Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.” (Matthew 22:15–22, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite parts about my trip to France this summer was the day we spent at the Louvre. In the Louvre you find art from all of human history. I remember seeing coins with their beautiful inscriptions and images. The funny thing about these coins is that where they were, in a display case at one of the most famous museums in the world, you kind of forget what they were for. You tend to think of them as art, because they are surrounded by art. You forget that they were the means of commerce. You forget that they had value beyond their artistic value. That happens sometimes on Sunday mornings here, too. This text is an example of that. We hear about Jesus commending us to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's and we miss the whole context. Especially in the current politically charged atmosphere. We get focused on the connection between church and state and think that that is what this text is all about. Especially because what Jesus says is a very memorable proverb about or relationship to government and church.
“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But it all happened in a context. Jesus says what he says in a time and place and to a particular people. Let's not lose the sense of what is being said simply because the saying itself is particularly artful.
So, let's set the scene. It's Passover. People are everywhere. Visitors from out of town. Relatives in for the holiday. Actually it is that Passover. We call it Holy Week. Jesus has come to celebrate with his disciples... and more. In Jesus, God has come to be with his people. This whole visit begins with Jesus riding into town hailed as king, riding on a donkey, Palm Sunday. Jesus goes to the temple. He doesn't like what he sees and drives out the money changers. He has set the stage. He is by himself in the temple. He is the valuable treasure. He does what God has come to do. He heals and teaches. He becomes the center of the temple.
It doesn't set well with the religious leaders. The scribes and Pharisees don't want this God. He is not the Messiah they expected. He doesn't follow them, and encourage them. He doesn't praise them. They don't want someone who changes the way they have set things to work. Jesus hurls the word "hypocrite" at them. They deserve it. They pretend that the law is uppermost in their minds when at the same time they break it. They want to get rid of Jesus. They are looking for chinks in his armor. They scheme to trap him in his words. The want him dead. Jesus makes the contrast very clear. He hhHHmakes their sins plain. God wants mercy. They pretend to be merciful. God looks for faith. They flatter Jesus with empty words of praise. God has given them the sacrifices to remind them of the necessity of repentance and forgiveness. They are willing to shed blood over their own righteousness. They want to argue with Jesus over money. But they are spiritually bankrupt.
Nothing makes it more plain than their pushing to get Jesus to the cross. They prove they don't understand, and in fact reject, Jesus' words, "... render... to God the things that are God’s.” Over and over again they fail to do just that. They have taken Jesus, the true king of Israel and turned him over to Caesar. They have rendered God's things to Caesar.
It is most telling, when Judas comes begging them for mercy, his guilt over Jesus' betrayal hanging over him. He has come for forgiveness. He pleads for mercy. He has come to the right place. The temple place that God has given for that very thing. He has come to the shepherds who should be tending to the God's sheep. "What is that to us?" Is their reply. They have turned God's temple into a building built to them. They have neglected the true gift of God. When they reject Judas they argue about the money he has thrown at them. They have set their budget over their calling to be shepherds to God's people. They don't care about the things of God. They care about the things of Caesar. They are standing in their temple, holding blood money and spiritually bankrupt.
But outside the temple, outside the city, outside of Jerusalem, Jesus, the true king of Israel, reigns. It doesn't look as we think it should. His throne is a cross. His holy and precious blood and innocent suffering and death are a treasure for all people. Jesus has come "...not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, ESV) Here is God's mercy. Here is God's forgiveness. God has come to save his people. He does it through his own sacrifice. Jesus has rendered to God all there is to give. His perfect life. His innocent suffering and death. He gives what is necessary for all people to be saved from the punishment they deserve. Jesus is himself the priceless treasure.
We have that treasure here. Here we render the things that are God's back to him. He gives us what we need more than anything else. Here he speaks the truth about our sin. We confess it. He takes our burden of guilt and hangs it on Jesus. He tells us that we are forgiven because of Jesus on the cross. We rejoice and sing back his praise. And this is no coin under glass. Although sometimes we treat it that way. In fact, we sometimes look very much like the hypocrites Jesus confronted in the temple. We act as if the treasure here is the budget. We act as if the gifts that God gives for the maintenance of this property are more important than what God does here through his Word, more important that what God does here through water and bread and wine. We are tempted to be satisfied with the beauty of what happens here and forget that the gift, the forgiveness of sins, is not just for us in this place. This priceless gift is God's gift for all people. It is given to us freely it is to be given freely to all people. It's value is in the giving. It has value beyond its beautiful expression here in the pews. Forgiven people forgive. People who have been shown mercy, show mercy. It is why we don't live in the church and around the church but we live in the community and around the people who need what God gives here.
The precious, priceless, gift is the forgiveness of sin, and life forever. It has been purchased by God himself, Jesus Christ, through his life, death and resurrection. It is the treasure that is that all people need. It is ours for the giving. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.