Government and God Matthew 22:15-22

Notes for a sermon with the congregation of Christ Church, Kingston, Ontario, October 20, 1996
by Robert Brow (

You can see the Pharisees were determined to trap Jesus, and they got some spies to ask Jesus a simple question. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?" (Matthew 22:17). They thought that whatever answer he gave, they had him cornered. If he said "Yes, you should pay taxes to the Roman government," they could call Jesus a collaborator for siding with the hated occupiers of their land. If he said they should not pay taxes to the Romans Jesus would immediately be arrested for sedition.

Jesus saw through the trap and he asked for a Roman coin "Whose head is this on the coinage?" Obviously it was the emperor's. So he gave them the answer that silenced them. It is an answer that is very important for us every day of our lives. "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). And when they heard this answer the Gospel says "they were amazed; and they left him and went away."

So let's ask ourselves how we give to our government what belongs to the state, and at the same time give to God what belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven?

I will begin with an illustration that makes the difference very sharp. A hundred years ago in England when a criminal was condemned to be hung, there always had to be an Anglican chaplain to be with the man in the last few hours before he died.
The chaplain's job was not to discuss whether the man was innocent or guilty, that was the duty of the judge and jury. "My job is to help you to look away from what the government has decided you deserve, and look to the love of God."

The chaplain then had to explain that Jesus died on the cross as a condemned criminal. "Your death by hanging will be very quick. He was innocent, and he was to suffer a slow death in excruciating agony. But as he died he said "Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing." As the eternal Son of God he accepted and absorbed in himself the sin and guilt of the whole world. And that includes all my sin and yours. As a result God says "I love you. There is nothing to pay, you are forgiven."

The chaplain's job is done when the condemned man is able to thank Jesus for his love and the certainty he is now forgiven. He can then try to picture for him the joys of the city of God on the other side. "Today you will be with me in Paradise." He will ask about the condemned criminal's family, and offer any prayers for his widow and children and loved ones at home. Finally he will invite him to share in the bread and wine of communion.

You will say "I am not a criminal, and nobody gets hung on the gallows in Canada. I believe that Jesus died for me, and I come to church on Sundays to rejoice in being forgiven. How does rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's apply to me this week?

As you know there are many things we have to do in relation to the government. We have to file and pay our income tax by next April. We have to make sure we are covered for health insurance, property and car insurance. There are rental and mortgage payments, we have to make payments on our credit cards, pay bills, get our children to school, and deal with doctors. We do not neglect all those things that are a necessary part of our life in this city. We are horrified when a man says "The Lord is my insurance" and he dies leaving his widow and children destitute. That is rejecting our duty in this world by using God to avoid our responsibility. The relation to God and to the government are distinct but each important in its own way.

But there are also the good citizens who are so earthly minded that they are no heavenly good. We should give to God what is needed for us to enjoy love and joy and peace and all the blessings that God has in mind for us. You have come to worship God this morning. Like that man about to be hung, we can hear God's Word, accept our forgiveness, pray for others and rejoice in our right to eat at the family table with the children of God.

Take the case of marriage. These days many want to enjoy sex without giving to the government what belongs to the government or to God what belongs to God. The government expects those who live together to be responsible for each other. Whether or not there was a legal marriage contract, a man has no right to walk away from a woman and the kids they had together without a proper settlement.

There is also God's interest in the blessing of a sexual relationship. God is love, and he invented love. Which means that sex is not to be used as a game, but as a means of beginning and cementing a love relationship. Although love is never easy, God delights in creating his kind of love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Finally we might consider the way we relate to enemies. We all face the danger of external and internal enemies that could destroy us and our families. Jesus told us to love our enemies, but that does not mean we won't have enemies. It certainly does not mean we let predators, child abusers, drug dealers, rapists, walk over us and our family. We rely on what the government provides by way of police protection. And we use whatever precautions which are open to us. But having identified a potential enemy we not only look to God to protect us, but we pray for the person to be changed and blessed by the love of God. That is not going against the government but providing the leaven in our community and society that is so badly needed.

Can I suggest that whatever problem you are facing this morning, or difficult decision you have to make, begin by identifying what belongs to the government and the ordinary requirements of living in our city. Then go over how God's love and his intervention can impact the situation.

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