"Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the
things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When
they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their
way" (Matthew 22:21-22).
The Prayer Book "Offices of Instruction" summarize our duty under the
Eighth Commandment ("Thou shalt not steal") in this manner: "To keep my
hands from picking and stealing: To be true and just in all my dealings"
This is wisdom, first of all, because the Church recognizes here in
her teaching that there are two kinds of stealing, two ways of depriving
someone else of what rightfully belongs to him. The first is "picking and
stealing": theft as an act of undisciplined impulse. And this impulse just
to grab whatever we desire is very destructive. All loving parents try
to teach their children how to fight this temptation and to respect the
property of others.
But while the urge to pick and to steal is "childish," it is not "childlike"
or innocent in its results. One of the hidden costs of every purchase we
make is the storekeeper’s loss through theft, passed on to his customers
in higher prices. And it is the weakest and most defenseless members of
society who are hurt most by theft-inflated prices: the sick, widows, orphans,
the elderly—everyone on a fixed or limited income. In fact, there are entire
neighborhoods in our country without a single store because all the stores
have been driven out of business by picking and stealing.
And yet, surpassing impulsive theft for sheer destructiveness is the
second sort of stealing identified by the Prayer Book: the planned, cold-blooded
theft of failing to be true and just in all our dealings. Truth and justice
demand effort, but so do their denial. And if picking and stealing can
destroy a business or neighborhood, the refusal to be true and just can
destroy an entire church, society, or nation.
People make mistakes, of course. But honest people try to learn from
their errors. They spend their lives trying to learn truth and justice;
while dishonest people actively cultivate their ignorance of what God demands
of every human being. Although we can pass a thousand laws to protect the
innocent and to punish the guilty (and we have); no human law can succeed
where the law of God is despised. The Prayer Book is right. I have no hope
of teaching or even forcing you to be honest, until I have worked to keep
my own hands from picking and stealing, until I have given my heart to
God’s justice and truth in all my dealings.
We are all born into this world as hypocrites, so justice and truth
are life-long pursuits of our sanctification in Christ, who even provides
for our failures by offering us his Father’s pardon any time we repent
our sins. It was this same repentance that Christ sought from the Scribes
and Pharisees in today’s Gospel, even though they had come to trick him,
and not to learn about justice and truth.
Their question about paying taxes to Caesar was a trap. If Christ said
to pay the tax, the Pharisees could denounce him to the people as a Roman
collaborator. If he spoke against the tax, they could hand him over to
the Roman governor as a revolutionary, something they did manage to do
on Good Friday.
Yet the Scribes and Pharisees failed, because Christ asked to see their
money, which turned out to be Roman coins. Under the Jewish law that the
Pharisees claimed to follow, even touching a coin engraved with the image
of a man, in this case Caesar, made one unclean and unable to enter the
Temple. But they had just come from the Temple with their pouches full
of ritually unclean Roman money.
The crowd that had gathered probably burst into laughter at the Pharisees’
hypocrisy, and at Christ’s defeat of their clever plan to best him. All
the Pharisees could do was to marvel at their comeuppance, as Christ declared,
"Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God
the things that are God's."
That word "render" is our key to understanding this teaching of our
Lord. It means, "to give someone else what is rightfully his." In this
case, the Pharisees had taken Caesar’s money and the other benefits of
the Roman political system. In return, they owed Caesar his taxes on that
money. The tax wasn’t voluntary. It wasn’t a gift. The tax was a debt,
and to fail to pay it would have been theft.
But if Christ has bound us to meet our obligations to our civil governors,
we ought not to forget the rest of his teaching that day, by which he bound
us to render to God the things that are God’s. It is the Pharisees’ doctrine,
and not Christ’s, that we have no king but Caesar (John 19:15). Our Lord
Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Whatever lawful
authority any king or government may possess can only be given by God.
And no state can command our worship, because worship belongs to God alone.
One of the founding principles of the United States, now obscured by
secularist propaganda, is that we Americans have no King but Jesus Christ.
Our American heritage of national Thanksgiving Days and voluntary annual
stewardship drives constitutes our tribute, our custom, our fear, and our
honor that are owed to the Sovereign Majesty that rules us and provides
for us (compare Romans 13:7, and our duties to earthly rulers). We render
unto God what belongs to him by right, our praise and our thanksgiving.
We obey his demand for truth and justice in all our doings, even when we
deal with him. And, so, what do we owe him?
"Firstfruits" in the Bible are the first, indivisible portion of what
we make or do that belongs by right to God, just as "tithes" are God’s
first tenth of whatever can be divided. Our lives, therefore, are "firstfruits,"
because they cannot be divided. They belong to God, or they don’t. In the
same way, we pay to God the first, not the last, portion of our income
or increase, not as a gift, but as a debt, or we are not giving him what
already belongs to him (like a bank that refuses to return our deposits).
But make no mistake about it. God, our King, requires tribute from us,
a return on what he has given us. God is the Lord of the visible, as well
as the invisible, because he made them both. We owe God our visible tribute
for his visible blessings, just as much as we owe him our spiritual worship
for his invisible grace.
The Christian Church in modern times has been weakened by the childish
myth that we have it harder than the ancients did. We have acted for a
century as if we were the first people ever to have the burden of taxes,
even though the Lord who taught us to pay firstfruits and tithes was born
in Bethlehem because his parents had gone there to pay a tax. We have acted
as if money were the issue, and money is always tight. Even billionaires
worry that they could use just a few dollars more.
But what matters is truth and justice in all our dealings, even our
dealings with God. What matters is, as we say today in our prayers, that
"we yield unfeigned thanks" and learn "to ask faithfully [so] that we may
obtain effectually." We cannot seriously ask for blessings from a God we
disobey. We cannot convert the world to a Faith that we do not practice.
We cannot help the poor and the weak if we fail to use the time and the
money that God has already given for these purposes.
As we sow, so also shall we reap (Gal. 6:7), and sowing means letting
go of something so that God can multiply it and make it great. And if this
sounds too direct, consider the bluntness of God in the Holy Scriptures,
where he says:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me…in tithes and offerings. Bring
ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be [food] in my house
and prove me…if I will not pour you out a blessing, that there shall not
be room enough to receive it (Malachi 3:8,10).
Truth and justice take courage, and we take courage together because
two thousand years ago the Son of God offered everything to save us and
to build his Church. We continue to build that Church with him when we
do our bounden duty together and render to our Father in heaven the physical
worship, our support for his Church, which is his true and most just due.
And God will bless our loyalty beyond our reckoning.
But we ought also to remember that whether we render unto Caesar or
to God on the basis of our Lord’s teaching, we are not doing something
new, but only obeying that ancient commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Andrew’s Church and Dr. Tarsitano.