What Do You Owe?

Based on: Matthew 22:15-22

Do you remember the Peanuts cartoons where Charlie Brown would try to kick the football that Lucy was holding? Over and over again Charlie Brown would run to the football to kick it, and Lucy would pull it away at the last moment.  No matter how many times Charlie Brown tried to kick that football he would always end up flat on his back.  Do you think the Pharisees were beginning to feel like Charlie Brown? Over and over again they came to Jesus with questions, trying to trick him or to find something he said which they could use against him.  In today’s gospel reading we heard them ask a question about taxes, and after Jesus responds, we see the Pharisees walk away with their heads hung low.  Again, the football was pulled away at the last moment and they ended up flat on their backs.  We can just hear them say "Drats" as they leave Jesus.  But as we hear Jesus respond "Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s," let us not ignore what he says as the Pharisees did, but let us take it to heart and ask ourselves, "What do we have that belongs to our government, and what do we have that belongs to God?"

Right from the beginning of this account we hear that the Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus.  They wanted desperately to kick that football, but Jesus was going to pull it away.  We can see just how desperate they were to trap Jesus by looking at who it was they were willing to join with in order to lay their trap.  You see, the Pharisees included the Herodians in their plan.  The Herodians were advocates of King Herod, who was a close friend of the leaders in Rome.  The Herodians may have had a part in collecting the taxes that went to Rome and also would have benefited financially from the collection of that tax.  Pharisees, however, hated the Romans.  They would have opposed paying taxes to Caesar.  So these two groups of people you wouldn’t normally even be see talking to each other on the street come together to attack their common enemy, Jesus.  Their plan is simply to ask the question, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" If  Jesus answers, “Yes, pay taxes,” then the Pharisees can portray him as enemy to the people of Israel.  If he says, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then the Herodians can report him to the government as a rebel.

They have their plan all figured out, and it seems foolproof.  They have him trapped no matter how he answers.   They come together to ask Jesus their perfectly constructed question.  As they ask the question, they preface their question with flattery, "Teacher," they said, "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." Of course, everything they said is absolutely true about Jesus, but they weren’t saying it because it was true.  They were saying it because they were hoping to lower his defenses and get him to answer their question in a way which they could use against him.  They didn’t want him to know it was a trap.  Jesus sees through their flattery and calls it what it is, hypocrisy.  Isn’t that the difference between true worship and hypocrisy?  Do you speak and sing your words of praise because it is what you believe?  If not, it is hypocrisy.  Others will not know the difference, but Jesus does.

The Pharisees ask the question, "is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? " Jesus knows it is a trap and even says so, but he is not afraid of speaking the truth even though those listening will not like it.  He doesn’t avoid the question, but he also doesn’t answer it directly.  First, he directs them to the coin used to pay the tax.  Whose picture and whose inscription are on that coin? It is Caesar’s of course.  If the picture and inscription are Caesar’s, then the coin must belong to Caesar so give it to him.  Let me say it another way, those Jews who were trying to trap Jesus apparently used those Roman coins. They had one to show Jesus, so they apparently benefited from the consistent currency that the Roman government established.  To go beyond that they also benefited from the water brought in by the aqueduct’s that the Romans had built in Jerusalem, as well as the roads Rome spread throughout the empire, not to mention the protection they received from a Roman military against outside invaders.  If they received all these good blessings from the government that was in power, then they in turn owed the government not only taxes, but also respect and honor.

After all, God establishes governments to provide all those blessings and more.  When we hear what Jesus said, don’t walk off like those people did who tried to trap him, but listen to what Jesus said.  It applies to you as well.  Thank God for all blessings he gives you through the government, the roads, police and fire protection, libraries, schools, the military, and many more.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Pay the government what you owe the government. Yes, pay whatever taxes you owe without complaining, but also support your government with your words and actions.  You know, even a mediocre ruler who has the support of his people can accomplish more good than the best of rulers who have their people working against them.

In this country God has blessed us with the ability to participate in the government.  Not only do we have the privilege of voting, a privilege I encourage you to utilize, but we also have the privilege of having grievances addressed and the ability to make our concerns known to the government.  We use these blessings while recognizing that God gave us this government.

The Jews who came to trap Jesus asked about taxes, but Jesus didn’t stop his answer after speaking about their responsibility to the government.  Jesus continued to address the real problem in their hearts.  He told them that they were not fulfilling their obligation to God, "Give to God what is God’s." What is it that we owe God? That is a very easy question to answer, isn’t it? Everything we have belongs to God.  God deserves all our money, our time, he deserves for us to use all or skills and abilities for his glory, he deserves our obedience.  Since he created us, our very existence belongs to him.

Ask yourself, “Have I given to God what belongs to him?” I must admit, I have not done what I should for the government, let alone to God.  I have taken so much of what belongs to him and hoarded it for myself.  All of us have.  There is only one person who has ever perfectly “given to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  That person is Jesus Christ.  Jesus gave perfect respect and honor to the government when he walked this earth as a man, even though it was the government that crucified him.  Jesus spent his entire life in perfect service to God even when it meant suffering hell on the cross so that we could have heaven.

Because he did those things for me we can say God has been paid in full.  Everything I owe to God was paid by Jesus Christ.  Christ gave himself to God because I have not and now God comes to me in his word and in baptism and the Lord’s Supper and gives me the reward for living a perfect life.

Here in this account we see Jesus dealing with people as he always did and as he still does today.  Whenever he finds people who are unwilling to admit that what they’re doing is sinful, he is harsh and unyielding, like a brick wall.  He told them to their face, you are hypocrites, not only are you trying to avoid your obligation to the government, but you have not given to God what you owe him.

However, when those harsh words have created a repentant heart we see nothing but love, mercy, and forgiveness in our Savior. We still ask the question, “What do we have that belongs to our God?”  And the answer is still the same, “Everything.”  But now that we know that Christ has already paid our debt to God, the things we give back to God, our time, our money, our work, and whatever else – those are gifts of thanks and praise to the one who has given us everything.

Amen.

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