Jesus reveals to the Pharisees that human beings exist and live in two realms, and that He (Jesus) is the Lord of both.
The Pharisees bring some friends along as they attempt to catch Jesus in a trap of His own words. They ask whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar. And everyone knows it is a loaded question.
To say “yes” is to offer support to the Romans who everyone despises. If Jesus says that they should indeed pay Caesar’s tax, then He could very well lose the favor of the people.
To say “no” is to call down the wrath of the Romans. If Jesus tells the people that they should not pay the tax, then He could be arrested or killed.
So little do these Pharisees understand. Jesus is headed for the cross. He does not fear losing the favor of the people, for in a matter of days these very same people will be calling for his death. He does not fear the Romans because on Good Friday the Romans will execute Him anyway. Jesus is the most dangerous kind of man there is: one with nothing to lose.
Yet He is more than that. Jesus is also God. So while He could very well give any answer He chose, He wishes to give one that will teach the people, that will offer guidance to His disciples when they remember His words after His ascension.
In accordance with His desire to teach the people and to call them to repentance and faith, Jesus gives His famous answer: “Therefore render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Well, they hadn’t even thought of that.
Jesus acknowledges that the human being lives in two realms. The first and most obvious realm in which we live is that of the physical, visible world around us. This is the world of sight, of laws, governments, work, and labor.
In this realm we pay to each what we owe him. This is why the Jews had to pay taxes. They had Caesar’s coins, so give them back to Caesar when he asks for them. So we too, as citizens of our nation, pay taxes, obey the laws, and even participate as we are able in civic responsibilities like voting.
This is important to remember, especially a few weeks before an election. We are not one nation who serves a king. We are people subject to a constitution, to the rule of law. And according to that law we have a responsibility to vote, so don’t forget.
In this realm we pay our bills. You have to pay your mortgage or rent, your gas and electric bills. Those of you who have employees have to pay the workers their wages.
The church has bills too. It has workers to support, electricity to pay for, mission and ministry to do. And so you and I are responsible for paying those bills. That is why extra generosity is necessary at this time of the year, to make sure the church can fulfill its responsibilities.
Those responsibilities, however, pale in comparison to the second realm. “Give to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus says. And what do we owe to God? Everything.
This is the calling of the second realm, the spiritual realm. It is not one that we can easily see. It is a realm whose existence, responsibilities, and priorities must be revealed to us by the Word of God. So what do the Scriptures say?
God created you. He formed your ancestors from the dust of the earth. He knit you together in your mother’s womb. More than that He has purchased you with the blood of Christ. He has chosen you in your baptism, marked you as His own. You and I owe everything, every drop of blood, every ounce of sweat, each penny in our pockets, to the service of God our Savior.
Jesus really did not care all that much about the Jews paying their taxes to Caesar. The much larger issue, the elephant in the room, was whether they would give to God the things that are God’s. And they would not.
The parables that Jesus has told for the past several weeks in our Gospel lessons illustrate this. The tenants in the vineyard do not want to give up the landlord’s share of the fruit. The wedding guests who refuse to attend the feast and celebrate with their king. The Jews will not give to God, their Lord and King, what they owe: humble faith and obedience.
Where do we stand on that? Are we giving to God what we owe? Fear, love, and trust? Faith and obedience? Are we offering God everything, or are we holding back. It is not about money, about paying the bills. It is about the attitude of our hearts.
Apart from Christ we don’t want to give God anything. We will begrudgingly pay what we owe Caesar, but no more. And God won’t get a red cent, a stray thought, a lick of loving obedience. In sin we stubbornly refuse to render unto God all that we are, all that we have.
So God simply takes what is His. He does not wait for our compliance. He knows that we cannot, in and of ourselves, give Him anything. So he buys us, claims us, and works good in us.
The death of Jesus on the cross is God’s payment for your life. He owns the lives of every person on this planet. Every person you see rightly belongs to God.
In baptism He brings the death and resurrection of Jesus to you and marks you as His own. Every Christian that you meet has a spiritual sign on their forehead that reads: property of Jesus Christ.
This ownership of God means that He has forgiven our sins. He has erased from the record all the stubborn refusals to offer what we owe. He has called forth faith in our hearts to trust His every promise and to cherish His every word.
The first realm is where we do our work. We pay our taxes, we live out our vocations and fulfill our duties. In the second realm, however, God works alone. So our salvation, our resurrection, is in the hands of Jesus only.
Now, by faith in Jesus Christ, trusting that His death has paid for us and claimed us for Himself, we gladly render to Caesar what he wants, for Caesar cannot take what is God’s. This realm may take all of your money, but it cannot take your life, for that belongs to Jesus. And Jesus will keep that which is His.