"Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21).
Those of us who remember the old "Offices of Instruction" found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer may recall what we were taught about our duty under the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” We were instructed that it meant “To keep my hands from picking and stealing: To be true and just in all my dealings.”
It is a simple instruction, and there is real wisdom in it. It recognizes 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," which is the plain meaning of theft as an act of undisciplined impulse. The impulse to grab what belongs to someone else truly is destructive. Is it not a sign of loving parents to teach their children how to fight this temptation, and to respect the property of others? It is evident that the urge to “pick and to steal” is very much a childish thing, and certainly 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. The weakest and most defenseless members of society who are most hurt most by theft-inflated prices – the sick, widows, orphans, the elderly – are the very people who are most often on severely limited incomes. In fact, there are entire neighbourhoods in our country without a single store because they have been driven out of business by “picking and stealing.”
However, the second sort of stealing mentioned in the old Instruction might be even more destructive; namely, the planned and unconscionable theft of failing to be true and just in all our dealings. The doing of truth and justice takes real effort, but so does the denying of truth and justice. If “picking and stealing” can destroy a business or a 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. Honest people spend their lives trying to learn and to do what is true and just; whereas dishonest people actively cultivate an ignorance of what God demands of every human being. Even though we might pass a thousand laws to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty (and we have), no human law can possibly succeed if the law of God is despised. We have no hope of teaching or even of forcing someone else to be honest, until we have worked to keep our own hands from picking and stealing, and until we have given our own hearts over to God's justice and truth in all our dealings.
Each one of us has been born into this world with the stain of original sin, and because of that, the pursuit of justice and truth takes a life-long effort if we want to be sanctified in Christ. It is Christ who provides for our failures by offering us His Father's pardon any time we repent of our sins and confess them.
It was this same repentance that Christ was looking for from the Scribes and Pharisees when He said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” even though it was their intention to trick him, and not to learn about justice and truth. Their question about paying taxes to Caesar was a trap. If Christ had said, “Yes, 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 governour as a revolutionary (which eventually they did anyway).
Yet the Scribes and Pharisees failed to trap Him immediately, because Christ asked to see their money, which turned out to be Roman coins. Under the Jewish law which the Pharisees were claiming to be following, even touching a coin engraved with the image of a man (in this case Caesar) made a Jewish man 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 which had gathered, hearing this, probably burst out laughing at the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, and at Christ’s deflation of their supposedly-clever plan to get the best of Him. So the only thing the Pharisees could do was to shake their heads in wonder, as Jesus declared, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
That word "render" is our key to understanding this teaching of Christ. It means, “to give someone else what is rightfully his.” In this case, the Pharisees had taken not only Caesar's money for their own use, but they also took advantage of 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 to Caesar. The tax was a debt, and failure to pay it would have been theft.
But if Christ’s words have 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 was 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 be given only by God. 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 honour that are owed to the Sovereign Majesty ruling us and providing for us (compare Romans 13:7, and our duties to earthly rulers). We render to God what belongs to Him by right; namely, our praise and our thanksgiving. We obey His demand for truth and justice in all our doings, and that extends to our dealings with Him. And, so, what do we owe Him?
We owe Him our first-fruits. “First-fruits” 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 in their totality, therefore, are “first-fruits,” because a life cannot be divided. Either life belongs to God, or it does not. 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. If we neglect that, we are not giving Him what already belongs to Him, rather like a bank that refuses to return our deposits.
We must 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 of the invisible, because He made all things – visible and invisible. 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 Church in modern times has been weakened by the childish myth that we have more difficulties and responsibilities than did those who lived in previous generations. 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 first-fruits and tithes was Himself born in Bethlehem because his parents had gone there to pay a tax. We have acted as if money is the issue, and that money is always too scarce. Even billionaires worry that they could use “just a little more.”
But what matters is truth and justice in all our dealings, even (and perhaps especially) in our dealings with God. We cannot seriously ask for blessings from a God Whom 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 to us for these purposes.
As we sow, so also shall we reap (Galatians 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.” (Malachi 3:8).
Truth and justice take courage, and we can be courageous 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, which is our support for His Church, which is due to Him.
But we ought also to remember that whether we render to Caesar or to God on the basis of our Lord's teaching, we are not doing something new, but we are only obeying that ancient commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”
O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee: mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.