What is Caesar’s? What is God’s? (Matthew 22:15-22)
Growing up, my brothers and I loved Sesame Street. One Christmas Aunt Vina decided to get us house shoes. She found some Bert and Ernie house shoes, and knowing how much we boys loved Sesame Street she got them for us. But love Aunt Vina’s heart, she couldn’t understand why the factory had messed up. You see, each pair had one Bert and one Ernie house shoe. But not after Aunt Vina got done with them! She took the shoes home, cut the string, and Aaron got two Ernie, and I got two Bert, never mind the fact that he had two left shoes and I had two right shoes. Aunt Vina’s gift didn’t go as smoothly as she had hoped.
Have you ever received a gift that wasn’t quite right? Did you ever get a Secret Santa gift from someone at work who clearly did not know you very well? Did a family member ever forget your birthday and you ended up getting nothing? Did you ever get a gift that was somewhat offensive? Did you ever get clothing and the size was horribly wrong?
This morning, we want to think about giving appropriate gifts. For the past couple of weeks, we’ve thought about giving, but Jesus made a point in this morning’s text I must discuss before moving on. In order to trick Jesus, some folks asked the Lord about paying taxes. I’ll explain the context with the taxes as we look at the text, but I’m not going to focus there this morning. Instead, I’m going to discuss giving to God appropriately by zeroing in on this truth: “You give to God because God deserves your gift.”
Scripture (Matthew 22:15-22)
The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus with his words. They didn’t care one whit about truth; they simply wanted Jesus to say the wrong thing.
To accomplish their goal, the Pharisees sent their disciples along with the Herodians to Jesus. The Pharisees and Herodians disagreed greatly politically. The Herodians supported the reign of the Herod kings, who were puppets for Rome; most of the Pharisees believed those puppet kings compromised Jewish independence and distinctiveness. Asking the Herodians and Pharisees to agree would be like asking Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to agree. However, trapping Jesus was paramount, so the Pharisees and Herodians put their differences aside.
Pure guile came from their mouths—they didn’t believe Jesus was pure or that he taught “the way of God truthfully.” They were setting Jesus up to make a major blunder.
They wanted Jesus to make a blunder about taxes, and they asked him, “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus said one shouldn’t pay taxes, the Herodians could arrest him. If Jesus were to say one should pay taxes to Caesar, he risked alienating his followers who wanted a Messiah to overthrow Rome. In the political situation of the day, Jesus was in a real pickle.
But no one could ever put the perfect Son of God in a pickle and succeed. Jesus called them out as hypocrites, for they weren’t interested in the truth.
He said to those gathered around him, “Show me the coin for the tax.” The coin for the tax was the denarius, and everyone had to use the denarius to pay the tax. Many Jews objected to the coin because on one side was an image of the emperor and the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus,” which made the emperor a god. On the reverse, the coin bore the inscription “pontifex maximus,” which the Jews understood to mean something like “high priest.” Thus, many Jews didn’t want anything to do with this Roman coin.
However, notice that when Jesus asked for the coin someone brought him one. Talk about hypocrisy! If they weren’t going to pay the tax, why did someone have a denarius? If they were so offended by the deification of Tiberius, why did they have the coin?
Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The people responded, “Caesar’s.”
Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The English Standard Version does an excellent job here; the Greek term for “render” literally means “to give back” and carries the nuance of giving someone what is due him. Thus, paying taxes is giving the government what is due the government, and giving to God is giving God what is due him.
Jesus silenced his critics, and they left him alone.
“You give to God because God deserves your gift.” You give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s because it is his due, and you give to God what’s God’s because it is his due.
Jesus taught that one must pay his taxes because government deserves that payment. Why would government ever deserve taxes when that tax money is used inappropriately or with all the fraud and waste we see in government? Simply put: God established the government. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (Rom 13:1-2). Because God created the government, you give government what is due.
But the Lord continued: he said that you also give to God what he deserves. There’s where I wish to focus this morning. From Scripture, we have seen that you have an absolute obligation to contribute to the Lord’s work: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart” (2 Cor 9:7). That’s the word of the Lord, and you absolutely must give to the Lord.
But why? Jesus said one must “render . . . to God the things that are God’s;” in other words, God deserves your gift. Why is God worthy of your contribution?
God possesses—owns—everything you have. “Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine” (Ps 50:10, 12). You really own nothing—your vehicles, your home, your clothing, your bank accounts, your investments, your bike, and everything else belongs to God.
God has provided you with everything you possess. God “himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). You have worked hard to have nice things and save for the future. But no matter how hard you worked to earn a good degree or to advance your career, God blessed you.
When Tammy was hired at Baker, you know what she said? “Honey, have you noticed that every time you have accepted a new position, there has been a school looking for a librarian and I’ve gotten a job?” If you believe that’s pure coincidence, I’d be happy to sell you some seafront property in Arizona!
Your proficiency—your talents—to earn a living come from God. Jesus told a parable about a man’s going on a long journey, but before he left, he “entrusted to [his servants] his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability” (Matt 25:14-15). Yes, the context is service in the kingdom of God, but you can extrapolate from that context and understand that every single talent comes from God.
Whatever skills you have, whatever ability to obtain a good degree, whatever good work earns you the promotion, God gave it to you.
God has given you presents—spiritual blessings—galore. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3). You lack no spiritual blessing in Christ—you have the forgiveness of sins through Jesus, you have the answer to prayers, you have the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, you have the love of God, you have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, you have your brothers and sisters in Christ, and you have so much more.
God deserves your worship simply because he is God. In the Revelation, the twenty-four elders fell down before God, cast down their crowns before the throne, and declared, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11). Giving is an act of worship; therefore, as you give you are giving to God “glory and honor and power.”
We have discussed this church’s budget and the need for generous giving. But honestly, you don’t give to pay the electric bill or the preacher or to buy communion supplies or toner for the copier. “You give to God because God deserves your gift.” That is the why of giving.
What are you giving to the Lord this morning? Do you need to give him your heart as we stand and sing?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at Church of Christ Deer Park in Deer Park, Texas.