Rendering to Caesar

by Fr. Blake

This sermon was preached at CSMSG on October 22, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Trinity. It was the last week of hearing “Stewardship Testimonials,” parishioners offering a brief reflection of why they give, in advance of our “Pledge Sunday” when we receive pledges of support for the next year. This year the lectionary offered one of the most classic, and notorious, passages on giving – Jesus getting pigeonholed by the Pharisees about whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. My sermon tried to reframe the question around the larger matter of Duty, as contrasted with Generosity; which could just as easily have been preached on the similar passage, “A man cannot have two masters; you cannot serve both God and mammon.”

Collect: Almighty and everlasting God, who in Christ hast revealed thy glory among the nations: Preserve the works of thy mercy, that thy Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of thy Name; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 45:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

Yesterday, October 21, marked the two hundred and twelfth anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. If you know the story you’ll remember it was one of the most significant battles in western history. Napoleon was busy seizing control of Europe, and planned for his coup d’grace a massive invasion of Great Britain. He had assembled both the French and Spanish navies, and had given orders to his admirals to sail their ships north for the final moment. But just as the French and Spanish fleets had gathered, the English Admiral Lord Nelson, with his own officers and ships managed to catch them in port. Though he was outmanned and outgunned, he drew them out and defeated the entire combined fleet without losing a single ship of his own. The war continued on for the next decade, but Napoleon never again attempted an invasion of England, and for that matter could never again challenge England at sea. The British became the world’s dominant naval power (and consequently imperial power) for nearly the next one and a half centuries.

Part of the mystique and pathos of the battle was that Nelson himself was shot and killed in the action. His body was preserved in brandy and was returned to England months later, where it was received with great pomp and circumstance and laid to rest in the chief place of honor in the crypt beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His last words to the fleet came by signal up the mast of his flagship, in the final minutes before the battle began. He told them, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” It became a slogan of sorts, even a national motto, for the understated, dutiful, and noble disciple to do what is required in matters of great urgency and danger. “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

It’s a great story and a thrilling moment. But why do I tell it this morning? Because, for all his heroism and legend, I think Nelson might have sympathized somewhat with the question the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” What is our duty toward the state, given our other personal loyalties? It’s worth remembering, the Pharisees, for all their appearance as “The Bad Guys” in the Gospels, were actually keenly interested in doing their duty, both by God and by their fellow countrymen. They weren’t exactly happy paying homage to Caesar, but for the most part they did not support rebellion against the Romans; and for that matter they were happy even to make friends with them if it meant they could gain influence and authority. 

For the Pharisees there was something about Jesus’ preaching that seemed seditious to them, unpredictable, unstable, as if it aimed at subverting the status quo, or any productive way forward for religion and society. So they try to trap him in a question about duty. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It’s a carefully designed entrapment, so that whether Jesus replies “Yes,” or “No,” they can accuse him of not doing his duty, either to Caesar or to the God whom he calls Father.

But Jesus, typically, sees through the entrapment. The question is not really about taxes, or about the law. Rather it reveals an important underlying assumption about the people to whom Jesus is preaching, and presents him with a golden opportunity to articulate and correct their error. The question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” is fundamentally about duty. What ought we do in order to fulfill our obligations? The problem that Jesus identifies is with the notion that duty is what faith is about in the first place; with the idea that fulfilling our obligations is the end, the point of sufficiency, when we achieve what we owe and are rewarded with our just desert; and when we can get on with doing what we really want to do now that the box is checked and our duty is done. 

Jesus’ reply cuts them to the quick. It cuts because it forces them to think first, what is it exactly that Caesar claims? In the Roman world, Caesar claimed not only taxes but absolute loyalty as well, to himself, the son of a god. At Caesar’s behest the empire took land and life as it willed, and was not obligated to recognize either rights or even personhood of anyone who wasn’t Roman. In short, Caesar claims everything for his own. And yet faith asserts that God is the Lord of heaven and earth, “The sea and all that is in it,” and he demands much, much more than Caesar. If Caesar already gets everything, what’s left for God? In the question of parsing out duties, the Pharisees had come up with a vast series of pragmatic compromises to keep both Caesar and God happy. But Jesus’ reply articulates the tension between God and Caesar in its starkest possible terms, and makes it clear that duty simply cannot resolve all the demands placed upon it.

I can’t help but think that Jesus, in his reply, is also offering a little foreshadowing, a hint at things to come in his own life. In only a few short chapters, Jesus himself will render to Caesar exactly what Caesar demands: his own life, on top of his dignity. What could there be left to render to God on the cross? 

If Jesus were interested only in fulfilling his duty, Caesar would have everything, and there would be nothing left for God. But in rendering to Caesar all that Caesar demands, Jesus reveals that there is one thing Caesar cannot claim, and that is what Jesus renders to God. Caesar can take what Caesar wants. But he cannot steal what is freely given. He cannot conquer what is freely offered. He cannot rule what is freely delivered. Jesus goes to the cross at Caesar’s demand. But hanging there he offers his life to God, offers his forgiveness to his tormentors, offers his love to Mary and John and his compassion to the thief hanging next to him; and in the end he gives his spirit into the hands of his Father. Jesus goes to the cross to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But he conquers the cross by rendering to God what is God’s, even in the moment of his own death. And that free gift, indomitable, conquers the grave.

Caesar can demand what Caesar likes. But in his free gift of himself, Jesus establishes a new economy, a new kingdom, which reveals the insufficiency of mere duty, and invites you and me to do likewise: to give ourselves, in whatever circumstances we face, to the fullest extent we possibly can.

What does that mean? It means that duty is not sufficient. The minimum is not good enough. The requirements demanded by Caesar and by everything else in our lives will always be more than we can meet, no matter how many resources are at our disposal, no matter how small or great our capacity to obey. So what hope is there? How is Jesus’s witty reply Good News for us? Because the cross is where we see what it really means. And what it means is this: that no matter how small your gift, if freely given, in the moment of its giving, you will join with Christ in his victory over death: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” he says to the thief, and to you and me. Any gift given, whether time, talent, treasure, affection, or compassion, when given for the sake of giving and not for the satisfaction of fulfilling obligations, launches its giver into the priesthood of Christ himself — the central mystery of the cosmos, in which the gift of everything back to God results in the creation, the healing, and the fulfillment of all things.

“England expects that every man will do his duty.” But Nelson himself did much more: by putting his own ship in the front of the battle, and commanding his troops from the deck rather than from safety, he put himself in a position to pay for his extravagance with his life. He is remembered as one of the greatest heroes of this or any age. 

How you decide to give your own life is a question that only you can answer. You and I will probably not be remembered like Nelson. You and I will probably not be remembered at all, in the grand sweep of things. And yet, by giving ourselves away in the small and uncertain moments of our small and uncertain lives, we participate in the gift of Christ himself upon the cross, and we bear witness to the final, enduring freedom of the Kingdom of God — no matter the demands placed on us by duty or our ability to fulfill them.

The measure we give will be the measure we receive, not the measure we pay, not the measure we save. Let us therefore freely give and forgive, that in rendering to God what is God’s we might receive our own freedom, and our own life besides.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.