What Belongs to Caesar?

[Manuscript for the sermon preached by Leroy Seat at the Lawson (Mo.) United Christian and Presbyterian Church on October 22, 2017.]

Matthew 22:15-22

It is a delight to be with you here in Lawson this morning, and I am grateful for Pastor Molini asking me to supply for her this morning. I have preached for her a couple of times at her previous church and am very happy to do so today here at Lawson United Christian and Presbyterian Church.

I have been through Lawson before, but this is the first time I can remember ever being to Lawson. Do you know that the name Lawson is known all across Japan? It is the name of a konbini (convenience store) chain with more than 11,000 stores in every prefecture in Japan.

So not only is this is my first time to worship with you—it is the first time to attend a United Christian and Presbyterian church. I was impressed when I learned that the Presbyterian church here was started in 1849, many years before the town of Lawson was founded, that the Christian (Disciples) church was established in 1881, and that the two churches were united in 1969 to form your present church.

I have, however, attended, and preached in, a United Baptist-Presbyterian church. That was in Mt. Ayr, Iowa. Most of you perhaps don’t know where Mt. Ayr, Iowa, is, but Roy and Jean Rinehart do, for they are from Worth County, Mo., as I am. Worth County borders Ringgold County, Iowa, of which Mt. Ayr is the county seat. It is about 110 miles due north of here.

You may find it hard to believe, but I first met Roy Rinehart and Jean Brown, as she was then, over 70 years ago. We rode the same school bus from 1945 or 1946 until they graduated from high school in Grant City, the county seat of Worth County. I learned early on that Roy Lee, as we called him back then, was one of the smartest students in Grant City High School. He is a few years older than I, and I looked up to him in admiration when I was a boy. So I am delighted to see them again today—as well as to meet most of you for the first time.

Beginning when I was 18 years old, I preached almost every Sunday for eight years before my wife and I went to Japan as Baptist missionaries. I was a full-time university professor there for 36 years, but we started a bi-lingual church in 1980. For 24 years I was a part-time pastor there, usually preaching twice a month. In all that time, I never used the lectionary for selecting Bible passages or topics for my sermons. But since retiring in 2004 and preaching in various churches from time to time in the years since then, I have often used the lectionary for choosing the text and topic for my sermon. So, soon after Pastor Molini asked me to preach for her today, I looked up the lectionary Bible passages for today and soon decided to use the Gospel reading: Matthew 22:15-22. This is a passage most of you have heard many times, but listen to it again as I read from the new Common English Bible, the new translation completed in 2011 for use by both Protestants and Catholics:

15Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20“Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.

21“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.

Many of you remember well the words of verse 21 of the older translation: “Render . . . unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (KJV). My sermon title, “What Belongs to Caesar?” comes from that verse, of course.

(This same event/conversation is also recorded in Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26.)

Jesus’ statement comes at the end of a passage about taxes—which is usually a debatable subject. You have heard that nothing is certain except death and taxes. Those words were by Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in a 1789 letter, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Currently, there are highly diverse views about taxes here in the U.S. Some people lament that taxes are a form of theft, while there are some who speak about “taxpayer pride.” Just last month an article was posted on the Internet with the title “Taxation is Nothing More than Legalized Robbery.” On the other hand, Sister Simone Campbell is one such person in the latter group. (Some of you will remember her as “the nun on the bus.”)

The question that Jesus’ opponents asked him, though, was not about paying taxes in general. It was paying taxes to Caesar, and the Roman government under him. The Jewish people had long paid what was called the “Temple tax,” and there seemingly wasn’t any question about that. But Caesar was the Roman emperor whose forces had subjugated the Jews under their jurisdiction. Caesar even demanded religious-like adoration: he wanted to be called “Lord.”

Those who were seeking to trap Jesus in order to silence him and his movement posed this question to him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Some of the Jewish people wanted to follow the Torah rather than Roman law much the same way that strict Muslims want to follow Sharīʿah rather than the law of the non-Muslim countries. Of course, there are some in our day, such as Roy Moore of Alabama, who seem to think that the Bible should be followed rather than U.S. law in some cases. (That may be all right for private citizens, but it is a question when such a person seeks election as a U.S. Senator.)

So, the question posed to Jesus was a trick question—like the proverbial “when did you stop beating your wife?” There seemed to be no good answer. His answer would ignite explosive opposition whether it was affirmative or negative. The strict Jews would have strongly disapproved of Jesus sanctioning paying the Roman taxes; the Romans would have condemned non-payment of the imposed taxes. Jesus was clearly put between a rock and a hard place.

