“All Things Come From and Go to Thee, O Lord”

The following sermon was preached at the 8:30am and 11:00am Rite II and 6:00pm Rite I services at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana on October 22, 2017, being the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24A).

Readings: Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ You have revealed Your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of Your mercy, that Your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of Your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”—Matthew 22.21b[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The best statement I ever heard spoken about stewardship was said five years ago at my very first clergy gathering in Alabama. The speaker started his address by pulling a $20 bill out of his wallet, held it high in the air, and said, “The money we have in our wallets and purses does not belong to us. It all belongs to God. Our call is to be stewards of the things of God of which He entrusts us.”

Until hearing this statement, I believed (as many others still do) that Jesus’ saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” implied God’s things and those of the state as being completely different and were better off separate. But the truth we are today being told is that God-things and state-things, instead of being separate, are very much connected. We are told that “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1.1) and John says that through Jesus “all things were made…and without Him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1.3) Therefore, every thing—our selves, our souls, and bodies, all that was, is, and shall be—belong to God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” It is an intentionally loaded question, devised to get Jesus in trouble no matter His answer. The Roman Empire’s levied taxes were extremely unpopular amongst the Jews and the Pharisees shared their resentment. If Jesus had answered “yes,” He risked alienating away the people who viewed Roman support as intolerable.[2] The Herodians, supporters of Judea’s Roman client king Herod the Great, supported the taxes. If Jesus had answered “no,” though the Pharisees would have been appeased, the Herodians could have accused Jesus of political insurrection.[3] Either way, if Jesus had answered either “yes” or “no,” His relationship with the people would have been severely hindered. And that was the Pharisees and Herodians’ precise goal. These two groups, ideologically divided on the issue of Roman Empire taxes, put aside those differences over their mutual disdain of Jesus, plotting together to “entangle Him in His words” and get Him out of the way.

What the Pharisees and Herodians display is the breadth, length, depth, and height of jealousy and wickedness. The Pharisees resent Jesus for His ability to connect with the people and preach the truth that they, because of their jealousy, are unable to understand. The Pharisees and Herodians are choosing to reject Jesus and His authority, their jealousy giving way to hatred and plots of destruction. “Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds,” warns Micah. “When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand.” (Micah 2.1)

But Jesus doesn’t fall for their flattery. He asks to be shown a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Jesus asks. “They said, ‘Caesars.’” On the denarius was the likeness of Emperor Tiberius Caesar and the Latin inscription Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”).[4] By admitting both the coin and its inscription to be Caesar’s, the interrogators admit their breaking of two commandments: 1) “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20.2-3; cf. Deuteronomy 5.6-7), and 2) “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20.4; cf. Deuteronomy 5.8) Thus, through His own question, Jesus proves that it is, in fact, the interrogators who are not teaching God’s will truly, the point they had hoped to expose about Jesus. “Hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7.5)

What exactly, though, did Jesus’ answer, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” mean? From Jesus’ question about the coin’s image, not only would those present knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures would have been aware of the two broken commandments, but also of Genesis 1.27: “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.”  This means that Tiberius Caesar, the “son of the divine Augustus,” was not a divine being, but a human one in temporal authority subject to a higher divine authority, the one true God. As a mere human created by God out of His grace and in His image and mercy, what belonged to Tiberius belonged to God. Just as this was true for the first century Roman emperor, the same remains true for every one of us. “The earth is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof,” declares the Psalmist, “the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24.1)

That is what makes Jesus’ command, “Render…to God the things that are God’s,” ring with good news. By giving to God ourselves and the things that are His, we see in His authority our having “been baptized into Christ Jesus…into His death[.] We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6.3-4) To recognize God’s authority is to receive much more in return. “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have…been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5.8-9)

Here is where I go back to my earlier statement that God-things and state-things, instead of being separate, are very much connected. On our currency is printed the official motto of the United States, “In God We Trust.” Government is a grace of God given to us for our mutual flourishing, that all may be their best selves in the multiple dimensions within which we live.[5] But with God’s gift comes expectations. Government and those in authority are to reflect God’s loving purpose: “Plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29.11) As Christians, we live into God’s purpose by being, as we earlier heard Saint Paul say to the Thessalonians, “imitators…of the Lord…in spite of persecution.” As imitators of Jesus, “the word of the Lord [will sound] from you…in every place your faith in God has become known.” (1 Thessalonians 1.6, 8[6])

How do we do this? By loving others, not just in word and talk, but also by deed and truth (1 John 3.18). The Summary of the Law—“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…And…thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”[7]—conveys the important role we all share in ensuring that government provides for the good of all people. Our time, respective talents, and treasure are all gifts to us from God. “But do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Hebrews 13.15-16[8]) In this are Jesus’ words to us today, “Render…to God the things that are God’s.

The greatest news of all is that though all earthly governments will one day cease, the Government of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who alone teaches God’s way with true perfection, will remain. “The government shall be upon His shoulder, and His Name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end.” (Isaiah 9.6-7) In His Government Jesus wants us all. How do we get there? “Through love serve one another.” (Galatians 5.13b)

Let us all together, then, willingly give portions of our time, talents, and treasure back to God, from whom every good and perfect gift comes, in accordance to our ability. And, at our end, we will be repaid by Christ Himself at the resurrection of the just (Luke 14.14).

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His Name; bring an offering, and come into His courts! (Psalm 96.8)

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] Leon Morris. The Gospel According to Matthew (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 556.

[3] W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann. Matthew (Doubleday & Company, 1971), p. 272; Morris, p. 556.

[4] Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. The Gospel of Matthew (The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 310.

[5] Victor Lee Austin. Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (T&T Clark, 2010), p. 1.

[6] New Revised Standard Version.

[7] The Book of Common Prayer (1928), p. 69.

[8] As translated in The Book of Common Prayer (1979).

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