"Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way" (Matthew 22:21-22).
The Prayer Book "Offices of Instruction" summarize our duty under the Eighth Commandment ("Thou shalt not steal") in this manner: "To keep my hands from picking and stealing: To be true and just in all my dealings" (BCP 289).
This is wisdom, first of all, because the Church recognizes here in her teaching that there are two kinds of stealing, two ways of depriving someone else of what rightfully belongs to him. The first is "picking and stealing": theft as an act of undisciplined impulse. And this impulse just to grab whatever we desire is very destructive. All loving parents try to teach their children how to fight this temptation and to respect the property of others.
But while the urge to pick and to steal is "childish," it is not "childlike" or innocent in its results. One of the hidden costs of every purchase we make is the storekeeper’s loss through theft, passed on to his customers in higher prices. And it is the weakest and most defenseless members of society who are hurt most by theft-inflated prices: the sick, widows, orphans, the elderly—everyone on a fixed or limited income. In fact, there are entire neighborhoods in our country without a single store because all the stores have been driven out of business by picking and stealing.
And yet, surpassing impulsive theft for sheer destructiveness is the second sort of stealing identified by the Prayer Book: the planned, cold-blooded theft of failing to be true and just in all our dealings. Truth and justice demand effort, but so do their denial. And if picking and stealing can destroy a business or neighborhood, the refusal to be true and just can destroy an entire church, society, or nation.
People make mistakes, of course. But honest people try to learn from their errors. They spend their lives trying to learn truth and justice; while dishonest people actively cultivate their ignorance of what God demands of every human being. Although we can pass a thousand laws to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty (and we have); no human law can succeed where the law of God is despised. The Prayer Book is right. I have no hope of teaching or even forcing you to be honest, until I have worked to keep my own hands from picking and stealing, until I have given my heart to God’s justice and truth in all my dealings.
We are all born into this world as hypocrites, so justice and truth are life-long pursuits of our sanctification in Christ, who even provides for our failures by offering us his Father’s pardon any time we repent our sins. It was this same repentance that Christ sought from the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel, even though they had come to trick him, and not to learn about justice and truth.
Their question about paying taxes to Caesar was a trap. If Christ said to pay the tax, the Pharisees could denounce him to the people as a Roman collaborator. If he spoke against the tax, they could hand him over to the Roman governor as a revolutionary, something they did manage to do on Good Friday.
Yet the Scribes and Pharisees failed, because Christ asked to see their money, which turned out to be Roman coins. Under the Jewish law that the Pharisees claimed to follow, even touching a coin engraved with the image of a man, in this case Caesar, made one unclean and unable to enter the Temple. But they had just come from the Temple with their pouches full of ritually unclean Roman money.
The crowd that had gathered probably burst into laughter at the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, and at Christ’s defeat of their clever plan to best him. All the Pharisees could do was to marvel at their comeuppance, as Christ declared, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."
That word "render" is our key to understanding this teaching of our Lord. It means, "to give someone else what is rightfully his." In this case, the Pharisees had taken Caesar’s money and the other benefits of the Roman political system. In return, they owed Caesar his taxes on that money. The tax wasn’t voluntary. It wasn’t a gift. The tax was a debt, and to fail to pay it would have been theft.
But if Christ has bound us to meet our obligations to our civil governors, we ought not to forget the rest of his teaching that day, by which he bound us to render to God the things that are God’s. It is the Pharisees’ doctrine, and not Christ’s, that we have no king but Caesar (John 19:15). Our Lord Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Whatever lawful authority any king or government may possess can only be given by God. And no state can command our worship, because worship belongs to God alone.
One of the founding principles of the United States, now obscured by secularist propaganda, is that we Americans have no King but Jesus Christ. Our American heritage of national Thanksgiving Days and voluntary annual stewardship drives constitutes our tribute, our custom, our fear, and our honor that are owed to the Sovereign Majesty that rules us and provides for us (compare Romans 13:7, and our duties to earthly rulers). We render unto God what belongs to him by right, our praise and our thanksgiving. We obey his demand for truth and justice in all our doings, even when we deal with him. And, so, what do we owe him?
"Firstfruits" in the Bible are the first, indivisible portion of what we make or do that belongs by right to God, just as "tithes" are God’s first tenth of whatever can be divided. Our lives, therefore, are "firstfruits," because they cannot be divided. They belong to God, or they don’t. In the same way, we pay to God the first, not the last, portion of our income or increase, not as a gift, but as a debt, or we are not giving him what already belongs to him (like a bank that refuses to return our deposits).
But make no mistake about it. God, our King, requires tribute from us, a return on what he has given us. God is the Lord of the visible, as well as the invisible, because he made them both. We owe God our visible tribute for his visible blessings, just as much as we owe him our spiritual worship for his invisible grace.
The Christian Church in modern times has been weakened by the childish myth that we have it harder than the ancients did. We have acted for a century as if we were the first people ever to have the burden of taxes, even though the Lord who taught us to pay firstfruits and tithes was born in Bethlehem because his parents had gone there to pay a tax. We have acted as if money were the issue, and money is always tight. Even billionaires worry that they could use just a few dollars more.
But what matters is truth and justice in all our dealings, even our dealings with God. What matters is, as we say today in our prayers, that "we yield unfeigned thanks" and learn "to ask faithfully [so] that we may obtain effectually." We cannot seriously ask for blessings from a God we disobey. We cannot convert the world to a Faith that we do not practice. We cannot help the poor and the weak if we fail to use the time and the money that God has already given for these purposes.
As we sow, so also shall we reap (Gal. 6:7), and sowing means letting go of something so that God can multiply it and make it great. And if this sounds too direct, consider the bluntness of God in the Holy Scriptures, where he says:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me…in tithes and offerings. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be [food] in my house and prove me…if I will not pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it (Malachi 3:8,10).
Truth and justice take courage, and we take courage together because two thousand years ago the Son of God offered everything to save us and to build his Church. We continue to build that Church with him when we do our bounden duty together and render to our Father in heaven the physical worship, our support for his Church, which is his true and most just due. And God will bless our loyalty beyond our reckoning.
But we ought also to remember that whether we render unto Caesar or to God on the basis of our Lord’s teaching, we are not doing something new, but only obeying that ancient commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."
Father Ed Bakker