A good question deserves an even better answer. And this is what happens in this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. The tension between Jesus and the leadership in and around Jerusalem continues to build up, and it finds its climax in the series of questions that are posited to Jesus in the three incidents narrated by Matthew: the question about paying taxes, the question about the resurrection, and the question about the greatest commandment in the law.
While Jesus is described as "true" and "teaching the way of God," we know from the beginning of the narrative that the purpose of this compliment is to entangle Jesus. The leaders are looking for a way to bring Jesus down, and they believe that the question about taxes will make Jesus take a public position on a highly charged and divisive issue.
"Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar?" they ask him. There were many people in Jerusalem that objected to the Roman domination of their land. To pay tribute to Caesar by paying the poll tax levied on those who were under direct Roman rule was the ultimate humiliation to those who believed in the freedom of their country and in the sovereign rule of God. If Jesus' answer is yes, he will draw upon himself the wrath and repudiation of his fellow country people. If he responds in the negative, the Roman rulers will accuse him of inciting people to rebel against Caesar.
"Show me the money," Jesus told them. "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" Jesus asked. "Caesar's" was the response. "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's," Jesus responded. The design of the Pharisees to entrap Jesus failed because he was able to transcend the dilemma they forced on him, and in so doing, Jesus was at the same time able to articulate a fundamental principle by which the disciples could chart their existence as the people of God's kingdom, living in a yet imperfect world governed by secular authorities.
Few sayings of Jesus have been more tragically misunderstood than this one. On the one hand, there are those who claim that the Christian should keep their faiths to themselves, displacing the religious person and the religious community from the public arena. On the other hand, there are those who advocate for a stronger influence of the church in society by way of legislating a Christian agenda for our country. Jesus did not advocate for either of these two positions. Jesus acknowledged that everything is under the rule of God, but God rules these two realms in different ways--the kingdom of the left or the secular world with the law and the kingdom of the right or the spiritual world with the gospel. When this twofold rule of God is interpreted in a mutually exclusive manner, the secular world becomes autonomous running according to its own principles and rules, and the Christian must simply submit to them. In this world, then, the church preaches a gospel which affects only the inner soul of Christians and perhaps their intimate relationships. In this separation of the secular and spiritual realms, the Christian and the church seek refuge in the other worldliness of religion or in what some theologians call "the invisible religion," a private affair that may be experienced individualistically and expressed in isolation.
When Jesus responded to the question in the way he did, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's," he was placing the believer at the intersection of these two realms. It is in this intersection where these two realms interact and where both the Christian and the Christian community are called to witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
This understanding of the Christian position in the world is the antidote to the quietism that has found its ways into the life of many congregations and denominations in America. God wants us to be the salt and the light of the world. God wants us to be the leaven in our communities. When Jesus prayed for his disciples before his death, he prayed not only for them but also for those who were to believe in him through their words. And Jesus' prayer at that time was, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one." Jesus could not have prayed otherwise because the God in whom we believe is the Lord of history. It is the God that is present in the microscopic reality of the atom as well as in the infinite vastness of the universe, and certainly it is the God that is present in the world. This God "did not send the Son Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." As God's people we are called, empowered, and sent to proclaim God's creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.
The church, the baptized people of God, is created by the Holy Spirit through the gospel to proclaim and to follow Jesus Christ. The proclamation of the gospel as the Good News of God's salvation given in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus distinguishes the church from all other communities. The gospel liberates from sin, death, and evil, and motivates the church to care for neighbor and for all of creation. The witness of the church in society as the gathered people of God flows from its identity as a community that lives from and for the gospel. Faith is active in love; love calls for justice in the relationships and structures of society. It is in grateful response to God's grace in Jesus Christ that the church carries out its responsibility for the well-being of the society and the world.
The Good News of the gospel is that God saves us through God's gift of grace in Christ alone. We need do nothing but accept the sheer gift of salvation with repentant hearts. This insistence on the radicality of grace is helpful to avoid the dangers of either identification of law and gospel or its separation. It helps us put all human efforts into proper perspective. It also provides a critical shield against the constant attempts in American Christianity to give redemptive significance to movements of social transformation. We need to avoid the temptation of identifying a particular historical project with the kingdom of God even though we understand that the Christian, once he or she has been justified by God, has no other choice but to empty himself or herself in love to the other person and to the community.
In witnessing to Jesus Christ, the church announces that the God who justifies expects all people to do justice. God's good and just demands address people in the obligations of their relationships and the challenges of the world. Through the divine activity of the law, God preserves creation, orders society, and promotes justice in a broken world. The church also has a prophetic presence and voice in our society with the obligation to name and denounce the idols before which people bow, to identify the power of sin present in social structures, and to advocate in hope with poor and powerless people.
As faith, love, and hope are kindled by the Spirit in the hearts of God's people, we will practice those virtues within and through the worldly callings we have been given. God's creative love enters the world through the exercise of the Christian vocation we all have received in our baptism. This extravagant love revealed in the gospel becomes a guiding principle for ordering life in the rough and tumble of this world.
Our witness is a response to God's faithful love received in Word and Sacraments. The bread and the wine, the body and the blood of Christ are, as Luther described it many years ago,
"a sacrament of love. As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his holy needy ones. You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in his holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing."
Some years ago, a Roman Catholic priest serving in the Philippines, was arrested and imprisoned for advocating in favor of the oppressed and poor people. His role, according to the local authorities, was to preach the gospel and not to get involved in politics. Father Edmond Delatorio requested bread and wine to celebrate the Eucharist in his prison cell. Soon thereafter he was asking for more bread and wine since his fellow cell mate was also partaking in the sacrament. The request by Father Delatorio for more bread and wine increased daily. The whole cell block was celebrating the feast of victory of our Lord. As the elements were consecrated, they were passed from cell to cell. Everybody participated in this community of the equal people of God regardless of origin, race, political, or even religious preferences. When the warden was made aware of the situation, he issued an order forbidding Father Delatorio from using bread and wine. In his order, he wrote, "Bread and wine in the hands of this priest becomes a revolutionary weapon."
That's what happens when the love of God in Jesus Christ enters into our world and we are empowered to serve one another with the gospel of salvation and hope.
Let us pray.
O, Lord, our Creator, we commend our neighborhoods and society to your care that it might be kept free from social strife and decay. Give us strength of purpose and concern for others that we may create here a community of justice and peace where your will may be done through your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.