|Posted on October 22, 2017 at 5:30 AM|
May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our gospel reading today concerns one of the many occasions on which the religious authorities of our Lord's time attempt to lay a snare for him. And I imagine you know all too well the explanation for what they are trying to do, learned from your days in the schoolroom, sermons heard over the years, and hopefully even your own reading, what the trap is that they think they are setting. Should Jesus answer that that people should not pay taxes to the Emperor, then they will denounce him as a rebel to the Roman authorities – who will then, they hope, arrest him and at least imprison him and perhaps even execute him. But if he says that they should pay taxes – well, what sort of a Messiah is he, one that publicly declares that the Jewish people should meekly bow before the demands of the hated Roman oppressors? That answer, they hope, would finish him as a teacher of the people and remove him as a threat to their own authority. Whichever way he answer, Jesus is finished; something that will make them very happy.
Our Lord, of course, sees through their plan. 'Why are you putting me to the test?' he asks them. And he knows also that they are not asking him this out of a spirit of honest enquiry, but rather, as St Matthew puts it, out of malice; for he finishes his question by saying to them 'you hypocrites.' He then he takes a coin and asks them whose image and title is upon it; and when they say the Emperor's, he gives them his justly famous response of 'Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s' , as the old translation so beautifully puts it.
Our Lord, of course, does more than give a clever answer to his enemies with this reply. He also gives us two commands. The the first is that we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar's. This means that Christians must be good citizens of the state. We must pay our taxes, obey the laws of the land, provided that they are just laws that do not conflict with our moral duties as children of God, and uphold the state in the lawful exercise of its authority.
The state, as St Paul tells us, has the sword to compel us. And that is true. The state, at the end of the day, has the ability to use force in order to make us obey its commands. But the faithful Christian should not fear that ability, because he complies with all the just laws of the state willingly and cheerfully, not only in public but also in private. The consideration as to whether or not we will be caught in any wrong-doing ought not be a factor when it comes to how law-abiding we are.
The other command of our Lord's that lies within his response that day is that we must render unto God that which is God's. And we know, or should know, what that is, for Christ has told us. He has told us what the first and greatest of all the commandments is – to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and heart. And he has also told us what it means to love God – those who love him will keep his commandments. And, as St John the Apostle tells us in his letters, those who say they love God and yet do not keep his commandments are liars. There are doubtless many who present themselves to the world, and perhaps even to themselves, as faithful Christians; but if they deliberately reject any part of God's law and refuse to obey it, then they are lying to both themselves and the world. It is such as they of whom Jesus Christ spoke when he said that there were many who call him Lord Lord to whom he will say depart from me, ye evildoers; I tell you that I never knew you. And they will be sent from him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
There is one final message in the twin commands from our Lord in our gospel today. And that comes, of course, from the fact that sometimes our duty of obedience to the state will sometimes come into conflict with our duty of obedience to God. What do we do should such a situation arise? The answer is obvious. Obedience to God must always comes first. It is, after all, from God that authority on heaven and earth comes – as our Constitution acknowledges.
And you will have noticed, I hope, that when I spoke of obedience to the laws I also said that those must be just laws. A law that, for example, tried to outlaw going to church on a Sunday would be just such an unjust law – it outside the authority of the state to interfere with a person's practice of religion - and therefore such a law must neither be tolerated or obeyed. Another would be if the state were to declare that a certain class of human beings could be arbitrarily killed. Justice requires the protection of innocent human life; and any law that suggests otherwise must be rejected and resisted. God and religion are not something that Caesar permits as long as they do not interfere with how he exercises power in any manner he sees fit; but rather God allows Caesar to have power in order that the societies in which his children live may be well ordered … and they can only be so if they are governed in a manner that is in accordance with the laws he has given us out of love, and which must lovingly obey in return … something that I pray all here will remember always, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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