“Dual Citizenship”- Matthew 22:15-22
Pentecost 19 – October 15, 2017
- Taxes and tax-collectors
People in Jesus’ day didn’t like to pay taxes any more than we do, maybe even less so, because their taxes were given in support of their hated Roman conquerors. That’s why people like Zacchaeus were scorned. He was looked down upon not just because he was short but because he was a Jew who was really working for the enemy. In Luke 15, the Pharisees criticized Jesus for fraternizing with and eating with the despised tax collectors. In fact, even Matthew, who recorded today’s Gospel reading story, was a tax collector. One day, when he had invited Jesus over for dinner with some of his Israeli Revenue Agency buddies, the religious leaders questioned Jesus’ disciples about his practice of eating with the riff-raff.
In Matthew 22, Jesus’ enemies chose the painful and controversial subject of taxes to set a trap for him. Was it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? If Jesus said, “Pay the taxes,” then the crowds might very well have turned against him, thinking that he supported their Roman overlords. If Jesus said, “Don’t pay,” then his enemies could accuse him of treason and hand him over to the Roman authorities. It was a no-win situation if there ever was one. He would either be seen to be against his own Jewish people or against the Roman political system. But Jesus was fully aware of the trap his enemies had planned, and he simply asked to see the coin that was used to pay the tax. He asked, “Whose image and inscription are on the coin?” The coin bore the image and inscription of Caesar, and that provided the answer to the controversy. To his enemies Jesus said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The coin is Caesar’s, so give it to him. To the watching and wondering crowds – people who bore the image of God their Creator – Jesus implied, “You are created in the image of God, you belong to him, so give your life to Him.”
- Civic obligations
Like the crowds of Jesus’ day, we too must pay our taxes and we owe allegiance to an earthly government. We are citizens of this earth and live within a certain nation, province, city or town. We Christians, however, know something about those earthly governments and their authority that is unknown even to most of those earthly rulers. We know that their existence, their authority to rule, comes from God. The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God … Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” God is our true and only and ultimate King. He rules over us in love, and he has given the earthly governments the authority to rule over us for our good.
- God’s two kingdoms
You probably know the old song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and no, I’m not going to sing it for you. The title of that song is true enough. He does have the whole world in his hands, and when we describe God’s rule over all things, we talk about God’s “two hands” and about the two kingdoms or realms over which he rules, the kingdom of his right hand and the kingdom of his left hand.
What we call the kingdom of God’s right hand, or the kingdom of grace, is his rule over his Church, his rule over his redeemed people. By God’s grace, through Baptism or through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been brought into this kingdom, where he rules over us with his Word and forgiveness. What we call the kingdom of God’s left hand, or as it is sometimes called, the kingdom of power, is a way to describe God’s rule over all people, Christians and non-Christians alike in this world. In the kingdom of his left hand, God works through earthly rulers and their laws to promote what is good and to restrain evil. Certainly not every earthly king or ruler governs in a godly way – that is very rare – but even unbelieving rulers can rule justly, and all of them, even those who misuse their power, have that power only by God’s authority. He works through them and behind them and moves and removes them as he wills. Working through them, working “behind them,” as though hiding behind them, God sustains and brings order to this world that he created and still loves. The Small Catechism talks about God’s role in the explanation of the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “God richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.” This providential care of God and this defending care of God takes place through the governing authorities that He establishes for our good in His kingdom of the left hand.
- Luther and two kingdoms
- Saved by God’s grace, not by works
Martin Luther was a redeemed child of God, and he was, just as we are, a citizen of God’s right hand kingdom, the kingdom of grace. Luther was also subject to earthly rulers, to Frederick the Wise and his successors, the rulers of the territory of Saxony in which Luther lived. Luther was also subject to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, the ruler of much of Europe at that time. Luther lived in an age and a place where there was no separation of church and state as we know it, and the reformer had opponents in both. Through his study of God’s Word, Luther rediscovered the truth of the Gospel, the truth that we are saved neither by works, nor through buying church-authorized letters of pardon, but by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus, our Lord and King whose blood shed on the cross paid the price of our salvation.
