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"Trick Question"
Matthew 22:15-22
Gary Roth

When I was in college, I had a professor who had a habit of slipping "trick questions" into our exams. It was a course in logic, so that opened the door to all kinds of abuse. The questions were always deceptively easy - usually so easy that you knew that there was something wrong. So we would ponder over them, wasting a lot of precious time on them, coming up with all kinds of convoluted answers to what were really very simple questions. And, of course, when we went over the tests, everyone would groan when he revealed the answer - it was always so simple!

The reason he did that was not simply to get a rise from us - although I'm sure that was part of the reason. He also wanted us to be aware of the obvious. And a lot of times people are so involved in trying to figure out things - figuring out life - that the obvious escapes them.

Such was the case with the Pharisees and Saducees in Jesus' day. We are told that they wanted to catch Jesus. So these two parties, who usually didn't get along, finally got their heads together for a common purpose - to try to get rid of Jesus. He was a thorn in both of their sides. They know that the crowds like him, and don't particularly want to antagonize the crowds. They really don't want to get their hands dirty either. So they try to set Jesus up. They think that they can create a situation where either they can turn the crowds against him, or cause him to get in trouble with the law.

Now, the fact is that the Jewish people were probably the most heavily taxed people in history. Not only did they have to pay Rome to occupy them but, because they did not serve in the Roman army, Rome levied an additional tax on them to make up for that. In addition, of course to the ten percent temple tax that Jewish law required. It is estimated that up to seventy-five percent of their income went to taxes. So the people were not happy about their taxes. On the other hand, to remonstrate against paying taxes was seen as an act of rebellion - and Rome could not put up with that. So here was the trick question: they would ask Jesus whether it was lawful to pay taxes or not. If he said yes, he would be seen as lining up with the Romans, and the people would leave him. If he said no, then he was in dutch with the Romans, and they would get rid of him. It sounded pretty good! And all they had to do was to set the stage!

Of course, it backfired on them. Jesus answers them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and the things to God that are God's." The Romans couldn't complain about that. He was advocating giving Caesar his due, wasn't he? Nor could those who were against them complain. After all, wasn't he really saying that everything was God's? But it leaves us in a quandry, doesn't it? What is he really saying?

Luther, in talking about this very matter, says that God rules in two kingdoms. One is his rule through the political realm. It is a rule by law, a rule mediated through fallible human beings, and therefore not a direct rule. But it is his rule nonetheless. The other rule is what he calls the "right hand rule" of God, through the Gospel, mediated by the church. It is a direct rule, not mediated by human beings, but delivered through the "means of grace," the Word and Sacraments.

But the point is, that both are areas of God's concern; both are realms of God's rule. So, when Jesus says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's," he is acknowledging that both areas are realms of God's concern, and both realms express God's care for us. They are two sides of the same coin. However imperfectly human beings carry out their duties in the political realm - and we know how imperfect they can be - that realm is still an expression of God's care for us.

Sometimes that care can be a wonderful thing. Throughout the flood and its aftermath, our town manager, a big bear of a man that everyone calls "J. J.," has been wonderful. During the flood, he rode around the flooded areas on a big front loader, checking people's homes, keeping tabs on who was still in town and how their properties were faring, trying to help and comfort people in that traumatic time. Afterward, he went to each of the pastors in town, including me, insisting that we get together quickly, bringing in representatives from the Red Cross, FEMA and others, so that people could get help quickly. What a wonderful blessing he has been! On the other hand, I have been less impressed with some of the state and federal officials and some of their statements; yet I understand how difficult it is to stand at a distance and try to help. It just seems that too many things, as well as the worst of what has become known as "politics," gets in the way. But the political realm can be a wonderful expression of

And certainly the Gospel is a wonderful and very direct expression of God's rule. His Word is a great comfort to us, and the sacraments, baptism and communion, help take that Word and attach its promises to our life in ways that we can easily understand. Baptism tells us that we are his children, that we live our lives in promise, and that we will always be his. Communion is the celebration of the Body of Christ, helping us to understand that we are both forgiven and reconciled to one another, that we are not in life alone, that the gifts of Jesus' family are ours. And what a blessing that is!

Of course the other thing that Jesus' statement helps us to understand is that both realms are truly God's rule. When we hear him say, "Render to God the things that are God's," we should become aware that, certainly, everything is God's. He is not drawing a division between what is Caesar's and what is God's. All of life belongs to him. In both realms, he shows his love and care for us. And, therefore, everything we have is truly his - they are all gifts from his hand. We cannot hold back one area of life and call it "Caesar's." All that Caesar has is also God's. And that thought can be extended to every other area of life. There is nothing that is truly "mine" either. Paul says that even our life is not our own - it belongs to Christ. We cannot compartmentalize our life, put ten percent in one area and call it "church," another portion in another place and call it "Caesar's," another portion in another place and call it "family," or "business," or "mine." It is all God's.

That is where we begin to understand life as stewardship. In a few minutes, at the offering, we will pray, "Merciful Father, we offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us - our selves, our time and our possessions, signs of your gracious love. Receive them for the sake of him who offered himself for us. . . ." That is what Jesus is telling us today. God loves us, and has shared the rich fruits of his kingdom with us. In every area of life he shares his blessings; in every area of life he rules.

But the most important area of life where he wishes to rule, is an area where he leaves the choice up to you. It is the kingdom of your heart. As Luther says, "God's kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask . . . that it may come also to us." The question is not, "where does God rule in the world," but "does he rule in your heart and life." The question is not, "what area of life is God's," but "how much of your life, of your heart, have you given to him."

The good news is that he can take every area of life - your profession, your family, your hobbies, your friendships - and through them express his love and care for both you and others. Turned over to him, they become wonderful gifts, given through human hands - your hands - but expressing his loving care for the world he loves so much, the world where he is Lord of all of life. Amen.