Reformation 3: Jeremiah 29:4-7, Romans 13:1-7, Matthew 22:15-22: The Two Kingdoms, Church and State

Church and State4 (610x351)Human history is full of people not wanting to fund its government or services.  Without both, a nation cannot endure.  So, taxes are the costs a country incurs for its civilization.  Still, most of us want the advantages of taxation but not the expenses.

The first Israelite king recognized people’s distaste for taxes.  A Philistine army with its towering warrior, Goliath, assembles before him.  How can King Saul find someone to fight against this titan in single combat?  What will he do?  A young man, David, learns of the King’s decree as he strides toward the battlefield.  “The king will reward the man who kills [the giant] with much wealth.  For he will offer him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes” (1 Samuel 17:25).

Around 2,000 years ago, people still didn’t want to pay their taxes—but now the dangers are more complicated.  Yes, the Israelites detest paying taxes for selfish reasons, but those revenues also support an occupying force with its brutal legions.

In such a thorny setting, those who didn’t like Jesus conspire to use the animosity toward taxes to entangle Him.  For if they ask, “Should people pay taxes?” whatever His answer, they think they will still entrap Him.  “No, don’t,” and His opponents can accuse him of treason and hand him over to a nearby Centurion.  “Yes, do,” and a mob may form against Him, believing He supports their Gentile overlords.

With this taxing question, they wedge Jesus into a corner, but He spots their deceit and the snare they set.  For they didn’t care one bit about governmental revenues.  So, He asks them to fetch a coin.  “Tell me, whose image and inscription is this?”

The reply rings out, “Caesar’s.”  A portrait of Tiberius imprints one side, a figure of him enthroned on the other.  The coin’s words, “mighty ruler,” supply the solution to the loaded question.  “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Consider this—Jesus doesn’t tell them, “Pay Tiberius,” though the coin bears his image.  No, our Lord is focusing on the office, not the man.  Give to the Emperor, Caesar, not Tiberius.  So, He teaches us to honor the position since this is from God.

For example, we can still respect the office of the presidency, whether occupied by a scoundrel or a saint, whether Obama or Trump.  A particular president can turn out to be unethical.  Not so for a position, which is but a station or place through which a leader is meant to serve the people.

Like the crowds of long ago, we too must forfeit our share of taxes.  For we walk about on this earth as part of, and belonging to, a nation.  The illuminating God enlightens us on the role of government, which those who govern may not realize.  For their right to lead is derived from the Lord, not themselves, meaning they are accountable to Him.

The Apostle Paul wrote:

Every person is subject to the higher authorities.  No government can exist if not established by God.  For your benefit, He puts these rulers in their places of power [as His] servants… [who act as] agents of wrath on the wrongdoer…

So, the government turns into a heaven-sent gift to curb crime, provide protection, and settle our squabbles.  Through such, the sinful impulses inside us are restrained, impeding us from infringing on our neighbor’s liberty and peace.  These are the masks behind which our Creator works.  Through them, He safeguards stability, averts anarchy, and keeps chaos in check within this wayward and sin-infected world.

The state isn’t called to be a proclaimer of the Word, preaching salvation into your ears or absolving your sins.  No, a government corrects wrongdoers.  This task is what we call “the left hand of God.”  Why?  The Scriptures use “the right hand of God” as a picture of His grace, where our Savior intercedes for His faithful on earth.

In the left kingdom, God acts through our institutions to foster what is helpful and constrain our worst compulsions.  Of course, not every king governs in a godly way—but unbelievers also rule by divine sanction and permission.  Through and behind them, our Father above uses them to bring order into the world He created and loves.

So, we find ourselves in both Church and State.  The right hand, the Church, is under the jurisdiction of the Almighty.  Here, in this House, our forgiving Father reveals His mercy, where He promises to work.  Here, presidents and paupers kneel in prayer, receive communion, and gather around their life-giving God.  For here, in the spiritual arena, He carries out what no government is empowered or authorized to do.

In this place, the Father’s Son destroys the disease of everlasting death, strengthens the weak, calms the troubled, and heals the heart wounded by sin.  In His House, He forgives the fallen and gives hope to the hopeless.  The moving and stirring Spirit breathes into us His enlivening breath, calling us back from the brink of death, despite our defiance and failings.  Here, He en-Spirits you with life, dear Christian!

