Render unto Caesar

Good morning, Friends!

It’s so good to have you all here for worship at Springfield!

During the last few months, things have been getting really heated up with this election. Tempers are getting short, and people have been saying some pretty mean things about the candidates and about people they disagree with.

I don’t bring politics into church, and I’m not about to start. I don’t think that’s what we all come here for.

We all have just one vote. It’s up to each person to vote according to our conscience, and what we think will be best for our country.

I think most people have made up their minds anyway. I don’t think anything I say is likely to change them. I’d rather try to get people to change what their favorite sports teams are, or persuade people that iPhones are better than Androids, or something like that.

I don’t think people are going to change their minds if we shout at them or try to scare them.

But it really bothers me, when I go on social media and see some of the hateful things people say, or when I overhear people in conversation.

We already have enough people in this world who hate each other. Let’s not add to their number. If we want our country to get better, let’s not make it worse.

We’re more likely to change people’s minds by what we do, than by what we post on Facebook.

Most of us want Springfield to be a healthy, welcoming, growing place. We don’t want our church to be a place where people are turned off by each other.

Three weeks from now, we are still going to need to be friends. We are still going to have to get along with our neighbors. Go ahead and cast your vote. And as the apostle Paul says, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Today for our Scripture reading, I’d like to bring our attention to a story from the gospel of Matthew. It’s one I haven’t preached on for quite a few years. I think it’s a good one.

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Jesus in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you’re a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what’s your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the Roman tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15-22

The people who were talking with Jesus that day were not his friends.

There were two groups. One was the Pharisees. They were devout Jewish people, who believed that the only way to God’s favor was to stick to the letter of the law. They blamed all of society’s problems on people not reading and obeying every single commandment, no matter how small it was.

And they put incredible energy into this project. They studied the Scriptures night and day, and they came up with literally hundreds of rules about what to do and what not to do. Anyone who didn’t follow their rules and their understanding of the Bible was their enemy.

The other group of people who opposed Jesus in today’s story were called the Herodians. They were the supporters of King Herod. They tended to be rich. They thought it was best for Herod to be running the country, even though Herod was really just a front man for the Romans.

The two groups had very different ideas, but the one thing they agreed about was that Jesus needed to be stopped, no matter what it took.

So they tried to set up a trap for Jesus. Something which would totally discredit him. Out in a very public place. They pretended to respect Jesus as a great teacher. But they asked him a loaded question that would automatically get Jesus in trouble no matter what answer he gave.

My father used to call this a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of question.

They asked Jesus, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

See, the trap was, that if Jesus said not to pay taxes to the Romans, that would be an act of rebellion. And the Romans could arrest Jesus for it.

But if Jesus said it was OK to pay the tax to the Romans, that would make Jesus just as much in the wrong, with people who thought the Romans were occupying their country and ought to be thrown out.

Then Jesus’ enemies rubbed their hands together and waited. Was Jesus going to be a patriot and a rebel, who should be arrested? Or was he going to tell people to go along with the Romans and pay the tax, in which case the patriots were going to be angry enough to kill him?

These were not just theoretical possibilities at that time. The Romans executed anyone who even suggested that people should resist their rule. And there were dozens of secret patriotic groups who assassinated people who wouldn’t fight the Romans.

They thought they had Jesus on toast.

But, you know, one of the things people always forget is that no one is smarter than God. Trying to trick Jesus always blows up in your face. If we try and make Jesus say something he didn’t say, he’s right there to deny it. If we try and twist Jesus’ words, the gospel is there so that ordinary people can get straight.

But this time, Jesus had an answer none of them expected. He said, “Somebody reach in your pocket, and show me a coin.”

So they did.

Then Jesus asked, “Whose picture is stamped on that coin?”

Somebody answered, “Caesar’s.”

See, right there, Jesus had them on the ground. Because all Roman coins had an inscription on them, that said Caesar was a god. And no patriotic Jewish person would be caught dead carrying something like that on their person. Just carrying it around would be offensive.

Every year, every male Jewish person throughout the world had to pay a tax to support the Temple in Jerusalem. In ancient times, the tax was paid in barter – in food and livestock.

But as times changed, the Jewish people got spread out all over the Mediterranean. Most people couldn’t make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year, so it got changed. You still had to pay the Temple tax, but you could send money instead.

