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Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:15-22

October 22, 2023

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.

These words have confused people and left people speechless for centuries. And in fact, it’s sort of the point.

But let me set the stage for you.

Jesus is in Jerusalem. He is days, hours away from His crucifixion. The pharisees, the religious leaders, the Jewish politicians, they do not like Jesus, and they want Him out of the way. They have tried to trap him by calling Him the devil. They have tried to trap Him by testing His teaching. They’ve tried to stone Him, beat Him, make His fans and followers turn on Him. But nothing has stuck.

But guess what? The one thing they’ve not tried is politics. They’ve not brought the Roman emperor into the conversation because, frankly, most of the Jews don’t care much for Caesar…well, the Herodians love the Roman empire but that’s a small group compared to the followers of the Pharisees and teachers of the law.

So, politics…yeah. The pharisees, the religious leaders of the Jews, AND the Herodians, the political pundits and Herod followers – they start to work together. It’s an attack on two fronts.

Now, the Herodians, they’re all for a Roman tax. After all, someone’s gotta pay to keep the lights on in Herod’s mansion, and someone’s gotta pay for the Roman military to keep Israel safe. So, the Herodians, who are Jews, by the way, they would take great offense if someone says it is wrong to pay taxes. In fact, it would be illegal in the empire to refuse to pay taxes, punishable by death.

However, the pharisees and their followers, they begrudgingly pay the Roman poll tax – they hate doing it and even think it a sin, that Israel is a sovereign nation and shouldn’t pay taxes or be beholden to anyone.

It’s a perfect setup. And look how they start it out, and this is so typical of people, isn’t it? They send their followers to Jesus. They’re too chicken and the Pharisees and Herodians are too at each other’s throats to go themselves, so they send their lackies. Typical.

And what’s the very first thing they do? They get out the verbal butter and start rubbing it all over Jesus. “We know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you don’t care about the opinions of men, and you’re not swayed by appearances.” And none of them believe Jesus is a teacher from God, but they pretend to believe it in hopes to puff up Jesus and make Him stumble over His own pride.

It’s so typical. But then they throw the dagger. “Tell us your opinion, Jesus, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Now, understand that this debate is nothing new. As I said earlier, there were those who were pro-tax and those who were anti-tax. Sort of like we have today, right? So, their question is, for all practicality, a fair question, though they’re using it to try and trap Jesus, to condemn Him.

If Jesus answers, “it is not lawful,” then the Roman guards could immediately arrest him, bring Him to Pilate, and have Him killed for breaking the law. If Jesus answers, “it is lawful; pay your taxes,” then He will lose face with the people – most of them didn’t like paying taxes – and will quickly become yesterday’s news or worse, the Jews could accuse Him of blasphemy and stone Him to death.

So, what does Jesus do? First of all, Jesus is fully aware of what they’re trying to do. When the Pharisees and the Herodians are working together, you know there’s scheming and maliciousness in their wake, and Jesus sees this.

But Jesus IS God and He DOES speak truthfully, and He doesn’t care about the opinions of people, or appearances for that matter. He doesn’t need His pride buttered up because His is God in the flesh and everything He says and does is righteous. This is why He calls them hypocrites. They appear one way on the outside, but on the inside, they are full of evil intent.

Jesus asks for a denarius, a day’s wage paid out by the Roman economy. Jesus then asks a very simple question, one anyone could answer: “Who’s face and signature is on this coin?” Everyone knows that it’s Caesar. Then Jesus says something so simple that a child should understand it: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”

They are speechless. They can’t accuse Jesus of anything because what He said is perfectly just.

But now we must ask the question: what does this mean?

It is from this interaction between our Lord Christ and those hypocrites where we Lutherans get the doctrine of the two kingdoms. And the way we confess this doctrine isn’t similar to any other church body. Many western church bodies which come out of the anabaptist persuasion teach a two kingdoms theology but essentially say the worldly kingdoms must be avoided at all costs, that governments are inherently evil, and Christians should have nothing to do with them. Other persuasions tend to lean toward the idea that the church should rule the state in most matters including capital punishment, that there should even be a sort of church-state government.

But Lutherans understand our Lord’s words quite differently.

What is two kingdoms theology? Essentially, it teaches that there are two kingdoms or authorities in which every Christian lives and dwells. The left kingdom is the kingdom of power, and the right kingdom the kingdom of grace. The left kingdom offers no salvation or forgiveness but only things of the world while the right kingdom offers nothing but God’s mercy in everything He gives and uses such as His Word and Sacraments.

