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“What to Render unto Caesar”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon

“What to Render unto Caesar”
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost)
Matthew 22: 15-22

The Pharisees and Herodians joining together to seek advice from Jesus on the tricky matter of, shall we say, church and state is as weird as the National Rifle Association and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals uniting to ask Jesus whether it is lawful to kill muskrats. The Pharisees and Herodians were not kissing cousins. When they sweet-talked Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance to the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” we smell a rat.

Their question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” showed no interest in what Jesus believed. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, in the Pharisees’ eyes, he would break the commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” If Jesus answered that it was unlawful to pay taxes, he would appall the Herodians who were especially fond of the empire. The Pharisees and the Herodians shared one common goal: Jesus’s blood.

You know how Jesus answered their question. The quote floats around in your biblical brainpan, especially from the King James Version, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

There must be an uncomplicated answer as to what is due the emperor and what is due God. The IRS, after all, tells us every year what is due the emperor. Even our church, in a few weeks, will ask us to consider making a pledge, perhaps a tithe (10% of our income), to support the Lord’s work here at Holy Trinity? Straightforward, huh…or is it?

When you hear Jesus’ answer, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s,” it sounds an awfully lot like something the great Yankee Yogi Berra might say: “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical” or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

We are not so good when it comes to pondering vexing questions. We want answers, now!

You have heard someone, I’m sure, when asked a particularly vexing question, say, without a moment’s pause, “There are three simple points to consider.” I always wonder: how do they come up with three points so quickly; why not two points or four? I tend to be suspicious of people who speak authoritatively and immediately on thorny issues.

And there are some thorny issues floating around these days. Take for instance, how the United States should respond to North Korea which threatens to rain down havoc on God’s planet? I suppose one answer might be, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” or perhaps “Do nothing” is another. From my limited vantage point, no answer seems as simple as three points: ready, aim, fire. I always pray that our president and congress, you and I too, will struggle mightily with such tough questions, deliberating and agonizing together, disagreeing with one another even, and certainly praying.

Don’t you smell a rat whenever another person, especially a leader, seems incapable of grappling with the perplexity and seriousness of monstrous questions, especially when the lives of young people and innocent civilians are at stake?

Abraham Lincoln, when asked whether God was on his side, did not launch into the old saw, “Of course, God is on our side, we are the United States of America.” Lincoln instead said: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” Lincoln was a humble leader who dared wonder whether he was on God’s side.

When the United States first invaded Iraq in 2003, the then Secretary of State Colin Powell was reminded that his boss, President George W. Bush, was in bed by ten and slept like a baby; General Powell reportedly replied, “I sleep like a baby, too—every two hours I wake up screaming.” That is not nationalistic flag-waving, macho-politics, or even three bombastic points to incite the political base. That is a leader who struggled through the night because he was dealing with matters of life and death.

Another president who understood the immensity of such questions was Dwight Eisenhower. Only days after the end of World War II, General Eisenhower, who had been in the thick of such a dreadful war, said, “Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”

Tough questions bring us to our knees and tenderize our hearts with humility. Tough questions bid us to struggle together for the best answers when none seem apparent. We must ask as did Lincoln whether we are on God’s side and perhaps it is not such a bad thing to wake up screaming like a baby as did Colin Powell whenever blood might be spilled because of our decisions. The best answers come when we have prayed long and hard, waiting on the Lord to give us a new song to sing, not one of our foolish concocting but of God’s wondrous creating.

When Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his opponents “were amazed; and they left him and went away.” He didn’t offer a simple answer to a tough question. He offered an answer that bid faithful people to ponder, “Are we on God’s side?”

What if we struggle together with what is right and just, always seeking to make certain we are singing God’s song? If we do, I’ll bet people will be amazed.