I can’t read this passage without remembering someone else’s assessment of Jesus’ teaching here. A certain Mrs M Thatcher once commented that Jesus ‘got it about right’ when he taught we should ‘render unto Caesar’. I suppose she thought Jesus would be grateful to receive her endorsement.
I can’t say I turned to her for scholarly help in preparing for today’s sermon – can’t think why – but I do want to say that there is more to this passage than just isolating Jesus’ ‘Render unto Caesar’ saying. I think we have to talk about the opponents and Jesus before we consider Caesar and God. Which means there are four elements to our thoughts today.
What a motley crew the opposition was. An unholy alliance between two parties that thought little of each other. The working-class Pharisees and the ruling-class Herodians. Perhaps their distaste for each other is why the Pharisees send their disciples along to do the dirty work in partnership with people they detested as religious compromisers. Their common cause is hatred of Jesus. For the Pharisees, he is undermining their view of pure faith. For the Herodians, his teaching about the kingdom of God threatens their privileged place in society, next to the hated Romans. For very different reasons, Jesus has to go. Principles will be put aside for the sake of this common cause.
So they become unscrupulous and cynical in their approach to Jesus: “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” (Verse 16) Like they truly acknowledge Jesus as a true teacher. And in saying he shows no deference and has no partiality, they are saying, “Go on Jesus, be bold, be careless – incriminate yourself.”
What does this have to do with us? It provides a warning against those times when we are more concerned to scheme for our own purposes than to seek the will of Christ. It happens from time to time in large-scale and small ways in church life. Sometimes we opt for politicking to get our own way, rather than prayer to find God’s way. Just occasionally, it’s more sinister.
That’s what happened to me in my first appointment. I’ve talked before about running into a serious problem with unsuitable children’s workers. In today’s climate, with plenty of ‘Safe From Harm’ procedures in place, it never would have got into the pickle it was. But sixteen years ago, things were different. Of the three troublesome people, one was known to be a Freemason. I’m always suspicious of Freemasonry in the church – not just because of the secrecy concerns, but because there are so-called ‘Christian degrees’ of Freemasonry that say the Cross of Christ was a mistake. This Freemason was clearly in league with one of the church organists, whom I also believed to be a mason. They were caught having private meetings before church committees, where they were discussing tactics. Socially, they had little in common as people, but it wasn’t their claimed Christianity that united them. It was their membership of the Lodge.
At that level of seriousness, this is the kind of problem I’ve only encountered rarely in church life. But it does exist. And even if none of us plumbs the depths of those Freemasons, let all of us examine our hearts that we avoid manipulation for our own causes in favour of an over-riding concern to walk in the ways of Jesus.
Oh, the irony. Jesus is sincere. He does teach the way of God in accordance with truth. He does show deference to no one and regard nobody with partiality. He is all the things his opponents say about him so insincerely, so slyly, so cynically.
But there’s a shock coming for his inquisitors. Instead of holding nothing back with regard to Caesar, he shows no deference to them! This is one of those times when we would say someone lets fire with both barrels. He has his opponents in his sights, and shoots. He is aware of their malice and labels them ‘hypocrites’ (verse 18).
And I wonder whether this is why some of us are reticent to get close to Jesus. We know he doesn’t merely teach the truth, he is the truth – pure truth, the truth of God. We know he is unbiased. And we know we are so very different. Instead of truth, we have our subtle manipulations of the facts. We are good at ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’. We know how to present ourselves in the best light, rather than the true light. Unlike Jesus, we are biased – mostly in favour of ourselves. Sometimes we favour ourselves so much that it is even at the expense of those we love. Deep down, we know that a close encounter with Jesus would expose our deceit. So we come just near enough to about be considered Christians, but come no further in case his light exposes our darkness.
However, surely we are called to come closer to him – just not in the self-serving way his opponents do in this story. I’m not saying he’ll ignore our sins, but I am saying he’ll treat them in a different way from those he calls hypocrites here. The hypocrites are those who want to catch Jesus out or use him for their own ends. We approach him, I trust, for different reasons. And yes, as we draw nearer to the light of the world, more of that light will shine into our darkness. But it will not be accompanied by condemnation of our motives. Jesus will expose our darkness to evoke our repentance and thus make us more like him.
Might we dare come closer in prayer, Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines? As Paul says in Romans, it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance – not his anger.