Where does all this unite and join, in a way you can touch, revere, and savor?  In the Sacrament of the Altar.  The bread and wine hide, but also bring us, Jesus’ body and blood, which disable death and the devil and open the gates of heaven to all believers.  In this Meal, Jesus descends to give us Himself, all so He can live in us and we in Him.  The sacred Supper is when the Spirit blesses us with what is Christ’s.

The Lord’s Church should not intertwine herself in the workings of the state.  For another purpose animates and fills her.  Secular control is to preside over a nation, not the spiritual.  Now, both are needed—and complementary—but God parcels out to them different and separate tasks!  Here’s why—faith is unforced, not coercible on another, which is why Christ comes to us in His House.  Not so for the state, which enforces behavioral boundaries and disciplines when needed.

At its essence, government serves to punish evil, encourage what is right, resolve disputes, prevent disorder, and protect the people.  The Lord doesn’t tell the state to save us, which is why He founded His one, holy, universal, and apostolic Church.

In 1521, the Roman-Catholic Church strove to silence Luther at the Diet of Worms.  With Church and state comingled into one sphere or domain, Charles V, the Emperor of “The Holy Roman Empire,” became an enforcing arm of Rome.  For if the Catholic Church regarded Luther as dangerous, so did the state.  Now, others may capture or kill him, and no one is to read the Reformer’s writings, or aid or comfort him in any way.

By the work of His left hand, God, through Frederick the Wise, defends His busy monk.  The territorial monarch over Luther protects his well-known professor and theologian, kidnapping him after he rose to vow, “Here I Stand.”  Though Luther thinks he is being abducted to die, hired horse riders hustle him away to Wartburg Castle.  In hiding, Luther cultivates a beard and takes a new name, Junker George, “George, the Knight.”

Though an outlaw, judged by Europe’s Emperor, Martin still directs others to obey the government, recognizing its right to rule originates from God.  Not so when they forbid the Gospel, for only after does Luther approve of such disobedience.  The princes who embrace the faith, choose to follow the heavenly Father more than men.  To declare their loyalty to the King of kings over a world king, they put their survival on the line.

Go back 2500 years.  The people of Israel are under the Old Covenant, through which God rewards or punishes based on how well they rely on Him and walk in His ways.  So, as they wander into unbelief, enemies conquer them or take them into exile.

Later, as a people banished to Babylon, the Jews long to go home, unfettered from foreign domination.  How can they thrive under an enemy occupier?  Through Jeremiah, God tells His people to put down some roots.

In unfamiliar surroundings, as foreigners, they are to marry, build homes, plant crops, and pray for the land in which they reside.  For when their captors prosper, they will, as well.  Though they are the chosen, through whom the foretold Messiah will come, they also need to accept the authority of the state.

In 1821, President James Madison, one of the framers of our constitution, sent a letter to a Lutheran pastor.  After reading one of his sermons, he penned these remarks.

[Your homily] illustrates…  a system…  to which the genius and courage of Luther led…  Between what is due to Caesar and what is…[to] God, [Luther taught what] best promotes the discharge of both obligations.  The experience of the United States is a happy [proof]…

Today, here and now, we are citizens of heaven’s realm of grace, awaiting the fullness and glory of the kingdom to come, when Jesus returns.  Until the Last Day, as we venture forth in a world woven and wrapped in wickedness, we need both Church and state.  So, we voice our prayers for our country, state, and city.  For in their proper functioning, we profit from a well-functioning society.

So, how do we go about our lives when we contemplate the blessing of government?  Like this—we send in the tax we owe, what is fitting and right.  Hmm, so part of your paycheque becomes a living sacrifice to your Lord.  Through your taxes, you are respecting and honoring those in authority, as God wants you to do.

To disparage our governing leaders is to dishonor God since He is behind their authority.  For we belong to two kingdoms.  Declared as saints, we journey as those who are pronounced righteous and released from sin’s condemnation.  So, we live as our Lord lived among us, walking in His footsteps, reflecting His giving love and service to those around us.  For He gave His life to Caesar and God, which means you are now free to live out His love for all eternity.  Amen.