Give God His Due

Frontline Devotion for October 22, 2017 (Season of 'Time After Pentecost')

By: Don Kress

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Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, 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?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose image 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." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. (New International Version)

Today's text is one that's probably very familiar to most of us. In addition to Matthew, this same story is told with great consistency in Mark (12:13-17) and Luke (20:20-26).

Jesus was often confronted with trick questions, sometimes by the Sadducees, sometimes by the Pharisees. Today another group is added: the Herodians. The Sadducees were known for their denial of things supernatural; they denied the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels. The Pharisees were religious legalists, opposed to Roman rule. The Herodians were a party of the Jews who supported the Roman-backed Herodian dynasty. The Herodians were not a religious party, but a political party. The Pharisees hated Roman rule and the Herodian influence. The fact that these groups would conspire together to entrap Jesus reveals how seriously both groups viewed him as a threat. Such collaboration follows the idea that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

The goal of these two groups was to trap Jesus in his words. After trying to put him off guard with flattery, they sprang their question: "Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?" If he said "No," the Herodians would report him to the Roman governor and he could be executed for treason. If he said "Yes," the Pharisees would denounce him to the people as disloyal to his nation.

Their contrived issue was the poll tax, an annual fee of one denarius (a day's wage for a Roman soldier) per person. The denarius coins were minted under the emperor's authority since only he could issue gold or silver coins. The denarius of Jesus' day was minted by Tiberius. One side bore an image of his face; the other featured an engraving of him sitting on his throne in priestly robes, and bore the inscription: "Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus." The Jews considered such images idolatry, forbidden by the second commandment, which made this tax and these coins doubly offensive. Such "taxes" were part of the heavy taxation Rome assessed. Since these funds were used to finance the occupying armies, all Roman taxes were hated by the Jewish people. But the poll tax was the most hated of all because it suggested that Rome owned even the people, while they viewed themselves and their nation as possessions of God. It was therefore significant that they questioned Christ about the poll tax in particular.

In answering their question, Jesus distinguishes the civil and the heavenly realms under which we believers live. While our first allegiance is always to God (Acts 5:29), we are also to obey legitimate civil authorities (Jn 19:11; Rm 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-17). Jesus didn't stop at saying, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's. He concluded with these words: "Render to God the things that are God's."

While I wasn't asked to write a stewardship devotion, and my original title for this devotion was "Give the Emperor his Due," my thinking changed as I wrote. Yes, Jesus emphasized our responsibility to be good citizens in our earthly kingdoms. But he put the final emphasis on our need to be good citizens of our heavenly kingdom. So, how do we believers "render to God the things that are God's?" First, by accepting that everything we have - our families, our possessions, our health, our wealth, and even our very life - belongs to God. Then, in thanksgiving we will want to faithfully serve God and our neighbors. When we worship, when we give money to enable our church to minister to others, when we clothe the poor, when we rake a shut-in's lawn or prepare a meal for a grieving family, we exercise our citizenship in Christ's kingdom. We do not do these things to avoid paying a fine, or out of fear of imprisonment, or even to earn our way into heaven. Rather, we give generously and live our lives in grateful service to Christ's kingdom.

Prayer: "We give Thee but Thine own, What'er the gift may be; All that we have is Thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from Thee." Amen. (Lutheran Service Book, 781:1)