“Distinguishing Between God and Caesar”


Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on Sunday, October 16, 2005.  The text is the gospel lesson for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 22:15-22.


Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.


In our day we have as much problem distinguishing between God and Caesar as folks did back in first century Jerusalem.  Many many people are confused about where to place their first allegiance, and amazingly church people often are the most confused.


The Biblical vignette we have today comes from the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.  Just two days before, Jesus has entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and the people have shouted their hosannas to him.  His reputation and popularity are increasing among the people.  In Chapter 21, Matthew tells us that the chief priests and the teachers were indignant.  When Jesus began teaching in the courtyard of the Temple, the chief priests and the elders asked Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things?”  At the end of chapter 21, we are told: When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.  They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.


And so we come today’s lesson…


The Pharisees sent some disciples along with the Herodians to try to trap Jesus in his words.  That question about paying taxes to Caesar.  Is it lawful?  They already knew the answer.  This is the kind of question you ask when you want to inflict damage on the person who has to answer it publicly. 


The Pharisees were nationalists who were opposed to Roman rule.  If Jesus said “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” the Pharisees would denounce him. The Herodians supported the Roman rule with members of the Herod family as puppet rulers.  If Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” the Herodians would denounce him.  These two opposing groups got together on this occasion to publicly embarrass Jesus.


Does this sound like current day Washington politics to you?  Harriet Miers is President Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court.  He has to walk such a fine line in explaining his support.  To the Liberals, he has to stress open-mindedness, fairness, not influenced by her religious beliefs and church involvements.  To the Conservatives, he has to assure them of her deep faith and commitment to conservative ideals.  So, George Bush is being pummeled from both sides.  Oh that he could come up with answer for his dilemma, that would be even half as sharp as the answer Jesus gave…


Let me tell you about the dilemma of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the 17th century Lutheran pastor.  He is the called pastor to three congregations that are in or near Philadelphia.  He is a citizen of Germany and a missionary to America.  He is in a place that is a colony of Great Britain.  There is mounting enthusiasm for American Independence.  Many of the most respected families of Philadelphia are demanding that he show allegiance to the English King in his sermons, in the prayers of the church, by displaying a British flag in the church.  Others are saying that he has to use his personal and congregational influence to support the Revolution.  He needs to display the latest version of the American flag.  They say it is not enough that his sons have joined the Continental Army.  So Muhlenberg is in constant danger from being arrested from either side (and possibly executed), simply because he wants to serve peaceably and neutrally as a minister of the gospel…


It is easier to talk about historical dilemmas than it is to talk about current-day dilemmas.  That’s because we can walk on some folk’s cherished practices more easily if it is about today.


There is a church in Glendale, California, that has provides an illustration of my worry over confusing God and Caesar.  I know this church well because they purchased the land and buildings from the Lutherans when we built a new worship center 2 miles away.  In the front of the church they built a baptistery, a small pool with water, where baptisms were done.  Their minister became more and more patriotic.  When baptisms were done, the lights were lowered in the sanctuary and on the wall behind the baptistery were a projected waving American flag.  The music that was played in the background was something patriotic.  The not-so-subtle message was clear: Christianity and Patriotism go hand in hand.  You don’t distinguish between the two.


Am I stepping on any toes when I say to you this morning the words of Jesus: render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.   Our first loyalty as Christians is to God.  All other loyalties come after that.  That includes our citizenship and family and friends and possessions and work.  The first of the Ten Commandments is very clear on this:  I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.  In other words, nothing else in all of life shall ever have equal allegiance from us as our allegiance to Almighty God.


You are I are citizens of two kingdoms.  We are citizens in this world of the place and people where we live.  We believe that it is God who instituted civil government for the purpose of keeping order and justice.  We do well to be good citizens.  But we are citizens of the Kingdom of God, and that is our first and foremost calling.  We take our direction from God.  And whenever there is a question of allegiance, we will always give our first allegiance to the Lord.  The Holy Bible takes precedence over rules formulated by civil authorities.  The Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment of Jesus always come first for us before the laws of where we live on this earth.


Why did Jesus ask for a Roman coin, the denarius, on that occasion with the Pharisees and Herodians?  Here’s why:


            On one side was the portrait of Emperor Tiberias.  On the other side in Latin were these words, “Tiberias Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.”  The real rub for Jesus was not paying taxes; the real rub was the declaration that Tiberias was the son of God.  The caesars demanded that loyal subjects treat them as gods. 


Are there some things that you have mistakenly raised to equality with God in your life?  Are you having problem distinguishing between God and Caesar?  Is there some sorting out that needs to take place in order to get your allegiances and  priorities straight again? 



My hope and prayers is that we will always be wrestling with this issue of priorities.  That is how Christian folks help one another as we pass through this world, a citizen of two kingdoms.  May God help us.


In Jesus’ name.