I question if we ever think clearly about how difficult a concept it was to "render unto Caesar” in the place and at the time that we read about. How very different is our society, in which the politicians must answer to the public, and to the Rule of Law (at least once every two, four and six years, respectively), from the life of the Jews under the power of the empire of Rome. This empire had once been a republic, and it still had a Senate. But, in the time of the Caesars it had become a totalitarian regime, and by means of empire, a foreign power that had invaded, defeated and presumed to rule. The fact is, whether or not taxes were paid voluntarily, they would most certainly be taken by force.
The Pharisees knew that if the Lord had answered that taxes were unlawful they could then see to it that this information found its way to the governor, so that he could be put to death for sedition. On the other hand, if he answered that taxes to Caesar were lawful, they could use this to try to discredit him with the people, claiming that he was on the side of their conquerors. No matter how much they tried to flatter him as they built up to the question, the question was meant as a dagger. It was intended to kill him or silence him; they imagined it presented a no win situation.
The answer our Lord gave was not an evasion, but rather authoritative teaching. He did not walk into their trap, but presented the truth, and in so doing he confounded the expectations and presumption of his enemies. Within a generation his Church would be persecuted to the death by the empire, treated as a criminal organization from the time of Nero until the edict of Milan, that is the edict of Toleration by Constantine in 313 AD. Yet, under that burden it was the duty of the apostles to present to the churches a doctrine that “all authority is from God.”1 The evil and injustice of the empire did not prevent St. Paul from teaching that, in general, a ruler is not a terror to good works, but to evil. St. Peter also taught that the king should be honored.2
This important for us today, in our own time, for many reasons. First of all, Christians are not to be “rebels without a cause.” I think of a man who came home from the grocery store with his wife, and discovered that their children had poured molasses on the cat. “I don’t understand,” said their mother. “They have never poured molasses on the cat before. Why would they even think of such a thing?” Her husband answered, “I don’t understand it either. In fact, the very last thing I said to them, before we went out was, ‘Don’t pour molasses on the cat.’” The truth is, for some of us the idea of walking on the grass never comes to mind until a sign says, “keep off the grass.” Remember the lesson from the Book of Acts, however, that only one reason exists to disobey proper authority. That reason is because our consciences constrain us to obey God rather than men 3 when we are faced with a conflict. This was the answer that St. Peter gave to the High priest when he was asked why they had continued to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ after being ordered by the Sanhedrin not to do so. St. Peter’s conscience told him that his first obedience was due to God, and that Christ’s clear command to preach the Gospel was from the highest authority, the revealed will of God against which no man had the authority to command silence.
“Often people want to render unto Caesar the things that are God’s, and that includes the conscience. We are taught by Saint Paul to be subject to the authorities, and, if we may put modern American terminology to the Apostle’s teaching, to be model citizens. In every way we obey the law, pay taxes, and respect the offices of those in government. In this way we render unto Caesar what is his due… [But] The conscience of the Christian is supposed to be informed by the word of God, and so it is the duty of every Christian to learn the scriptures and to learn the meaning of the scriptures from the Tradition of the Church. When the conscience finds itself pitted against authority, it ought to be for a very clear and very real reason… Totalitarian regimes want to take the place of God. Tyrants want to displace the conscience. In the last Century Christians were subjected to more injustices than during the Roman persecution (and we see no sign that things are getting any better). In the 20th century more Christians died as martyrs than in all previous centuries of the Church combined. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Idi Amin, Sadam Hussein, the Ayatollahs and Sheiks of radical Islam, all wanted to be obeyed absolutely, to dominate the conscience of their subjects, to be in the place of God. And, so it remains in this century. The Christians who have been killed for their faith knew something we need to know: We ought to obey God rather than men. When Jesus gave this answer, it was to a hostile question... The question was meant as a weapon, a clever no win scenario. But, the answer teaches us the priorities by which we order our lives as men under authority. Honor the king, however, with Thomas More, be ready to die as the king’s true servant, but God’s first.”
Your first obedience is to God. Your conscience was designed by the Creator to be the voice inside of you where his Law is written, the inner voice that resonates with the Holy Spirit, and with the word of God. Therefore, the Book of Exodus praises the midwives who refused to murder the male children at Pharaoh’s command. The Bible praises the faith of Rahab who hid the spies, and of Esther who entered the king’s chamber unbidden to plead for the lives of her people. The same Bible condemns the obedience that Doeg the Edomite rendered to Saul when he murdered the priests at Nob as commanded by the mad king.
Too many people are careless in their reading of scripture. When certain leaders of that other denomination over there wanted to blame the Holy Spirit for their heretical and immoral innovations, they decided to proclaim to the world that the Bible approved of slavery. Then, they tried to say that nowadays we know better because the Holy Spirit has corrected his former mistake that he made back then, and so he must have grown in his understanding (they seem to have a very different “Holy Spirit” than the One we know). I love to point out that Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 4 absolutely, and for all time, forbade slavery. The whole idea of slavery is condemned and forbidden in those two verses. The New Testament, specifically in the writings of St. Paul, addresses the reality of slavery in the pagan empire of Rome. The Apostle taught Christians who happened to be slaves, how to behave as Christians in their circumstances. To read approval of the pagan system of slavery into the New Testament is absurd, since the mission of the apostles was not to lead a rebellion like Spartacus, but to build the Church in all nations of the earth. I mention this because, we see here that even rebellion for a good cause is not always duty to God.