- In danger in both kingdoms
Martin Luther shared the good news that he discovered in God’s Word. He taught, preached and wrote about the salvation that is ours by faith. But church officials acted to silence Luther. The leadership of the church of Luther’s day eventually declared the reformer to be a heretic, a false teacher. Working in concert with the church, the emperor – ruler of the left hand – declared Luther to be an outlaw; if Luther was a danger to the church, he was thought to be a danger to society as well. The reformer could be captured and killed, and no one was to read his writings or give him aid or assistance in any way.
But God was at work through the kingdom of his left hand to protect his busy monk. Luther’s territorial ruler, Frederick the Wise, acted in secrecy to protect his well-known professor and pastor. Frederick arranged to have Luther kidnapped and hidden away in Wartburg Castle for safety. Even from his hiding place, Luther continued to teach the Gospel, writing letters and translating the New Testament into German.
Even though he was declared to be an outlaw and condemned by earthly rulers, Martin Luther advocated obedience to the government, knowing from his study of Scripture that earthly rulers have their authority from God. But when those rulers decided to forbid the teaching of the Gospel, they could not be obeyed. The princes and other rulers who embraced the faith of the Reformation had to obey God rather than men, just as Peter concluded in first century Jerusalem. Those Christian rulers risked their lives to declare their allegiance to the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ. Many years later, in Augsburg, those princes and rulers would win the right to worship as they chose, as they read in Scripture.
- God’s kingdom in Israel
The Old Testament people of Israel were, for a time, ruled by God himself, in what we call a theocracy – literally, the power of the divine being. This is much different from a democracy (the power of the people) or an autocracy (the power of the one). God gave them the laws they needed to guide their moral choices, their worship and their society, and He expected them to follow His wise leadership. Martin Luther understood the Fourth Commandment about obeying your parents to incorporate all authorities God has placed over us in our lives, including the secular government authorities. God spoke to his people through Moses and the other prophets, and later through the judges he appointed to lead them. Eventually the Israelites decided that they wanted to be like other nations. Everyone else had kings to rule them, and they wanted a king, too. By insisting on a king, God told the prophet Samuel, “They have rejected me from being king over them.” It was not the first time that the Israelites had rebelled against the lordship of their heavenly King, and it would not be the last.
Throughout their history, the people of Israel often failed and faltered in their allegiance to God, in their worship of God, and finally God allowed the northern kingdom of Israel to be defeated by the Assyrians, and then just over 100 years later the southern kingdom of Judah to be overcome by their enemies and taken into exile in Babylon. They longed to be home again and free of foreign rule. But speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God told his people to establish themselves in the land of their exile. They should marry, build homes, plant crops and pray for the foreign land in which they lived, for in its good they would find their good.
- Dual citizenship
Some of you have come to Canada from other countries, but it is here that you have married, built homes, planted crops and sought good for your life and family. You may have dual citizenship and passports from two countries – one your homeland, and one for your new and adopted land of Canada. That dual citizenship permits you freedom of travel between the two countries, and various other privileges in both countries… maybe even the “privilege” of paying taxes of some kind in both countries. Those who do have dual citizenship must, in certain ways and to some degree, honour the governing authorities in both of those countries.
Today, here and now, we are citizens of the kingdom of grace, the kingdom of God’s right hand. We live in God’s kingdom of forgiveness – won for us by Jesus, and delivered to us by the truth of God’s Word and the blessings of His Sacraments. There is actually a third kingdom – the kingdom of glory – that we haven’t talked about. This is the kingdom that will be ours when Jesus returns, and we will live in the glory and the splendour of His presence eternally. Although we may sometimes despair of life in this world and although we may long for the fullness and glory of that kingdom, even now, until then, we, like the exiled Israelites, must pray for the kingdom of God’s left hand, for the earthly nation, province and cities in which we live. In their good we will find our good.
Luther affirmed that ours is a dual citizenship, as we live as citizens of both the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of power, the kingdom of God’s right hand and the kingdom of his left hand. We know that God really does “have the whole world in his hands” as we live under his care and protection as his redeemed people. We live, here and now, as our Lord lived among us, following in his footsteps, living in love and service toward the people around us. As the apostle Peter writes, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” That is, as Jesus said, acknowledging first of all that we bear the very image of God in our lives, and second giving to God what belongs to God – our lives, our service, our very selves. Amen.