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‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not’?
Let me just begin by saying this is not about whether we should or shouldn’t pay taxes to the government. Jesus does make it very clear that we should and must pay the taxes we owe to the government. But that’s not what this about.
Matthew makes it very clear that the Pharisees are not interested in Jesus opinion on the ethical dilemma between Jewish spiritual law and Roman tax law. ‘The Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his talk.’ And this is what they came up with.
Frankly, they really didn’t care if He was for or against tax reform. It didn’t matter to them if He answered their question ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ They had already made the decision to destroy Jesus. Now, it was a matter of creating some evidence to get the job done. They’re only purpose was to ‘entangle Him in his talk.’
In reading through the gospels, you do get the definite impression that the religious leaders of Israel made their mind up about Jesus according to a different criterion than the laity did. They both heard the same sermons and saw the same miracles. But the laity is convinced that He is ‘from God.’ They don’t necessary connect Him to the Messiah like John the Baptist, Peter and the disciples do. But they are convinced that He is at least a prophet. God is speaking to them through this man. They see Jesus as an advocate acting on their behalf and for their good. They want what He has to give.
But the religious leadership of Israel comes to the very opposite conclusion about Jesus. They believe that He is from the devil and that it is by ‘Beelzabul that He does these things.’ In their mind, Jesus is a terrible threat, not only to their personal security and peace but also to the security and peace of the nation of Israel. ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:48)
How come some receive Jesus as friend and others resist Him as enemy? Why do some welcome Him and others want Him to get lost? Why is He Savior to some and a just another religious nut to others? I’m not sure how to answer that really, other than to say that the Holy Spirit works faith in the heart, when and where He pleases. But we shouldn’t think that these religious leaders were ‘bad people.’ They were the Mormons of their day. Everyone said that they were ‘such good people.’ They were very religious.
I suspect that the line that separates believer from unbeliever is a lot thinner than we might think, and that we cross over that line far more often than we think, and that it is far more important to take everything that hear and see Jesus do, positively, as ‘for us.’ Even, no, especially when it doesn’t seem that way, when He threatens to disturb our peace and security. When we take a skeptical view of Jesus as the Pharisees and religious leaders did, the wall of separation gets deeper and higher.
‘Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.’
They say that they believe that Jesus is ‘true.’ The word here means ‘sincere,’ ‘acting with integrity.’ ‘You teach the way of God truthfully.’ What they mean is, ‘we know that you are sincere.’ They’re not saying that He’s right. They saying that He doesn’t play to the crowd and say what they want to hear in order to win their support.
‘You are not swayed by appearances.’ Literally, that reads, ‘you do not look into the face of men.’ ‘You don’t play to the crowd.’
No, He doesn’t look into the face of men, but He does look into the heart of men. Behind all the smiles and the appearance that everything is just fine, He sees the brokenness and the disappointment. Behind the satisfied and contented look, He sees the loneliness and hunger and the thirst for friendship and love and contentment.
Beneath all the flattering words, He sees the insincerity and the duplicity and the plots and the schemes. Earlier, Jesus had quoted the prophet Isaiah saying, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.’ (Mat.15:8). Now here, once again, ‘aware of their malice, He said, ‘why do you put me to the test, you hypocrites’? ‘Hypocrites’ do ‘look into the face of men.’ Hypocrites hide the true intentions of their heart under smiling faces and flattering words.
The question is, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not’? Once again, this is not about paying taxes to the government. We know that, and so does Jesus. And yet, He still wants to break down that wall of separation and turn their heart from rejection to acceptance.
‘Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius.’ There is some comic irony here, in that Jesus, the Son of God, through Whom all things were made to Whom everything belongs, doesn’t have a coin on him and has to borrow one from his enemies for his own defense.
Looking at the coin in his hand, Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this’? Literally, it’s ‘whose ICON and SIGNATURE is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ ‘Then He said to them, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
There’s an established principle here. And the principle is this, who’s ever image and inscription (signature) is on the coin, that’s whom it belongs to and that’s to whom it must be rendered. And that is what the lesson of this episode is all about. Who’s ever image and signature is on the coin, that’s whom it belongs to and that is to whom it is lawful to render it.
But since this is really not about paying taxes to the government, Jesus moves the discussion to the real issue and applies the same principle to God. ‘Render unto God the things that are Gods.’ So the question is, what bears the likeness and inscription of God, and therefore belongs to God and therefore must be rendered to God?
