For the October 22, 2017, the lectionary texts include Isaiah 45:1-7 and Matthew 22:15-22. In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation next week, I preached on Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms.
I found this commentary on Working Preacher by Clayton Schmidt helpful, as well as this 2005 article on vocation (PDF link) from Word & World. I even referred back to a few class notes from Craig Nessan’s Christian Ethics in Lutheran Perspective class at Wartburg Seminary!
How many of you really get excited about paying taxes? Anyone have April 15 marked with a smiley face on your calendar, or maybe you check your pay stub every week to see how much you can give to the government?
Depending on your political party persuasion, some might see taxes as more necessary for society than others, but I have yet to meet anyone who actually enjoys paying them. And yet you pay them, because you don’t want to get in trouble with the government.
This requirement to pay taxes or get into legal trouble was the same in Jesus’ day, but even more heightened, because the Jewish people had been conquered by the Roman empire, and the taxes they were required to pay went to Rome. Their taxes were a constant reminder that they were a conquered, oppressed people.
So this question that Jesus’ enemies ask him is actually really clever. I love the way they ask it. They start by trying to butter up Jesus: ”Teacher, we know that you are sincere, that you teach the way of God in accordance with truth” blah blah blah… Then they get to their trap.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Roman emperor or not?
If Jesus answers yes, his followers might leave him. Remember, everybody hates the Romans. But if he answers no, then he’s encouraging rebellion against the emperor, and the Romans could arrest him. It’s a really good trap question.
But Jesus sees right through it. He asks to see a coin, and they get one and show it to him. He looks at the coin, asks them whose head is on it, and when they respond, “The emperor’s,” he tells them to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and give to God the things that are God’s.
Great, simple answer, right? And it worked. “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” But saying, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” doesn’t actually help us, does it?
Here’s the problem: What things belong to God? Or rather, what things don’t belong to God?
If we believe God is the Creator of the world, then everything belongs to God. When we give offering, we say in the prayer, “We offer with joy and thanksgiving what you have first given us.” Everything we have is a gift from God. We don’t own it, we’re just stewards taking care of what God has trusted to us. We only return to God a portion of what is already God’s.
And yet, Jesus avoids saying that nothing belongs to the emperor. He doesn’t say to get rid of taxes. So what things are God’s and what things are the emperor’s?
One lens through which we as Lutherans approach this question is Martin Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms. In Luther’s day in the 1500’s, there was no such thing as separation of church and state like we have now. No one could comprehend that kind of idea.
The Pope was in charge of everything, running the church, defending Europe against invaders, and even crowning kings and emperors. In the course of the Reformation, as Luther challenged the corruption he saw in the church, he challenged this idea that the church and the pope should have ultimate authority.
Instead, he argued that there are two kingdoms, the spiritual and the secular. As Christians, each of us lives in both kingdoms at once, two different realms.
On the one hand, (the left hand, Luther calls it), each of us is a citizen of a country. We live in the world. And of course, we need laws to function, because evil exists. Sin needs to be restrained, or everything would be chaos. Taxes need to be paid, because they fund the protection that people need from each other.
The mistake we often make is think God is not involved in this left-hand kingdom. Even more today than in Luther’s day, we think that some things are the emperor’s, and not God’s. But that’s a misunderstanding of how God’s relationship with the secular world.
God is at work in the world, and God’s goal in the left-hand kingdom, the worldly realm, is to sustain justice and peace. Towards this goal, God uses tools of power, the sword, as Luther called it.
We think of institutions like police and the courts. Those institutions don’t need to be Christian. Atheists and Muslims and Hindus and Jews and anyone else can work for justice and peace.
Our reading from Isaiah makes that point, talking about Cyrus, the king of Persia, someone who definitely was not intending to serve Yahweh, the God of Israel. He likely didn’t even know about the God the Jews worshiped. And yet, God used him to return the people of Israel from exile. God can work through anyone.
As Christians, people who do know God, we support and participate in God’s work in the world. Lutherans believe that Christians should be involved in government as a way of fulfilling our calling from God to love and serve our neighbors and steward God’s creation.
Some Christian traditions are convinced the government is a terrible thing, that Christians shouldn’t get involved. One of the big controversies in Luther’s day was about whether or not Christians could serve as soldiers. Luther argued that yes, Christians can be soldiers, and police, and judges, and DOT workers, and social workers, and all these other things.
In fact, he went farther than just saying you could faithfully be a public servant; he believed that you could serve God in any kind of work, as long as you did it with the goal of glorifying God and serving your neighbor.
The proper job of a prince or ruler, Luther says, is to think:
“Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler.
When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor….The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader.
If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.”
(Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (25 October 1522, Saturday after the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity), Weimar 10/3:382 found here)
So that’s the left-hand kingdom, the secular world where laws are needed to restrain sin for both Christians and non-Christians alike. On the other hand, (the right-hand, Luther calls it) there’s the spiritual kingdom.
This is the realm of the church, the realm where it’s more obvious that things are God’s. While the left-hand kingdom deals with creation, the right-hand kingdom deals with eternity, with salvation.
In the left-hand worldly realm, righteousness and success are earned by doing good work. People judge you based on what you do. But in the right-hand spiritual realm, righteousness comes through Jesus Christ. The good work that we do in the left-hand kingdom is never enough for how God judges us, but Jesus Christ has already done all the good work on our behalf.
Sometimes we mix up those realms and we think the good we do in the left-hand, worldly kingdom translates to the right-hand spiritual realm, but in the right-hand kingdom, God has already done it all. Jesus has died and been raised for you. As Christians, we are citizens of the right-hand kingdom, promised eternal life with God.
The key to all this right-hand / left-hand stuff is that God is ambidextrous. As the Sunday School song goes, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Not just in one hand, but in both hands. Although we give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, we know that even the emperor really belongs to God.
It’s not that we’re sometimes spiritual people serving God when we’re at church and then ignoring God the rest of the week. The point of Luther’s two kingdoms, and the point Jesus makes, is that all things are God’s. You can be serving God on Tuesday morning, and on Friday night, and on Sunday morning.
Look again at Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question. When he gets a coin, he asks them whose head is on it, whose image it bears. It belongs, he says, to the one whose image it carries.
Way back in the creation story, in Genesis 1:26, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us… So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them.” The fancy Latin church word for it is “Imago Dei” – God’s image.
If we as humans are made in the image of God, if we bear the image of our Creator, what then does this parable say to us?
Turn to the person next to you and tell them, “You bear the image of God.” God’s claim on you supersedes any other claims, whether it’s the claim of your job, your country, your family, even yourself. You are made in God’s image. You belong to God.
And because you belong to God, you belong to the people of God, the body of Christ. Not only are you claimed because you’re made in the image of God; you have been baptized into the church. You have been drowned in the waters of baptism and given new life as a child of God.
May you live out your Christian identity as God’s beloved child in all of life. May you know who you are and whose you are.
And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus our Lord.