All Saints Sunday (B), November 2, 2003
Rendering to Caesar, Rendering to God
During times of war and times of peace, Christians wonder what they owe to their government and what they owe to God. During our recent conflict with Iraq, this was no less an issue. The Los Angeles Times ran a feature chronicling the sharp difference between clergy and lay people in their attitude toward the war (5/11/03 M-1). Christian clergy, it seems, were mostly critical of the war with Iraq. In contrast, Christian lay people were supportive. What do we owe to our government, and how is that different from what we owe to God?
The 12th chapter of Mark sets two teachings in contrast to each other to help explain this for followers of Jesus. The first teaching involves the debate in the temple over Roman taxation. The religious leaders ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus’ answer to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God has become proverbial. This saying of Jesus is the kernel that grows into the fully developed doctrine of church and government articulated by Paul in Romans 13.
The bottom line: As followers of Jesus, our government deserves our respect and support. However, what belongs to God? That’s where our text for today comes in. Amid several debates with religious leaders over the question of Jesus’ authority, a teacher of the law asks Jesus which of God’s commandments is the most important. The question was a burning one in Jesus’ day among the rabbis, with most rabbis arguing for one of the ten being primary. The question was not intended to pit commandments against each other, but to find one commandment as a kind of summarizing point of reference, under which all other commands can be put in their proper place.
Jesus astounds His questioners by passing over the Decalogue in favor of a command from the book of Deuteronomy, the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and might. This is a command to give God our whole and full devotion, to not be half hearted in our affection for God. Jesus follows up with a second command, to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This command originally found in Leviticus 19:18 originally applied to Israelites loving fellow Israelites. However, Jesus broadens the scope to apply to all who need our love, Israelite or not. This is most important, says Jesus: To love God wholeheartedly and to love people sacrificially. All other commands find their place under these two headings. Indeed the first table of the Decalogue describes love for God, the second table love for neighbor.
If Caesar deserves our support, God deserves our full devotion. This then is what we render to God, our wholehearted devotion. We get into trouble when we reverse the order, giving God our support and anything other than God (including our government) our wholehearted devotion.
Sermon brief provided by Timothy Peck, Pastor, Life Bible Fellowship, Upland, CA