22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 22:15-21 Sermon
October 16, 2005
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
556 "Rise Ye Children Of Salvation"
437 "Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones"
341 "Thou By Heavenly Hosts Adored"
520 "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah"
GOD OR GOVERNMENT?
TEXT: (vs. 21) “Then [Jesus] said unto them, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.’”
On April 25 of this year, a half-page newspaper ad appeared in Freeport, the capitol of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is a country of a little over six million people located in western Africa. It borders the North Atlantic Ocean, and is situated between Guinea and Lyberia. It is a rather poor country, slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina. The country is only about 30% Christian.
Anyway, getting back to the newspaper ad, I’d like to share a small article which describes what went on.
TAX officials in Sierra Leone have infuriated Christians with the publication of newspaper advertisements saying Jesus Christ supported the paying of taxes.
CHRISTIANS FURIOUS OVER ADS SAYING JESUS SUPPORTED TAXES
(From correspondents in Freetown)
The half-page advertisements said that when Jesus was asked if he was against a law requiring the payment of taxes to the Roman emperor he replied: "Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor and pay to God what belongs to God," quoting from the Gospel of Matthew (22:17-21).
It continued: "all Christians should follow the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. This week: pay your taxes."
The advertisements provoked the anger of Christians, who make up 30 percent of the population of the west African nation.
Anglican priest Thomas Carew said he could not "believe his eyes" while the Methodist pastor Cyril William described it as a "blasphemy" and called on the tax department to drop the ads.
A tax department spokesman said the initiative "was to encourage people to pay their taxes as soon as possible".
---end of article---
So what’s your take on all of this? How would you feel if you opened up today’s Journal-Star and saw an ad placed by the IRS telling you that Jesus wants you to pay your taxes? Would you be offended? Would you consider it “blasphemy” like that Methodist pastor in the article did?
In my own opinion, I would have to conclude that such an ad would at least be in poor taste. Messages like that should be reserved for Christian pulpits, and not used as guilt trips by the government. But I suppose that a small country with an unstable economy has to rely on some more desperate measures. At least Sierra Leone doesn’t use someone like the tax collector depicted in the comic strip, “Hagar the Horrible” which is a man dressed in a black cape, carrying a money bag in one hand, and a mace in the other.
Even though running an ad like that might be in poor taste, it is still accurate. Jesus wants us to pay our taxes. He wants us to give the government what we owe the government. Now we can certainly use all of the tax breaks and exemptions we can, and use the tax laws to our advantage. That’s legal, and the government allows for that.
But when the dust settles, and all is said and done, we have to pay what we owe. When April 15th rolls around, our tax forms have to be in the mail. And if you are a pastor, the tax laws are especially tricky, and often unfair. But they still have to be paid.
When I think of this text we have before us today, I remember a farmer in Dakota City, in northeast Nebraska. His name is Dean Hirsch, and he’s a man about my dad’s age or a little younger. He and his family were members of the Lutheran Church there.
But for some reason years ago, Dean got it in his head that he didn’t have to pay income taxes. There was something in the tax law that didn’t set well with him, and he thought he found a loophole.
Anyway, this landed him in court, and he wound up doing some jail time. I’ve lost track of him over the years, but the last I heard, he was still convinced that he didn’t have to pay his taxes.
I wonder how he, or any Christian for that matter, could read this section of Scripture, and come to the conclusion that he could exempt himself from the tax laws of the country? How can Christians even cheat or “fudge the numbers” on their tax forms, and have a clear conscience about it? Let’s examine our text for today, and see what was going on there.
As our story unfolds, we find two rather bitter enemies coming together in a meeting. Here we have the Pharisees, who were Jewish nationalists, and they were meeting with the Herodians. The Pharisees hated the Herodians because of their support and cooperation with the Roman government. Even though they hated each other, they both had a common hatred of Jesus. And so they plotted together and devised a plan to snare Jesus in a trap.
So several followers from both sides approach Jesus with what seems to be a legitimate question. Verses 16 and 17 of our text says, “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. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” This sounds like a fair question asked in a nice way; but they were pouring honey with one hand while holding a knife in the other.
Here’s the crux of the situation: If Jesus tells the people not to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Herodians would immediately report him to Pontius Pilate, and he would be executed for treason. And if Jesus tells the people to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Pharisees would convict him of being unpatriotic. This was designed to be a lose-lose situation.
So how does Jesus escape this trap? He doesn’t; in fact, he steps right in the middle of it. He says, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me?” He wasn’t fooled by their flattering words. He knew their evil intent.
The answer Jesus gives is short, but sweet. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” There could be no misunderstanding there, and he couldn’t be trapped by his words. Verse 22 of our text records their response: “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.”
