Sermon – October 19, 2014

Render unto Caesar

And they were amazed. That’s what Matthew tells us. He doesn’t say confused, angry, contemptuous . . . they were amazed. Amazed that Jesus could make such a clear distinction so readily. . .

They set a trap, but he would be neither fooled nor flattered and he sidestepped their trap and it blew their minds. The conspirators against Jesus had made a fundamental mistake. You see, they felt that Jesus was competing for the same turf, and would recognize the superiority of their power.

We need to understand something about these characters. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. These were not birds of a feather. The Pharisees were pious Jews who were anti-Roman, barely tolerant of the occupation, thought it was against the Torah. The Herodians were of the lineage of the Jewish family who were delegated to be the proxy government for the emperor. They were the puppet government. And they conspired despite their differences because of the one thing that they had in common. the one thing that they had in common was their awe, their intimidation by the secular of power of the emperor. The Pharisees recognized the power of the Emperor and they saw it as an opportunity to put down someone who threatened their orthodoxy. The Herodians were trying to cover their backs, to protect the Emperor’s interests and their own. What they had in common was the recognition of the power of the Emperor. That was the trap they set for Jesus. If they could catch him trying to undermine that power, then they had him. They assumed he was competing for the same turf and when they sprung their trap and he sidestepped it, they were amazed. Jesus is talking about an entirely different thing here. A different power. A different law. He is making a distinction between the power of God and the power of Caesar, a distinction the conspirators missed.

Jesus, in his response, does imply that there are certain practicalities to which one may render a certain fidelity. He leaves hanging, though, the question, “what is God’s”. And that is what this is all about.

We don’t have to look far in Matthew to discover exactly what he is talking about. “Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest.?” He answered, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Render unto God, give to God what is God’s. Love God. Love your neighbor. Jesus is giving us a great instruction. To remember that, to live that, frees us from falling into the trap that Jesus’ detractors tried to set for him.

This lesson speaks to the exact point in our lives where our greatest tensions are located. In the locus of competing claims, our conflicting loyalties. Those times when we feel pulled apart.

These conflicts can arise in our most fundamental places, where our loyalties are strongest. In our families, in our circle of friends, where the pressure of the group will pull us one way and the understanding of our faith will pull us another. In our vocations where our responsibilities pull us one way and the ethic of God pulls us another. Our greatest conflict lies where our greatest loyalties merge.

The arrogance of power, of the power of Caesar, lies in the expectation that the fear of the consequences of bucking that power will draw us into lock step behind it. That’s what the conspirators against Jesus were banking on. Sometimes rendering unto God can be costly. It can create tension in our families, it may jeopardize our position at work, it can alienate us from our peers. Sometimes rendering unto God can be costly. It took Christ to the cross. But because of the cross, the ultimate threat has been rendered ineffective.

To love God, to love our neighbor, to live that, to do that, invoke that in our moments of conflict frees us from the trap. This is the formula for faith active in love. This empowers us for a whole lifestyle, for a vocation of rendering unto God. It gives us power, little people, common people , the power to change, the power to restore, to do great and creative things. To render unto God, to love God and neighbor creates a people who can accomplish far more significant things. That is the gift that Christ points to here. In those times when we’re torn apart by conflict the Spirit of God, given through Christ, empowers us to choose, to move.

It’s no wonder the conspirators were amazed. They relied on the power of might. Jesus spoke of the power of love. The power of might can take us only before the throne of Caesar. The power of love, takes us right to God.

Compelling power. . . in Roman times . . it was the power of might, fear, occupation, and it was dangerous to resist . . . in our times, might it not be a more benevolent, seductive power .. .

Take a look at a dollar bill. On the face of the bill is the face of George Washington. Often referred to as the Father of this country. Hero of the revolutionary war. One of the original founders of our republic. And our first President. Honored by rendering his image on our currency.

On the back we see both sides of the great seal of the United States. One side has the eagle, the olive branch for peace, the thirteen arrows representing the 13 colonies. On the other we see a pyramid, a symbol of solid construction and one of the great wonders of the world. On top of the pyramid we see an eye. That is the great eye of providence they called it. Above that eye we see the Latin words ‘annuit coeptis’. That means ‘he has smiled on our undertakings’. Then on the bottom of that pyramid we see the words ‘novus ordo seclorum’, which means ‘new order of the ages’. And, of course, across the top we see the words “In God We Trust”. We have stamped the currency of the realm with the sanction of God, which gives it even more power . . . The bill invokes wisdom and stability and power and is etched with the approval of the divine. What’s not to love about the dollar bill?

Loyalty, fidelity to such things as this bill represents is appropriate, proper. But being a good citizen does not make us good Christians. Paying our taxes and obeying the law, being frugal, refraining from injuring people, sacrificing our time, or even our lives, for our country, simply makes us good citizens. But it says nothing about who we are as children of God. Sometimes being good Christians might mean we’re not so great citizens, by some definition.

It is not enough to be a good citizen. It only really matters if we do it in Christ’s name. To serve as reconciler and healer and seeker of justice is to seek to live in thankfulness to God’s grace, because he has said we are his children and of such value that he would suffer and die for our sake. There is the great paradox. That state would not die for us. Yet Christ did so.

It’s as though Jesus saw this coming. The coin of the emperor and now the currency of our state bear the implication that it is God’s currency. This story is about making a distinction between the power of one against the other. I’m not saying that money, or patriotism, or good citizenship or faithfulness to our history is wrong. I’m just saying, like the Beatles sang in 1967, it can’t buy ya love.

In the first Creation story in the book of Genesis God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” The image that we bear is the very image of God; we were created in the image of God. We are the currency of the kingdom.

To be the currency of the kingdom, to bear the image of God and to give to God what is God’s is to live under grace. The benefits and the obligations that we incur in the currency of the realm are satisfactory on the temporal. But to be claimed as one of God’s children, is to be the recipient of an incalculable love, and unmeasured grace, a never-ending faithfulness which no other currency, no other source can provide.

This is a story about who owns us. And we who have been baptized and have been marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever belong but to one, the loving and gracious and faithful God. No amount of greenbacks can by that, and no lack of these can ever take that away.