The Romans had long sought to get taxes from the Jewish people who had come under their jurisdiction. Remember that according to Luke 2:1, shortly before the birth of Jesus, “Caesar Augustus, [the emperor] declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.” That was the reason Joseph and Mary made the long, hard trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

So now Jesus asked for a coin that was used for the taxes, noted the image (Greek: eikon) on the coin, and then made the oft-quoted statement about rendering to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God.

Jesus’ answer was a brilliant one. It got him off the hook: neither the strict Jews nor the Romans could find his answer to be one they could criticize or attack him for. Moreover, it left a statement that Christians have followed with good reason for all the years since Jesus first spoke those words in verse 21. So jump with me now from first century Palestine to these past few days in Kansas City.

Since Thursday evening a symposium titled “Remembering Muted Voices: Conscience, Dissent, Resistance and Civil Liberties in World War I Through Today” has been held at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. (Many of you have no doubt been there.) I went to the opening activities on Thurs., attended some of the sessions on Fri. and Sat., and came here this morning straight from the 8:00 memorial service at which Rev. Ruth Harder, my pastor, spoke. (Some of you may have seen her “guest commentary” that was in last Wednesday’s Kansas City Star.)

One feature at the symposium was the premier of the traveling exhibit “Voices of Conscience: Peace Witness in the Great War,” developed by Kauffman Museum, which is affiliated with Bethel College in Kansas. From this Tuesday through Sunday, this exhibit will be at the Pastor Ruth’s church, the Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City, Kansas. If any of you should happen to be in the area, I hope you will stop by to see that exhibit.

Conscientious objectors, as you know, are people who refuse military service—or at least refuse to bear arms—because of their belief that killing other humans being in any way is wrong. This has been the position of the Quakers from their beginning in England in the 1740s and from the Anabaptists who are descendants of the small group of Swiss Brethren who organized in 1525.

From the beginning, the Anabaptists thought allegiance to God always took precedence to allegiance to the state—to “Caesar.” And since Jesus clearly taught that we are to love our enemies, they thought there was no justification for trying to kill them. Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you45so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5).

Although there is no stated link, we can assume that Jesus said what he did partly because he knew that all people were created in the image of God. In Genesis 1:27 we read (and I am once again reading from the Common English Bible), “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” This doesn’t mean that we humans look like God the way Caesar looked like his image on the Roman coin. Rather it means that we have a “likeness” to God that makes it possible for us to know God, to love God, and to have a personal relationship with God.” Among all of God’s creation, only humans have that possibility; only humans are made in the image of God.

“Caesar” may legitimately claim our coins—or our checks by April 15—but never our allegiance or our obedience, which belong only to God in whose image we are made. Thus, many of us in the Anabaptist tradition are reluctant to pledge allegiance to anything (or anyone) other than to God as known through Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to get into the “take the knee” protest by the pro football players—or the opposition to that protest led by the President—that has been going on. But long before that protest began last year—which was entirely about the problem of racism in our country—in 2004 two professors at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana wrote what they call “A Christian Pledge of Allegiance.” It goes like this:

I pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ,

And to God’s kingdom for which he died—

One Spirit-led people the world over,

Indivisible, with love and justice for all.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying: I am not saying that you who are American citizens should not pledge allegiance to the flag. But I am saying that if you are a Christian, your first and primary allegiance ought to be to God as known through Jesus Christ. There are things you own Caesar or your country. But you belong to God.

I wonder what difference it would make in our communities—in your town of Lawson—and in the world if we Christians all started pledging our allegiance to Jesus and to God’s Kingdom. If we belong to God, shouldn’t we do that?

Do you know the hymn “I Surrender All”? It doesn’t seem to be in your hymnals, but it is one I remember well from my boyhood. It was written by a Methodist layman named Judson Van Deventer and first published in 1896.

All to Jesus I surrender
All to Him I freely give
I will ever love and trust Him
In His presence daily live

I surrender all
I surrender all
All to Thee my blessed Saviour
I surrender all

We don’t surrender our all to Caesar – or to anything or anyone else. We don’t belong to Caesar. We belong to God and our lives belong to God. When we surrender our all to Jesus, we come to love God will all our heart and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

About Leroy Seat

* Born in Grant City, MO, on 8/15/1938 * Graduated from Southwest Baptist College (Bolivar, MO) in 1957 (A.A.) * Graduated from William Jewell College (Liberty, MO) in 1959 (A.B.) * Graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) in 1962 (B.D., equivalent of M.Div.) * Received the Doctor of Philosophy degree in theology from SBTS. * Baptist missionary to Japan from 1966 to 2004. * Full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University (Fukuoka, Japan) from 1968 to 2004. * Adjunct professor at Rockhurst University from 2006 to 2014.
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