St. Matthew 22: 15-22
November 8, 2015 A+D
(The sound quality is poor for this sermon)
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A poem came across my desk yesterday morning from the Writers’ Almanac that speaks to something of rendering to God what is God’s, albeit from a completely secular point of view. Here is the poem.
Last Day on Earth
by Lawrence Raab
If it’s the tide of a movie you expect
everything to become important—a kiss,
a shrug, a glass of wine, a walk with the dog.
But if the day is real, life is only
as significant as yesterday—the kiss
hurried, the shrug forgotten, and now,
on the path by the river, you don’t notice
the sky darkening beyond the pines because
you’re imagining what you’ll say at dinner,
swirling the wine in your glass.
You don’t notice the birds growing silent
or the cold towers of clouds moving in,
because you’re explaining how lovely
and cool it was in the woods. And the dog
had stopped limping!—she seemed
her old self again, sniffing the air and alert,
the way dogs are to whatever we can’t see.
And I was happy, you hear yourself saying,
because it felt as if I’d been allowed
to choose my last day on earth,
and this was the one I chose.
The point of the poem is that drama in literature and movies makes a great deal of ordinary circumstances and that is part of what we love about them. The music plays. The hero looks over his shoulder at his lover as he sets out for work unaware of what is coming, but we, the viewers, are highly aware of the significance and wish our lives were so interesting. That might be the last kiss, the last goodbye. In real life, we say goodbye to our spouses every morning. If we notice that the sky is darkening and clouds are moving in it just means it is going to rain. So the poet is suggesting that we treasure the ordinary and rejoice in these moments. I think he is mourning with us more than mocking us, but he is definitely pointing out the irony of our little speeches about the coolness of the woods and the perfect evening when we failed to enjoy them because we were preparing to talk about them. This is a popular sentiment in the pop culture of our day and a bit of response to the constant snapping of selfies.
But what is true of a person enjoying the Grand Canyon, is even more true of a person enjoying grace and recognizing that he belongs to God and that his life is for God. The point that Jesus wants to make to the Pharisees. It is not about paying taxes or the two kingdoms. It is about surrendering everything to God because they bear the image of God.
Sometimes we do need a kick in the pants. We need to recognize that we are being selfish, stingy. We need to re-evaluate our priorities, not only how we spend our money, but also how we spend our time. How often do we actually read the Bible? How often do we pray? How frequently do we come to Church and receive the Holy Communion? And then we might need to also ask ourselves how faithfully we are doing it. Are we paying attention during Church or are our minds wandering? Are we reading the Bible intently or are we just rushing through it? Are we cheerful givers or do we resent it?
But I don’t want to do any of that today because that is not what the Pharisees needed. They were keeping the Law in an external way. They were tithing. They were going to the Temple. They were faithfully reciting the Shema. Yet they refused the Messiah, made allies of the Herodians, and sought to trap Jesus for the sake of murdering Him. They were hypocrites, acting for the sake of appearance but not believing it in their hearts. Rather than marveling in the beauty of the Grand Canyon they were snapping selfies so that everyone would know they were at the Grand Canyon.
The Lord’s response to this is “Render unto God what is God’s.” For the Pharisees this doesn’t mean give more money. It means rejoice that you belong to God and that all of your life is pleasing to Him in Christ. As He so often does, even though the Lord rebukes the Pharisees, He is reaching out to them. They were made in the image of God, not of Caesar. He has come to restore them to that, to bring them into the fold, and to give His life as a ransom for theirs and for their sins.
What you need to take away from this is not that you need to give more money or do more work around Church. What you need, like the Pharisees, is change in perspective. You need to re-evaluate your worth and the worth of your work and life in light of the fact that God has inscribed His image upon you through Holy Baptism. He has declared you righteous. It is not only what you give to religious or charitable causes that is giving to God. Whether you know it or not, you are giving your whole life to God. Raising children, mowing your lawn, and selling life insurance, as well as coming to Church to receive the Sacrament, smiling at the WWII veteran and thanking him for his service, and just slapping a frozen pizza on to the table for your family – this is all service to God. There is no part of your life, no part of your income, no part of your work, that isn’t. There isn’t one part that is holy and another that is neutral. All of you belongs to God. Your works don’t have to be specifically religious to be holy. The Pharisees didn’t get this that is why they could cheat their parents while pretending to tithe. You sometimes don’t get it either. It is why you plan your dinnertime speech rather than enjoying the woods as a gift from God.
