Monday, November 16, 2009

The Twenty-Third Sunday After Trinity, Part II

In today's reading from Matthew 22, we again see Our Divine Lord in contro-versy with His opponents. Running true to form, they attempted to entrap Him with a loaded question, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus said “yes,” He could jeopardize His popularity with His Jewish following. If He said “no,” He would become a marked man with the Romans. It was a sneaky question, designed to make trouble. The Pharisees made sure some of the Herodians, a faction deeply sympathetic to the Romans, were on hand as witnesses.

The answer of Jesus was brilliant. “Render therefore under Caesar the thing's which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” Generally we take this simply as a commandment to obey our lawful government and pay its taxes. This text gets bandied around each year around April 15. It is a text widely known and quoted among people who know little about the Bible.

But there is more here than meets the eye. Whereas we pay our taxes to a government we acknowledge (perhaps grudgingly) as legitimate, the audience and followers of Jesus regarded the Roman government as conquerors, usurpers, tyrants holding no just authority. Many longed and prayed for a military strong-man who would lead a revolutionary war and drive the Romans out of their land. Many expected Jesus to become that leader. These folk paid their taxes grudgingly, but they did not consider it morally “lawful.”

So the question thrust upon Jesus by His opponents boils down to this: To what extent may a godly man obey an illegitimate or unjust government? This was reminiscent of the strange advice which Jeremiah gave his countrymen about 600 years earlier. “Submit to your Babylonian conquerors, even when they drag you off into exile, for they are God's just judgment on your sins.” A sound theology of judgment made Jeremiah into a political traitor to his people. Jesus shared virtually in the same dilemma.

For the time being, the people of God (now I am talking about us) live in two kingdoms: the reign of God in our hearts and in our personal behavior, and the political structures (which may be hellishly horrible and are never perfect) which Divine Judgment has placed over us. The first is the anticipation of eternity, the second is already passing away. We look forward to the time when “the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God, and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 11.15). But that is not yet.

The whole Biblical teaching is larger than what we have in this brief reading. The people of God may emphatically not “render unto Caesar” that which is not His. But Our Lord does teach us that “Caesar” even at His worst has legitimate demands upon us. The more urgent question here and now is whether we render unto God what truly belongs to God.

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