So let’s get around to the substance of Jesus’ reply to his critics. Little do we realise how extraordinary this exchange is, when Jesus asks them to show him a coin, and they produce a Roman one with Caesar’s image on it. To Jews, that image of Caesar was idolatrous. More specifically, this story seems to happen in the Temple (21:23). What a place to bring the image of an idol! These were the same people who had protested to Rome about Pontius Pilate setting up idolatrous images in the Temple – and which made Pilate so politically weak a few days later when they demanded Jesus’ execution!
Hence when Jesus tells them to ‘render unto Caesar’, it’s a bit more than saying, ‘pay your taxes’. As the late Professor F F Bruce pointed out, he is saying that for a Jew it is appropriate to get rid of a coin with an offensive human image on it.
If we only interpret this passage as a call to be law-abiding citizens (and I’m sure that’s why Margaret Thatcher liked it), we miss the power of what Jesus said. Stop bringing your idols to worship, he says. Throw away your idols. It’s a radical call to evaluate how serious we are about true worship. No wonder his enemies were wrong-footed by his answer. It puts them on the spot.
And it confronts us, too. What thrills our heart more than Jesus? Is that our idol? What do we spend most of our time daydreaming about? Could that be our idol? The recent financial crises have exposed a lot of contemporary idolatry, but there is more to idol-worship than money. Who or what do we love most? If the answer isn’t Jesus, then we’re in idol territory.
What needs relegating in our lives, because we have promoted it above Christ? What needs disposing of, because it is as unclean in the sight of God as taking into the Jewish Temple the image of a Roman emperor who claimed deity? Will we let the Holy Spirit show us?
What might it mean, then, to ‘render to God the things that are God’s’? Surely we can’t say that some things belong to Caesar and other things belong to God. That would imply that not everything in the world belongs to God, and that conclusion makes no sense from a Christian perspective.
It comes back to the question of image. Caesar’s image and inscription may have been on the coin, but what is on us? We are made in the image of God. The image of God is upon us. He has inscribed himself upon us. [So C H Giblin.] We owe him everything – our lives, our very selves.
This is the point at which Jesus’ opponents walk away (verse 22). Devout as the Pharisees are and respectable pillars of society as the Herodians are, they cannot stomach Jesus’ radical call for total commitment to God and his kingdom. This isn’t religion on their terms: this is faith and discipleship on God’s terms. It’s the point at which the rich young ruler also walked away. He couldn’t take the ‘giving to God what was God’s’ in his case.
There is a story told from the Soviet occupation of the former Czechoslovakia in 1968. A Russian soldier entered a church building during worship, brandishing a weapon. ‘Leave now if you’re not prepared to die for your faith,’ he shouted. Some of the worshippers left, others stayed. Then the soldier laid down his gun. ‘I am a Christian, too,’ he announced, ‘And I knew I would only be safe with those who were willing to lay down their lives for Christ.’
So who are we like? Jesus’ enemies were devoutly religious and well read on the one hand. And they were the sort of people who made society run smoothly and who would be top of your list as dinner guests on the other hand. Yet, when it came to the crunch, religion and respectability were found wanting for one fundamental reason. They had not given over their hearts and affections to God and his kingdom, only to a picture of God and the religious life they had devised for themselves, and which suited their own inclinations and circumstances. Religious externals, however Christian or even Methodist they look, do not wash with Jesus. They mean nothing without the heart.
Maybe the Soviet soldier is the model Jesus calls us to emulate. Not that I suggest we burst into church next Sunday with an AK-47! But he was sold out to Christ and the kingdom of God. And that is what Jesus calls us to when he says we need to render to God the things that are God’s.
For what belongs to God, if not our entire lives? We are made in the image of God. The image has been disfigured by sin, but Jesus is the perfect image of God, and salvation is about remaking that image of God in us.
So if we’re strictly honest, the model to follow isn’t even that member of the Russian army. It’s Jesus himself. As the perfect image of God, he models what it is to ‘render unto God the things that are God’s’. If we want to know what true faith is, it’s to imitate him. Whatever the word ‘Christian’ means to many today, it originally meant ‘little Christ’. True ‘rendering unto God’ involves growing into little Christs under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Today’s Caesars can have their pathetic taxes, but God can have his little Christs.
Are we included?