Jesus said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Our nation’s Independence Day celebration was just a few days ago. We have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to elect our leaders. Do we appreciate our country? The outward trappings of last weekend’s celebration were everywhere. The flags, the fireworks. Fireworks are still being launched in our neighborhoods. But do our citizens love our country? Do we?
Long before the rocket’s red glare and the bombs bursting in air gave proof through the night that our flag was still there, there was a group of people living in a different country, under a different government, who longed for the kind of freedom that we in the United States now have. At the time of tonight’s reading, the Jews lived in fear of the foreign Roman government that had ruled them for about sixty years. Many lived in hope that somehow someone would free them from the Romans. Since before anyone could remember, God had been promising them a champion, a hero, a Savior. So they waited.
Along came Jesus from Nazareth, claiming to be the Promised One. But he wasn’t what they expected. It’s true that at the time of our text he had just been given a hero’s welcome as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. On the other hand he had worked for three years among the people, and they weren’t any closer to being out from under Roman control. Many rejected him. Jewish religious leaders were jealous of him. Jewish political leaders were dissatisfied with him.
Some of those enemies of Jesus approached him after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Pharisees sent some of their disciples (they didn’t go themselves) to go along with some very pro-Jewish political zealots, called Herodians, and they all came with a trick question for Jesus. They said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” This was a trap, because if Jesus said they shouldn’t pay taxes, then they could report him to the Roman government. If he said they should, he would lose all of his Jewish followers.
Jesus answered “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s”, they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” His enemies were speechless. We are told they were amazed, and they left him.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”???!!! How could Jesus say such a thing? Did he fail to notice he was encouraging obedience to a foreign government? One that had taken over by force? Didn’t he know that Jewish people were suffering under Roman rule? He did know this, but the point he was making to his enemies and his followers was the same point the Apostle Paul made later: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, because there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. (Romans 13).
He’s speaking to us, too. The conflict we see among our government leaders has soured many of us. Immoral laws leave us shaking out heads. When we look at problems in our government we may become so caught up in our high calling to serve God that
we forget that we are also called by God to serve the state. We are to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” because the authorities that exist have been established by God.
Have you and I done this faithfully? We have not. If not with our actions, then in our attitude, we have each failed to honor our government as we should. This is serious. If we aren’t giving back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, then neither are we giving to God what is God’s.
We need Jesus. He didn’t come to lead a rebellion against the Romans or anyone else. Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Almighty God from eternity, came to serve. He subjected himself to the Roman government, puny and petty people who had taken the Jews, God’s chosen people by force. And without fail he actively obeyed, loved, honored, appreciated and served those in authority over him consistently even when those authorities failed him. Even when those authorities ordered his execution. The only times he didn’t listen to authorities were when they ordered him to go against God’s will. He wasn’t only teaching us. He was carrying our load. He carried it all the way to the cross.
Now in spite of my sinful nature and yours, God lets Jesus’ record stand for us. So when he looks at us he sees a long, unbroken string of perfect service and love and respect for those in authority. What else can we do now but thank him? And what better way to thank him than to love and honor the government he has established for us?
So let your whole life be like fireworks, a showy celebration. Let your love for God and country show in your faithful commitment to your citizenship. Be a good neighbor. Be involved in civic events. Take responsibility.
I suppose this devotion could close with audio of a stirring patriotic speech complete with a quiet background of Stars and Stripes Forever to evoke an appropriate patriotic response in you. What we have in God’s Word is better than even the best patriotic speech. We have the gospel of Jesus our Savior.
What does it mean to celebrate our nation’s independence? It means celebrating a kind of freedom that can never be taken away, freedom from sin and death, in Jesus our Savior. It means honoring God’s gift of government by honoring our government. God bless America!