That may sound like a real stumper, because after all, God is spirit and a spirit doesn’t have an ‘image.’ A spirit doesn’t have a signature. You’ve got to have flesh to have an image.
And of course, now we realize that the answer is ‘Jesus.’ St. Paul writes to the Colossians saying, ‘He is the image (the icon) of the invisible God…’ (Col.1:3). When you see the face of Jesus you’re looking at the ‘image’ of God. And God’s signature is all over Jesus; conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. That’s the unmistakable signature of God written on Jesus. No one else has a signature like that. Jesus is the coin of God.
When Jesus asks whose likeness is on the coin, we’re reminded of Genesis. In the beginning, God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.’ And God formed the man out of the dust of the earth. And the man bore the ‘image,’ the ‘likeness’ of God.
And God breathed His breath into the man, and the man became a living being. That’s the ‘signature’ of God. Nobody else has a signature like that. The point is, Adam bore the image and inscription of God and therefore He belonged to God.
But Adam and Eve refused to ‘render unto God the things of God.’ They themselves were the ‘things’ of God. They exchanged the ‘likeness’ of God for their own ‘likeness.’ They wrote their own signature over their lives. They beat their chests and raised their fists and said, ‘we belong to no one but ourselves. And we render all things to ourselves.’
And so, instead of passing on the image and inscription of God to their offspring, Adam and Eve passed on the image and signature of man. Sinful man. Man that bears NOT the image of God. Man that does not have the signature of God written on him. Man who boasts that God has no claim on his life and who renders all things to himself.
‘When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.’
This of course would not be the last time that they would try to entangle Jesus. Next time though, they would include the governor of Judea in the plot. What hypocrites they are. They don’t want to pay taxes to Caesar, but they want Caesar’s services. They bring Jesus to Pilate and proceed to entangle Pilate in his words. Pilate is much easier to trap than Jesus. ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar.’ (Luke 23:2). Which of course is just the opposite of what He said. But they’re really not interested in truth.
And Pilate, ‘looked in to the face of men.’ ‘He cared about their opinion.’ Even though he found no fault with Jesus, he handed Him over to be crucified.
Hanging from the cross, thoroughly entangled in the thorns and nails and wood, He bears NOT the image or inscription of God. God rejected Him. If you can bear it, God rejected God.
There on the cross, Jesus bears the image and imprint of sinful man. His bloody head, bowed in shame and grief bears our sinful image. The inscription of our sin is written all over His back and chest and arms and legs. GOD THE FATHER HAS RENDERED UNTO JESUS WHAT BELONGS TO YOU.
And He bears our image and our inscription as our advocate. Do not be threatened by Him. He is acting on your behalf and for your good. He is taking your place, rendering to God the punishment for all of your sins.
And ALL of your sin now bears His image and He has written His name over ALL of your transgressions and iniquities. RENDER UNTO JESUS THE THINGS THAT ARE JESUS’.
He who ‘does not look into the face of men,’ looks into your heart, and sees the deceit that is there because we do ‘look into the face of men’ and care so much about the opinions of others that we will say and do anything for the acceptance and approval of others, even ‘I don’t know the man,’ even ‘crucify Him, crucify Him.’ Render every betrayal and every silence when you should have spoken to Jesus, because it belongs to Him.
His Word is sure and certain, infallible and true. But we are so easily ‘swayed by appearances.’ And we turn from His Word to anything that appears to be more practical or scientific. Render every doubt and rejection to Jesus, because it belongs to Him.
He sees your heart, the brokenness and the emptiness, despite the cheery look you always wear. He sees the fears that haunt you despite your confident and secure appearance. Render all of that to Jesus too, because it belongs to Him.
He has borne your sinful image and your inscription of death in His body on the cross, so that you may bear His holy image and His inscription of life in your body, both in this life and the life to come.
In Holy Baptism, you were reborn in the image and likeness of God. In the water and by the Word, the image of Jesus was impressed upon you, and by the same means of grace, the signature of ‘the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ was written upon you. And you belong to God.
In Holy Communion, Jesus presses His image into your hand and writes His inscription on your lips. HE RENDERS TO YOU THE THINGS OF GOD, EVEN AS HE RENDERS TO GOD, ALL WHO BEAR HIS LIKENESS AND HIS NAME.
‘When they heard it, they marveled.’ And so do we.