And because no one was allowed to pollute the Temple by bringing coins with pictures of pagan gods on them, the Temple tax had to be paid with specially made Jewish coins that wouldn’t be offensive to God.

When you came on pilgrimage, or when you sent your money in every year, you had to exchange your pagan money for your Jewish Temple tax money.

So, in today’s story, Jesus didn’t even touch the Roman coin they showed him. Instead, he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”

Jesus’ enemies didn’t know what to say then. They were like – uhhh. . . . And they all went away.

It’s a very powerful story. It got Jesus off the hook, at least for the moment. His enemies never gave up. But he sent them home.

This story is also powerful, because it drew a clear line between the different responsibilities we have. We have a responsibility to ordinary government – to civil society. And we also have a responsibility to God.

Those two are not always the same. Most of the time they’re not in conflict, but there’s always a clear line, a separation between the two.

“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, but render unto God the things which are God’s.”

Those words are what make it possible for us to live as citizens of the society we live in. We may not always agree with our government. We may not always like what it does. But most of the time, we’re able to get along, and not trouble our conscience.

We obey the laws of our society. We don’t worship our leaders as gods, but we do our best to live in peace with our neighbors.

The flip side is that we need to give to the Lord whatever is the Lord’s. Our thanks. Our blessings. Our worship and devotion. Our obedience to Jesus’ commandments.

We are called to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.” Sometimes we do better at that than others, but we know what the commandment IS.

People have not always been good at drawing and maintaining that clear line. Down through the years, people have used the government to do terrible things, and claimed that what they did had the Lord’s approval and the Lord’s blessing.

The Quaker movement got started at a time when the line between church and state was very muddy. There was a civil war in England, between the supporters of the king, and people who wanted freedom to worship God in their own way.

It all got tangled up, as most conflicts generally do. And the Quakers got caught in the middle.

Both sides wanted the Quakers to swear allegiance to their side. But the Quaker refused. In one of the famous statements from that period, the Quakers said:

“We are not for names, or men, or titles of Government, nor are we for this party or against the other. We are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness, righteousness, humility, balance, peace and unity with God, and with one another, that these things may abound.”

Edward Burrough, 1659, (older language slightly modernized).

Quakers were very active in the American colonies, and there’s a great deal of Quaker influence in the U.S. Constitution.

Not everyone in the colonies believed in religious freedom or in religious toleration. They wanted freedom for themselves, but they were perfectly willing to coerce other people into following their beliefs.

Many of the American colonies had religious tests for admission to schools and universities. Some of them had limits on who could vote. Those were all battles for religious freedom and basic human rights which Quakers paid and suffered for over many years.

“No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” That’s from Article 6, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .” That’s from the First Amendment, in the Bill of Rights.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” That’s what Jesus says in today’s gospel.

Figuring out what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God, can be a challenge at times. But the line of separation is very clear.

North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, the guidelines which our church has operated under for more than 200 years, says:

“Friends regard the state as an instrument to be used for the cooperative promotion of the common welfare. The source of its authority and the most reliable guide to its administration should be the inward conviction of right possessed by its citizens.

Our highest allegiance as Christians is not to the state, but to the kingdom of God. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t have duties, as Christians, toward the state and the nation to which we belong. . . Good government depends on observance of the laws of God by those in authority.”

NCYM Faith and Practice, 2012 edition, p. 45

All over the country, people are being urged to take sides and to get angry. But I’d like to say, three weeks from now, the election’s going to be over. What are you planning to do then?

There will still be divisions. Are we going to try to heal them?

We will still need to work together. Are we going to make that more difficult?
What kind of a country do we want to have?

What kind of a church do you want to belong to?

Do you want to belong to a church where people constantly mix politics with their religion? Or do you want your church to be a place where people are glad to come and worship, and find common ground in Jesus Christ, in spite of having different opinions?

It’s not our opinions that save us. It’s certainly not what party we belong to.

Politicians don’t last forever. In fact, they run things for a very short time.

It’s a mistake to put more hope in a political candidate, than we put in Jesus. I hope we’ll all remember that, not just during the next couple of weeks, but always.

And I hope we’ll all leave room in our heart, for people who may not agree with us politically, but who agree with us about the Savior.

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One Response to Render unto Caesar

  1. Martha Dentiste says:

    Another uplifting sermon. How I wish everyone could read this, I think it would go a long way in healing the hurt that so many are going through due to hateful comments, fear, and rifts between families and friends. Thank you, Josh.

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