In the Gospel of Matthew 22:21 the words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” are some of the most famous words in the bible. But what does it mean?
Let’s go back and look at the situation. A spy is trying to trap Jesus by asking him – “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Let me ask you, is this a theological question? Jesus is in the Temple teaching the Torah and he gets asked this very odd question.
Jesus knows they’re trying to trick him – and they ask a political question. If Jesus answers, yes, that they should pay taxes, he would be a traitor to his people. If he said no, they should not pay the tax, he would be called a rebel and reported to the Roman authorities. In fact, later in his trial before the Sanhedrin they accuse Jesus of telling people to not pay taxes to the emperor (Luke 23:2). But that is not true, is it.
But here is where I want to go with this story from Luke’s Gospel. Many people look to this verse and suggest that Jesus is saying – there should be a separation between government and God. Two forms of authority. Many people think that Jesus is dividing life into two spheres, the secular and the sacred. But if you think that’s what Jesus’ is teaching, you’re incorrect
The coin presented to Jesus is called a Tribute Penney (or Denarius) and it had a picture of Tiberius on the front and his mother as a goddess on the back. The inscription says – Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus. The inscription is clearly calling Caesar the Son of God. But who is the real Son of God? Not Caesar – Jesus!
When Jesus asks them “Whose image and inscription are on it?” The spies answer “Caesar.” Jesus’ words here are very specific for a reason – Jesus knows whose likeness is on the coin. Yet, notice he calls it an “Image.” For those with ears to hear, the image is of Caesar Tiberius – a man. God’s image cannot be put on a coin and Caesar cannot be God.
He tells them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” He is talking about Money, taxes, human stuff. And “to God what is God’s.” What does Jesus mean here? What belongs to God? Everything! In this short sentence Jesus demonstrates that they cannot worship an Idol as Caesar represents, and God at the same time. In legalese – see the Second Commandment.
What we learn is that Jesus is teaching us, there are not two spheres of authority – everything belongs to God. Even Caesar and everything in his empire.
Jesus is not saying that we have a separation of the sacred and the secular. But rather the role of the secular is subordinate to God to be administrators. The secular is to manage the safety of our water, our food, the general welfare of our citizens. To serve as the administrative stewards of all his creation. More importantly, Jesus is teaching us that anyone who would idolize the government, government organizations, or Government power is violating which commandment? The First, ” You shall have no other gods before me,” (Exodus 20:3).
For many of you – you might be scratching your head and thinking to yourselves, why in the world is David talking about this on Memorial Day. My answer is, because we ARE celebrating Memorial Day. What I am asking each of you to do for a moment is to stop and consider a simple question; How close are we to creating Idols of our patriotism?
Celebrating our flag and our nation in church is something I’ve done since I was a very young boy. I am a disabled Military veteran – I love the flag and all it represents. But there is nothing theological about it being in a house that worships God. To make matters worse – The flag is placed to the right of the Pastor so that it is given a place of honor – even over the Christian flag. And guess what – if you wanted to switch their places – you would be violating United States Code of law. By choosing to display the flag you are also allowing the U.S. Government to tell you how your place of worship must be arranged.
Some of you are squirming in your seats now – some of you may be getting angry. Because some of you think I said we should not be honoring the flag. Let me be clear – all I said is there is nothing biblical or theological about the flag in the pulpit. In other words, the presence of the flag is not endorsed by God. I am not proposing that it should be removed. The Methodist church has zero doctrine about the flag church. None – because there is no theology.
This flag is here today because of tradition. The Methodist Book of Discipline and John Wesley both tell us that when we cannot find support for our action in scripture, we are to look to reason, experience, and tradition. When it comes to tradition we have to ask – does this tradition serve as a witness of development and allow us to growth in faith? In this example, does pledging to the flag in church bring us closer to God?
Now I want to tell you the real motivation for this crazy blog today. To remind you that you should be questioning all your traditions. That is why I challenged one of the sacred cows typically only found in the white, southern, Christian tradition. You need to take an inventory of everything you do in God’s house to make sure they serve God’s mission. Doing things because we always do it that way may not be glorifying God. And that’s a question worth asking.
May the God Grace and the Lord Christ Jesus be with you. Amen.