False and True Messiahs
Text: Matt. 22:15-22
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is an often-quoted observation about how Americans approach work, leisure, and worship. It’s said that Americans worship at their work, work at their play, and play at their worship. There’s a lot to unpack in that statement about our confusion when it comes to workaholism, leisure, and the spiritual life of most, but I would add one more thing to this: in our society today—on nearly every point on the political spectrum—our culture also worships at politics.
It’s an ugly truth, and one that’s very hard to accept for many, but the concept of political messiahs runs throughout every news broadcast, social media algorithm, and thinly veiled commentary in TV shows and movies. Everything will be fixed, or OK, or at least better, if this or that candidate, or party, or ideology takes control. If this or that leader can be replaced with the next one, we will be led into a golden age, or a nicer age, or a saner age, or whatever is promised. Don’t bother trying to deny it. Right now you’re thinking about which candidate, or party, or platform will save you. And it doesn’t matter where you place yourself in politics; you have the suspicion, perhaps even the conviction, that someone can save you from the other—the other candidate, the other party, the other platform.
As mortals, we’re good at creating false messiahs. We excel at building pedestals for those who will deliver us from evil, or at least from that evil, or those people. We readily hand over our trust, our faith, to those who will promise to give us our daily bread, or a growing stock portfolio, or ever-increasing retirement account, or a satisfied peace of mind. We look for those who will give us some sort of security as we face the uncertainty of the world and the future. The only problem is that those who are elevated as such messiahs are also mortals themselves, and in the end, they can save no one. Their efforts hardly withstand the works of the next little messiah to take center stage.
This is not a new problem for God’s people. Throughout our history, Old and New Testament, we have often confused the rule of this world and its crumbling orders and institutions for the eternal reign of God. Millenia ago, God’s people Israel demanded a king to give them the impressive glamor and so-called security they saw in the neighboring pagan nations. They put their hope in a man—King Saul—to raise them up and make them impressive and powerful. And what a disappointment that turned out to be.
Even at the time of Jesus, there was confusion about what He had come to do. Many hoped He would restore Israel to its glory days of King David and King Solomon. Others simply wanted Him to continually provide miraculous bread, like He did in the feeding of the five thousand, so that their desire for earthly things would always be satisfied. And even today, we easily confuse the systems and orders of this world—governments and society projects, leaders and politics—to show us the way to paradise, or at least to save us from those things we perceive as evil. So we fight and bicker, we hope and trust, we shout down those who disagree with us, or we cut them out of our compassion and lives. At the very least we look down disapprovingly at their positions. We put so much stock in other mortals, little worldly messiahs, emperors, princes, presidents, and the like, that we fail to see them rising in our minds as idols. We worship at our politics.
So what are we to do? How are we to untangle it all? As we might suspect, we can look to our true Messiah to provide us a way out. When the political alliance of the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus in His words, He proved too wise for their petty worldly snares. “Teacher,” they tried to butter Him up, “we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” Then, after laying it on a little thick, they get to their trap: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
It’s a clever enough trap. If Jesus says that yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Pharisees can jump on Him and say He’s no true Israelite patriot, thinking that it’s lawful to send hard-earned Israelite money to the corrupt, pagan, and evil Roman emperor. But if Jesus answers no, that it’s not lawful, then the Herodians, the supporters of King Herod, a favored puppet king kept in power by Rome, can attack, saying that Jesus is preaching insurrection and sedition, forbidding taxes to be paid to the legitimate government over their region.
But Jesus’ view is greater than fallen mortals. His eyes are not clouded by the piles of idols that we have a habit of creating. And He shares His clearer view with us. “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” They showed Him a denarius. “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” He asked. They said, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus teaches us to keep everything in its proper place and give those things appropriate to each authority. For we know from God’s Word that every authority that exists has been instituted by God to work as His servant—punishing the wicked and rewarding the good. Even Cyrus, the unbelieving Persian emperor, is said to be God’s servant in our Old Testament reading, doing what the Lord has established him to do. And if he, or any authorized government fails in its task, God will see to it that they are cast down, as so many rulers and powers of this world have been. So, because they rule over the order of this world, we render—we give to them—the things of this world: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, honor to whom honor is owed, respect to whom respect is owed. Even when we don’t like it, even when it hurts or makes us uncomfortable, we give those things to whom it is proper to give them—no more, no less—knowing full well that there is always more than what we see with our eyes and count with our checkbooks.
We also render to God the things that are God’s. And what are the things that belong to God? Faith. You shall fear, love, and trust in God above all things. That’s the First and greatest Commandment. So while we give taxes, revenue, respect, and honor to the caesars of this world, we give faith and trust only to God. We expect every good from Him. We expect Him to deliver us from every evil of this world and the next. And if it ever comes to a situation where we have to choose between the little messiahs of this world and the Messiah, we choose Jesus every time. Every time.
That’s the lesson here. We have to remember that Jesus spoke these words about Caesar and God in those last days before His crucifixion, when He was on His way to the cross to render His life to God as a sacrifice for sin—as atonement and forgiveness for the all the trust and faith we’ve put in false messiahs. He was on His way to give His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith in Him, the true Messiah. He was on His way to His death and resurrection to open the way of everlasting life in the new heavens and new earth for you. Long after this old fallen order has disappeared, you will still be alive, under His gracious reign, forever. And that is reason to render to Him your songs of praise, your fear, your love, your trust, your hope, now and always. In the name of Jesus, the true Savior. Amen.