to you, as you possess both God’s “likeness and inscription”. You have been given the true knowledge of His identity. And that knowledge includes something very specific about the Person who answered the Pharisees’ question in the Temple. Before you were given the divine inscription in Holy Baptism, there was One who first bore God’s likeness and inscription. That Person is Jesus Himself—the One of the same substance of the Father, the One who is God incarnate, the One who is true God of true God. He had, has, and will ever possess that “likeness and inscription”. Your faith in the Lord includes knowing that Jesus who bore God’s “likeness and inscription” rendered Himself to God through His sacrificial death for your benefit. That is how Jesus “delivered us from the wrath to come.” That truth is what has been bestowed to you, since you have become the Lord’s own people, called by name by Him. That is part of the identity that is given to you through Holy Baptism, as you are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and are given the Lord’s name to bear.

Since you bear God’s “likeness and inscription,” you should render yourself to God. This is what an ancient teacher of the Church spoke of to a group of believers like you. Hilary of Poitiers wrote in the 4th Century: “We are also to render to God things that are God’s: that is, body and soul and will. The coin of Caesar is in gold, on which his image is stamped. But man is God’s coin, on which is the image of God. Therefore, give your money to Caesar; keep for God a blameless conscience.” It is an interesting comment about Jesus’ answer: Caesar’s coins are rendered back to Caesar, but you are God’s coins, God’s things which are to be rendered back to Him. And that is especially so when the Lord directs you with His commandments.

Jesus says: “[Render] to God the things that are God’s.” This is done through faith, as you live the new life given to you in Holy Baptism. The “rendering to God” is done as part of the new obedience that is to be seen in you. The “rendering to God” includes all the actions done in faithful worship of the Lord that only those who have His “likeness and inscription” on them can do. The Thessalonian Christians provide an example of this for you. Paul commends them for their actions: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Those phrases outline what you are called to render to God. The work of faith, the labor of love, the steadfastness of hope: these are manifested as the Holy Spirit dwells in you and brings forth the fruits of true belief.

The fruits of true belief are what you do as you strive to follow the new way of life that the Lord gave to you when He remade you in His likeness and inscribed His Name upon you. That new way of life is laid out in the Ten Commandments that describe the relationship that you are to have with the Lord and with one another. Believing in Him alone, calling upon His name in prayer, gladly hearing His words, honoring those who bear His authority, preserving the life that He creates, loving the spouse that He has joined to you, protecting the property He allows other to possess, defending the reputation of those He has placed around you, being content with His provision—these are all actions that spring up from the faith that is created in you. They are the actions that you do, as you render your entire lives—body, soul, and will—to God whose “likeness and inscription” you bear.

This is your baptismal identity and discipleship calling. It stems from what Jesus rendered to His Father—His atoning sacrifice that purchased salvation for you. So follow Jesus’ command: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Obey those whom the Lord has appointed as earthly authorities, even when it means filling out the IRS 1040 Forms in April. But also remember to “render to God the things that are God’s.” Be the people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells by connecting yourselves to Jesus’ gospel words. Then follow the new way of life of obedience that has been given to you. Learn from the Thessalonians’ example about how to do so. Like them, you bear the divine likeness and inscription that Holy Baptism brought you, so render yourselves to God again this day, this week, this year, this life.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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