When you were baptized into Christ, when you became a Christian, when you confessed Christ as Lord and God of all, you became a citizen of two kingdoms. You have one foot in the left and one foot in the right.

Thus, by your left foot you are giving to Caesar that which is Caesars. And there’s nothing wrong with this as long as you understand that nothing of the left kingdom makes you a Christian. And avoiding the left kingdom will not make you a better Christian. And believe me, there have been plenty of movements and Christian groups who thought that if they can separate themselves totally from the world and its authorities, it would make them right with God. Even the Missouri Synod, early on, had a bit of a separatist persuasion among its ranks.

But your faith is not measured by how much or how little you interact with the left kingdom. Consider this:

It is not an uncommon thing to find a church or a pastor preach as follows: “If you’re a Christian, you must not go to bars! If you’re a Christian, you must not drink! If you’re a Christian, you must not dance! If you’re a Christian, you must dress like a Christian! If you’re a Christian, you must not listen to secular, non-Christian music!”

This is what happens when you confuse the two kingdoms. You start creating false dichotomies and basically turn the mercy and grace of God into something conditional.

“Shall we pay taxes to Caesar or not?” “Shall we be Christian, or shall we wear make up?” Shall we be followers of Christ, or shall we listen to secular music?” “Shall we be believers, or shall we refuse to give a tithe?”

See, you are not a Christian BECAUSE you listen to Christian music. You are not a Christian BECAUSE you choose to wear a Christian t-shirt or a cross around your neck. You are not a Christian BECAUSE you give money to the church. You are not a Christian BECAUSE you feel like you’re a Christian or because you get a good vibe when you sing your favorite hymn.

You ARE a Christian because Christ has died for you. You ARE a Christian because God has forgiven you and given you new life and made sure and eternal promises to you that can never be broken. What makes you a Christian isn’t you, but it is God for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you have the “license” to do whatever you want. Music is in no way forbidden in the Scripture. But if your favorite secular song teaches nothing but drug use and adultery, then you have another problem because Christian virtue – which is a gift of the Spirit of God – does not want you listening to such things. The Bible doesn’t forbid wearing any sort of clothing, but if you go to school or to work or live your day-to-day wearing t-shirts which promote Evolutionary theory or praising Satan or promote adulterous lifestyles, this is a spiritual problem, and some honest repentance is in order.

But what happens when we confuse, when we confound the kingdom of the left and the kingdom of the right is that we also confuse Law and Gospel, sinner and saint, wrong and right, and we even confound worship itself.

I remember when I was a kid and hearing some pastor at some church my dad wanted to go to. He said that the only way to get the Holy Spirit to come and dwell in the church is for the worshipers to just get into it and surrender themselves and open themselves to the Spirit’s movings and promptings. When I was a kid, I didn’t think anything of it, but man, looking back I understand now how it is a typical confusion of the two kingdoms and of Law and Gospel.

And we see this everywhere. Worship, rather than being what Scripture says it is, becomes an endeavor in how emotional a person can get, and how high he can get his hands in the air, and how many tears he can shed. For the worship leader, the pastor, it becomes about how sincere or “into the Spirit” he can look before the people so that his actions and emotions drive them to really believe what he’s telling them. For the music, it’s not so much about what the music teaches but about how it can stir and excite and swell up whatever emotions lead to a conversion experience and accepting Jesus. And it’s amazing because it doesn’t even matter what the music teaches, what the words say, even if they say anything at all about Jesus, about Baptism, about the Lord’s Supper, about anything…as long as the music can stir the crowd. And you see this…everywhere even among Lutheran churches.

And this is a confounding of the kingdoms because such worship isn’t based on God’s Word and His promises, but it’s based on the individual, on you and what’s going on inside you, whether you ‘feel’ like a Christian or don’t ‘feel’ like a Christian, whether you ‘feel’ uplifted or not, whether you ‘feel’ spiritual or not. And thus, you be base your entire faith on things that have nothing to do with heaven or the kingdom of God.

See, the moment you think what you do or don’t do, how you feel or don’t feel, what you experience or don’t experience is what gets you to heaven and earns you God’s forgiveness is the moment you’ve abandoned Christ and His salvation and put both feet into a kingdom where there is no forgiveness.