Jesus indeed supported the paying of taxes. Matthew 17 records another tax conversation by Jesus. This was a different tax, a temple tax. Every Israelite over the age of 20 had to pay this annual tax for the maintenance of the temple and its worship.
They were in Capernaum at the time, and the temple tax collector approached Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” And Peter replies, “Yes he does.” Jesus, being the very son of God really wouldn’t have to pay the tax; but to avoid offending anyone, he pays it anyway.
He does so quite dramatically too—he tells Peter to go to the lake and throw out his line. The first fish he catches, he opens his mouth and finds a four drachma coin. Jesus told him to use the coin to pay the temple tax for both of them. Had Jesus refused to pay the temple tax, people might have gotten the impression that he despised the temple and its worship, and it would have damaged his credibility. Paying the tax was the right thing to do.
The Apostle Paul was also facing a similar situation with the citizens of Rome. The Roman government was one of the most corrupt and vicious in history. In view of this, Paul gives direction to the Roman Christians in Romans 13, 6-7: “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
God leaves no doubt in our minds. We are to be good citizens and taxpayers. That cannot be disputed.
However, the second part of Jesus’ statement deserves examination as well. “…render unto God that which is God’s.” We might be tempted to think that this only applies to our church offering, or to the temple tax in Jesus’ day. That of course does apply, but it goes a lot further than that. In order to render unto God that which is God’s, it involves more than just money. It involves our whole life and our relationship with Jesus our Saviour.
Going back to our text for today, Jesus asks to see a Roman Denarius. On the coin was a picture of Caesar. But there was also an inscription in Latin which read, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.”
Augustus was no more divine than Bill Clinton or George Bush or Oprah Winfrey. The emperor was asking people to give him something he had no right to ask of them. He wanted them to worship him.
This was a very common idea amongst early rulers. Nebuchadnezzar had this idea back in the days of the prophet Daniel; and when Daniel refused, he got into trouble. The early Christians refusal to offer even a pinch of incense in worship of the emperor often led to their martyrdom.
For the government to ask respect, obedience, and taxes was one thing; but to require worship of the emperor crossed the line as to what the government could rightfully ask. Worship was to be directed only to the one true God. On the one hand, taxes; on the other hand, our souls.
And so we render our very selves unto God. In many ways, our dedication as citizens is a reflection on our relationship with God. When our civic responsibilities lack, most likely our spiritual life is lacking as well.
Proper obedience to the governing authorities is commanded by God in the 4th Commandment. We are to honor and respect God’s representatives on this earth. And when we don’t do this, when we fail, it is a sin, pure and simple.
When we sin against the government, the government isn’t very forgiving. When Dean Hirsch refused to pay his taxes, he found out how unforgiving the government is while he was sitting in jail. We might not always suffer such dire consequences by not being good citizens, but there is a definite system of punishment the government uses for those who break the law.
There is a definite system of punishment for those who break God’s law as well. It’s called eternal death and damnation. Hell is for the lawbreakers; and if you think any punishment the government has to offer is bad, it only pales in comparison to eternal punishment.
Three days after Jesus said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s,” he was arrested. His adversaries haul him before Pontius Pilate. Luke 23, 2 records the charge they bring before him: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” But we of course know the truth here. They twisted his words into a lie to falsely accuse him.
Obediently, Jesus suffered and died. He did so to take care of any and all infractions that would merit our eternal punishment. Moreover, he did so willingly out of love for us.
And so we come to him in faith, knowing that God has forgiven us for his sake. Through faith in Christ our Saviour, we are members of a greater kingdom, a heavenly kingdom. We are heirs with Christ in eternity. Through faith in Christ, we are Christians. This guarantees our citizenship in heaven—not by what we’ve done, but by faith alone.
And so we go forth—not just as citizens of our country, but Christian citizens of our country. Our faith influences the way we live our lives as citizens. Certainly we won’t always be the perfect model citizen; but we know that through faith in Jesus, God forgives us. As Christians, we are encouraged to do what the government requires insofar as it doesn’t conflict with God’s will.
We might not always like the decisions our government makes. At times, things will seem so unfair to us. But we can be thankful that we live in a country that allows us to have opposing viewpoints. And if there is something we don’t like, then we have the power to bring about change.
The government can require taxes, respect, and obedience out of us. But our soul belongs to God. Christ purchased and won our souls from the devil, and through faith in him, our sins are forgiven and we can look forward to eternal life in heaven.
I’m happy that the IRS hasn’t placed any ads in the newspaper telling us that Jesus wants us to pay our taxes. That’s not the role of government. Rather, we can be thankful that we live in a country where we can indeed freely “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.”