The Bible does require obedience to the voice of conscience, and it is the duty of the Christian to inform his conscience not by the changing fashions and whims of culture, but by the word of God. The Affirmation of St. Louis contains this very straightforward statement:
“The conscience, as the inherent knowledge of right and wrong, cannot stand alone as a sovereign arbiter of morals. Every Christian is obligated to form his conscience by the Divine Moral Law and the Mind of Christ as revealed in Holy Scriptures, and by the teaching and Tradition of the Church.”
Furthermore, it is the duty of parents to teach their children these things, because popular culture will teach a false version of morality that has no foundation, and that changes with every breeze that blows. As it says in the Book of Deuteronomy: “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”5 Now, if any Christian wants to disobey people in authority, it must be for the sake of this higher principle of the conscience as it has been formed by the word of God.
Another point needs to be made. The direct subject of the answer, “render unto God the things that are God’s” is part of a question that has to do with money. To the Jews who heard this answer, the whole subject of tithing would have come to mind, as well as commands to aid the poor. The way that some churches have addressed the subject of contributing, in my experience, can make the poor feel unwelcome. I want to be clear; people who are struggling to get by, and who have no money to spare, are perfectly welcome here. This is the household of God, the Body of Christ. Let me be clear about something else. Those who object to the normal standard of the tithe, that is of ten percent, need to realize that in the New Covenant the real requirement is one hundred percent. The poor widow received the praise of our Lord Jesus Christ because she cast in more than all of the rich, because her two mites were all that she had. I look at our bishop spending his time and energy to raise money for this church, so that it can be here as a light, as a witness for Jesus Christ, as a true and sound church for you in which to bring up your children as Christians. I know that he has been giving his one hundred percent in all the years we have been together.
We are stewards of all that we possess. It all belongs to the Lord. I know that some people cannot give ten percent of what they simply don’t have. Others can give more then ten percent. They can give other things too, such as time and effort. The real question is this: are you giving in a way that is sacrificial? Let me really meddle. Who needs three hundred channels instead of the few you have time for? What is the real point in much that we do with time, money and own energy? Is your giving sacrificial? And, though we think of the word “sacrificial” as something that should hurt and as a loss we should feel, let us turn that around. Let us think of it as an offering, that is, as part of how we worship God by honoring him with our substance. What we contribute should be given with joy; it should represent our very selves as living sacrifices poured out on the altar of joy and service with faith.
The opposite of this is the kind of life that St. Paul speaks of, with sorrow, in today’s Epistle. Earlier I mentioned that other denomination over there, and I suppose most of you know the one I was thinking of. I was thinking of religious teachers whose entire life’s work has been for the purpose of scratching itching ears.6 Talk of giving one hundred percent of your life to God, your whole self to God, requires an embrace of Christ’s call to carry the cross. The Epistle warns us not live a life centered on indulgence of our appetites and whims, of lusts and desires. The Apostle uses a curious phrase, one that could pass us by unheeded unless we slow down and consider it. He speaks of “enemies of the cross of Christ.” What is an enemy of the cross of Christ?
Some people seem to think they can be friends of Jesus, but enemies of his cross. Jesus said, “Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”7 To carry the cross means to walk with the burden of death on one’s back. The people who heard him speak these words knew what crucifixion was, and the image this statement brought to mind would have been graphic. Nonetheless, what do we see as the natural reaction that his disciples had when they first heard him foretell his own death? Immediately, after being told that he was blessed, that he was the rock upon whom the Lord would build his Church, we find St. Peter reacting to the Lord’s prediction that he would be put to death, and then rise on the third day.
“Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”8
We can identify with Peter’s incredulity, if we are honest. Who wants to bear the cross? In modern religious circles ambitions for success demand that we present a Christ who carries no cross. This christ of theirs, their Jesus, makes no demands that we die to ourselves in order to follow him. His own death makes no sense in their new religion. But, we know why he can call us to lay down our lives to be his disciples. “We love him because he first loved us.”9 We can pour out all that we have, and all that we are, with joy as living sacrifices to God,10 only as our life of worship and thanksgiving, and only by knowing what he did for us. We were lost in trespasses and sins, subject to the twofold power of sin and death, but for the kindness of God our Savior, even the Lord Jesus Christ who “poured out his soul unto death;”11 “for the blood maketh atonement for the soul.”12 I have said this many times, and I will repeat it many more times. You need to come to the foot of the cross, and spend some time there, looking up at your Lord; you need to “See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down” as his blood makes atonement for your soul, as he gives up his spirit to death for you. This is the great offering of love that you need to behold, and you need to take it personally.
Only in the light of this love does it make sense to talk of giving to God one hundred percent of your very self as your life of worship and thanksgiving. Only in light of this love can we speak of the everlasting joys won for us on the first Easter in the triumph of his resurrection, when he overcame death and the grave and opened to you the way to everlasting joy. We are speaking of the love that we have for God and for one another as the fruit of gratitude that begins to grow within us as the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. It begins with the cross of Christ.
1. Romans 13:1-7
2. I Peter 2:13-17
3. Acts 5:27-29
4. “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him.” Simply put, to obey this commandment makes it impossible to treat human beings as property
5. Deut. 6:6, 7
6. II Tim. 4:2-4
7. Luke 14:27
8. Matt. 16:16-25
9. I John 4:19
10. Rom. 12:1,2
11. Isaiah 53:12