We can, in an external way, set our wills to fulfilling the Law. We can set a portion of our income for the work of the Church, for the care of the poor. We can recognize that God has given us duties to one another and then set about doing them. We can fulfill part of the Law in an external way and it is good when we do so. The Pharisees aren’t told to stop tithing.
So some mother may not want to be woken in the middle of the night to take care of a crying baby. She might not get up at the first instant. She might even entertain a sinful thought such as, “I wish I never had that baby.” But she is actually capable of getting up and taking care of him despite her fallen flesh and she does. God be praised. Her heart isn’t pure. She doesn’t keep the Law perfectly in an inward way, but to some degree she does keep it in an outward way. The baby lives and even prospers and is loved. That is good and it shouldn’t be minimized nor should it be stopped.
But the heart problem is real. God makes a claim on everything you have and everything you are belongs to Him and is to be in His service. The Lord loves a “cheerful” giver. The Lord expects the mother to sacrifice herself for her children and never count the cost or get resentful or weary. Who can claim to stand according to that standard? None of us.
Thank God there is more to rendering unto God what is God’s than our keeping of the Law. Nothing belongs to God more than Christ Himself. Born without sin, He is like Adam before the Fall. But as God Himself in the Flesh He is, in fact, more than that. He is the actual and literal image of God – in a way that Adam never was and we never will be. Listen to these passages:
“(The Father) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:13–15, ESV)
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” (Hebrews 1:1–3, ESV)
The Lord Himself, in Mary’s Son, is the ultimate cheerful giver. He renders unto God what is God’s: Himself. He does hold back any. He doesn’t daydream about having more. He doesn’t plan speeches for later. With this gift He sanctifies all our paltry gifts and faltering attempts at service. He not only forgives our sins and declares us righteous, but He also gives us to His Father. He gives Himself and He gives us. He is the image and so are we. He presents us to the Father as His own immaculate, redeemed, holy Bride in His own image. This is Baptism. This is Good Friday. This is the Holy Communion, the joining of heaven and earth and singing with the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven. This is Jesus offering Himself to the Pharisees that they might be freed from the hypocrisy and know the joy of giving to God what He already has.
The great irony is that when Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin convict Jesus for saying I AM and then hand Him over to the Romans for crucifixion they are actually rendering unto God what is God’s. It is really amazing. And that giving is what opens heaven and restores us to God’s image. Jesus fulfills the Law for us. He renders to God what belongs to God so that we again belong to God and might enjoy babies and spouses and frozen pizza – as though it were our last day.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
The key passage is Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, ESV). The image of God, strictly speaking, is “the knowledge of God, righteousness, and truth.” (Apology 4, para 18.) It was lost in the Fall. This is what God restores in us by grace. He declares us to be righteous in Christ. He also reveals Himself to us in Christ so that we know Him and know the Truth.
We can make a distinction between a wide and narrow sense of the term – both in the Bible and how we use it. The original righteousness is the narrow or proper sense. It is how we were first created and it is what we are being restored to. Since Jesus did not have original sin, His human nature was perfectly in the image of God even though He was born under the Law. The wide sense refers to man after the Fall, those who are not righteous and do not have true knowledge of God, and yet, who are, nonetheless, creatures endowed with intellect and will which have the capacity to be restored to the image of God, that is, which can be reconciled to the Father and declared righteous by grace. This is the only reason that God still concerns Himself with us, the reason He sent His Son to be a sacrifice. It is to restore us to the image in which we were originally created. Thus Col 3:8-10 “But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:8–10, ESV). (Pieper, vol. 1, 519; Schmid, 217-224).
In other words, when Our Lord invokes the image of God on humans, and believers in particular, He is saying that we belong to God and ought to give the whole of our lives over to Him. It is not a matter of whether you are paying the right amount of taxes, it is a matter of whether or not you are giving to God what is His due. In other words, this is a stewardship text.
Now the stewardship gurus frequently tell us that stewardship is not just about money and then they spend all their time talking about money and it is obvious any time they throw in “talents” and “time” that is not what they are really concerned about. There are lots of reasons for that and some of them might even be a bit nefarious, but it is also because money is nice and concrete. It lends itself to keeping score.