Yes, there is right and wrong, but the moment you base your faith on the shirt you wear or the dance you dance or the music you sing is the moment it is no longer faith. Again, being a Christian isn’t about you but about God for you, God in you, Jesus’ blood shed for you and the Spirit of God in you. How you RESPOND isn’t what makes you a Christian; how you respond comes out of your being a Christian.

You’re in both kingdoms because you live as a Christian in the world. Rather than avoiding the world, learn to do good in the world and to help others receive the kingdom of God.

But we must also be careful in another way. And this dichotomy is as false and as dangerous as “Do we pay taxes to Caesar or not.”

Let me give you some examples:

“Are you concerned with purity of doctrine, or do you care about evangelism?”

“Do you care about sound doctrine, or do you love others?”

“Are you so concerned about sound teaching that it drives people away from the church?”

“Do you value doctrine, or do you value people?”

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger, danger, danger dichotomy!

My only answer to offer is, “Okay, then tell me, which false teaching or practice should we use to evangelize and bring people into the church?” But of course, then the postmodern demon kicks in and says, “It’s all just opinions; everyone has his own interpretation of the Bible…who can be right?”

The dichotomy is bad, because if your idea of growing the church of God is based on fanciful notions, that doctrine and evangelism are somehow enemies, or love and theology are opposed, or the religious aspect of the faith and the spiritual aspect are mutually exclusive, then you are missing something in your understanding of the two kingdoms. And the idea that there is no knowable true, sound theology and doctrine, that everyone can believe as he pleases, is just an excuse to avoid learning sound theology and doctrine. It’s all a subjecting Jesus and His Word to worldly philosophies and it’s not giving to God what is God’s.

See the Kingdom of the right, the kingdom of God is all about evangelism and outreach and love and growing the church because it’s all about mercy and forgiveness and salvation and eternal life. You are a citizen of the kingdom of the right because God has forgiven you and given you the kingdom. Next week we will sing, “The Kingdom’s ours FOREVER!” when we sing the Reformation anthem, “A Mighty Fortress.”

BUT, the kingdom of God cannot be the kingdom of God if we take the very thing the kingdom is built upon – Christ and His Word, His holy, precious, perfect, and eternal Word, “theology and doctrine” – and subject it to worldly, left kingdom principles and ideas.

“But pastor, we’re not theologians and we don’t teach at seminaries or preach from pulpits. Knowing all that theology is your job, not ours.” Well, yeah it is your job and yes you are theologians. The moment God made you a part of His kingdom is the moment you became a theologian in His kingdom. You are more than just a Sunday morning pew warmer – you are a child, a disciple, a heir of the kingdom of God! You are not just living in the kingdom of the right on Sunday morning, but this kingdom is your life FOREVER. When the kingdom of the left, the worldly kingdoms of power, come to an end, you will remain forever in God’s kingdom.

So, yeah, you’re a theologian, a student of doctrine and the more you know the better off you’ll be.

But, as long as the Word of the Lord continues to endure, know that the devil is right here pestering and tempting and trying ever so hard to crush God’s kingdom among us. And he’s going to try to do it by use of silly false dichotomies such as with the Pharisees and the Herodians, or by pitting theology against evangelism or right worship against making things inviting and easy.

So, here’s the good news…“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” See, everything that we must give to the Lord was first given to us because all things, even in both kingdoms are His alone. And the Lord never requires that we give to Him what He hasn’t already given of Himself.

The Lord requires of us perfect obedience, right? “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” But we cannot perfectly obey him because we are still sinners living in this world with one foot in the left kingdom. Therefore, God has sent His Son to live perfectly for us and to give us His obedience so that God sees us as His obedient children. This frees us to be people who learn to obey His Word without fear or the consequence for sin.

God requires holiness from each of us, but we cannot be completely holy living in these sinful bodies among a sinful people. Therefore, God sent His precious and holy Son who was set apart to suffer for us on the cross and now, covered in His blood and washed in clean water, we are holy before God.

God requires perfect repentance and a penitent heart that confesses sin and fully trusts in His mercy, so God sends His Holy Spirit to work repentance in us so that we might confess our sins and believe in His goodness and mercy.

Now what we render to God in all these matters of the right kingdom, God has already rendered for and in us. And He will never forsake us or leave us but will continue to be with us until He calls us home.

So, live in both kingdoms, but know at each moment that the left kingdom is soon to be no more. Live in both kingdoms, but do not live FOR the kingdom of the world. Live in both kingdoms, but live forever in the promise of eternal life given in God’s grace and mercy, His Word and Sacraments of the kingdom of the right. Amen.