I have visited many of church members over my twenty or so years of pastoral ministry. I have found that you can tell a lot about a person when you visit them in their home. Some homes are filled with family pictures, some with knick knacks, some with shelves of books. In some you see fine china and in some you see piles of toys. But there is one that I will never forget. At a previous church I visited a man who had coyote skins drying in his kitchen and living room. Inside out. I had never seen anything lie that before and often found my eyes wandering during our visit. He was a trapper. We did not get into too many details about how he trapped coyotes and other animals but it was clear that the key is to get the animal in a position where there is no way out.
The same is true for trapping humans, although I’m not speaking in a physical way. We see this all the time with politicians and other celebrities. There are people who want to see them fall, either to sell magazines, make a name for themselves or just to feel good. In our digital world, this is increasingly becoming easier. People record conversations and actions on their phones. Ill thought comments never completely disappear on the internet. People look to catch a person with a belief or a statement or an action that will destroy their career.
There are tricks that people can use to try and trap a person. What would happen if I asked you to answer yes or no to the following question? “Have you stopped beating up your neighbour?” No matter what you answer, you are trapped.
Similar tactics were used against Jesus. The religious leaders had come to realize that they couldn’t beat Jesus either in a popularity contest or in a straight theological debate. So they tried to trap him. They came up with a question that they thought was sure to destroy him. That is what we are going to look at.
The religious leaders attempted to trap Jesus with a question similar to the beating the neighbour question. Theoretically, there was no safe answer.
The background to the question was the Roman occupation of Judah and Galilee. The Jews had only enjoyed independence for a brief time between the Old and New Testaments. People longed for the days of Kind David when other nations paid tribute to them. Unfortunately, the Jews were a part of the Roman Empire. We shouldn’t necessarily think of an oppressive occupation with soldiers on every street corner but it was an occupation nonetheless. They did not have their independence and freedom and the worst reminder of that was the paying of taxes. Someone had to pay for the hefty expenses of the Empire, whether that of the luxuries of Caesar or supplying the legions across the huge Empire. No one enjoys paying taxes but it is especially detestable when you are paying to a foreign nation.
This is where the trap came in. The religious leaders asked Jesus if it was permissible to pay taxes. This seemed like a no-win situation for Jesus. If Jesus said that it was not permissible to pay taxes to the Romans, the people would be happy but the Romans angry. They could report Jesus and have him arrested for preaching a boycott of taxes. If Jesus said it was permissible to pay taxes, the Romans would be happy but the people would be angry. It would look like Jesus was a Roman sympathizer and he would lose support from the people. There was no way out of this. Or was there?
Jesus had them bring out a Roman coin. He asked about whose image it was and they replied that it was Caesar’s. If it had Caesar’s image, then it belonged to him. But at the same time, we need to give to God would belongs to God. People can pay taxes but that doesn’t put Caesar above God.
Render Unto Caesar
What does the Christian life look like? That is a question that I often find myself asking. When we go grocery shopping, is that time that we should be putting into Bible study? When we go to work, is that time we should put into prayer? When we pay or taxes, is that money that we should be giving to the church? Is it wrong to do “non-churchy” things?
People have struggled with those very things. There are certain things that just feel unspiritual. At some points in history, Christians have tried to escape the ways of world by forming monasteries. The goal was to spend all their time in prayer and Bible study. But the problem is that they still needed to eat and so part of the monastic life became tending gardens and other tasks that would help pay for their more “spiritual” activity.
I remember as a child wondering how a pastor lived. Did they stay at the church all the time praying and singing? I will tell you what it is like to be a pastor. I put gas in my car. I clean out the litter box. I watch movies with my children. I grab a coffee with my wife. I pay my taxes. There is a place for us to render unto Caesar. Normal life is not wrong and I would argue that it is not unspiritual either.
Render Unto God
How did Jesus determine what was to be given to Caesar? He asked them about the image that was on it. If it had Caesar’s image, it belonged to Caesar. How do we determine what belongs to God? Would you believe that it is the exact same method? We look to see what has God’s image.
Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his image. We bear the image of God upon us. Yes, sin mars that image somewhat but that image is still there. That means that we belong to God and if we are to render God, we need to give ourselves to him.
This really messes up how people see Christianity as a religion. There are people that want just a little bit of Jesus. If we can tack on Jesus to the other parts of our life, that would be nice and pleasant. But Jesus is not looking to be included in a few of our activities as a tagalong. We need to give ourselves completely over to God, offering him all that we have.
But how do we do that if we just said that there is a place for the “Render Unto Caesar”? The answer to this question is that there is no real divide between the sacred and the secular. When I am watching a movie with my children, that is not unspiritual. Quality time is a reflection of my love for them and God is love. That is spiritual activity.
The great Reformer Martin Luther said “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Making shoes the best he can is still rendering unto God. As soon as we see a part of our life as not being for God, we are holding back on God’s due. Theologian Abraham Kuyper said “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” The question is, is there even a square inch of our life that we say doesn’t belong to Christ?
There is no stage of life in which we can say my time is done. If you are still breathing than it is still time to render unto God. It may look different at the age of seventy-five as it did at twenty-five, but the command is still there. Render unto God that which is God’s, that which bears his image.
As your pastor, I don’t want to use this as an opportunity to guilt you into filling spots or doing things inconsistent with your passions or gifts. My question is, are we truly rendering to God all that is his? What are we hold back? What would giving over more of ourselves to God look like? For some people it might be more time in prayer. For others it might be more financial generosity. For others it might be seeking out the lonely in the church and being an encouragement.
Even as a pastor I find this as a challenge. I can fill all my time with “churchy” things but am I truly rendering unto God? The challenge is not to get busier but to have a heart change, to immerse everything I’m already doing in my relationship with God.
Each one of us has the image of God. Let us give unto God all that belongs to him.