The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - October 22, 2017
Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:15-22 

Sermon Title: "It was a trap"

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     They had Jesus in a corner.  What about this Imperial tax?  This was the tax that all were required to pay Rome.  It was one Danarius, which is a coin with the picture of Caesar, with an inscription that basically said ďHere is Caesar, who is our god.Ē  For the Jews this was a very unpopular tax.  First of all, it supported Romeís occupation of Israel, and second, it had a picture of someone who was claiming to be God on it.  But it was required, you had to pay it. 

     So Jesus, do we pay it or not?  If you say to pay it, all the Jews will know that you are on the side of Rome.  But if you say not to pay it, then the Romans will be upset with you.  Jesus is clever, and finds a way out of it. Pay to Caesar what is Caesarís and pay to God what is Godís.  Jesus evades the trap set for him by talking about two different authorities that one must respond to: the civil authorities and God. In the preface to his 1535 Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther talks about two kinds of righteousness: Civil Righteousness and Spiritual Righteousness. For Luther, our civil righteousness was something we worked on and something we were accountable for. Civil righteousness is achieved by how we act in society. But, our spiritual righteousness regards our relationship with God and, for Luther, is determined not by our actions.

     Civil righteousness is earned by following the law.  It is what society has said, and agrees are good things to do.  And it is what we do much of the time.  We pay our taxes, we drive the correct speed limit, we pay for the things we need, we obey the laws. 

"Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.]" 
16 April 1963

     One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

     In order to look at the other part, the Spiritual Righteousness as Luther would call it, we first have to go all the way back to Genesis, the first book in the bible.  Chapter 1- ďGod created humans in Godís own image, male and female, God created them.Ē  Jesus showed them the coin with Caesarís image and told them who that coin belonged to.  But the image on you and me, is the image of God.  We are Godís children, we are the image of God.  And in my mind, Luther would probably agree with me - that does not change based on our actions.  My kids sometimes do something wrong. I know you see them at church, they are normally well behaved here, but there are times in which they do not behave as they do here.  I am lucky, they are good kids, but even when they do something wrong, I donít love them any less.  Maybe get frustrated, maybe punish them, but still love them. 

     I think this is the best analogy I have for the way God sees us.  As Godís children we are loved by God.  We also do things wrong, I would imagine that God gets frustrated, but that does not mean that God does not love us, or loves any less.  It is a love that we cannot earn, or increase.  I donít love my kids more when they bring home a good report card, or score a goal in soccer.  I am happy for them, as I believe God is for us, but Godís love for us is constant and great. 

     So we have these two, our Civil Righteousness and our Spiritual Righteousness.  And when those two align, life is good.  But unfortunately, whenever you set up a dual situation like that, there are going to be things that do not align. 

     I think most of you have heard me tell you about our new ambulance we have in Pembroke.  It is nice.  It is on a big Ford chassis, 450, 550, something like that.  Big diesel engine with a turbo, when you step on the gas it goes.  And they bought it with all the bells and whistles.  There are buttons you can press in the cab that adjust the ride, sport, regular or soft.  There are lights mounted on the bottom of the mirrors, so when you shut off the truck at night and close the door, there is light there for you to see.  And it has cameras; when you want to move right into a lane or turn right, turn on your blinker and there is a camera on that side of the ambulance that shows you what is there. 

     I could really use a truck like that for myself.  I donít need the ambulance on the back, just a regular truck bed.  I donít know how much it would cost.  The whole ambulance with much of the stuff inside was about 250,000 dollars.  So maybe just for the truck, 70 or 80,000.  Living in a Civil Righteousness world, it is fine, but does not match my Spiritual Righteousness values. 

     I believe in using the resources that God gave us wisely.  This truck does end up idling fairly often, but the little computer normally says it is getting about 8 miles to the gallon for fuel use.  8 miles a gallon for carrying me around is not a very good use of the resources we have.  I also believe in giving back a part of what I receive in salary to the church and other charities.  I donít have 70 or 80,000 dollars laying around to plop down on a truck, so it would be financed, leaving me with less money at the end of each month to help others.  So I will not be buying a truck like this.

     But there are other areas in our lives where those two types of Righteousness do not align and the way to proceed is not as clear.  Immigration has been talked about a lot in the past few months.  The laws say that we will allow a certain number of people into our country every year.  Everyone who is here, and not a citizen, must have paperwork which may allow them to attend school, to work, to visit, and they have expiration dates.  Some will allow a person to go on and seek to become a citizen, others will expire and the person will be expected to leave and go back to the country they came from.  Anyone who does not have the right paperwork, or it is expired, is here illegally.  The Civil Righteousness part is clear, there are people here illegally.  But the Spiritual Righteousness, the idea that we are all created in the image of God, we are all Godís children, and we are all loved by God, creates the conflict. 

     It is helpful in my own life to remember these two parts.  I have strong opinions on issues.  I try to keep these out of sermons, but realize that they do slip in sometimes.  This is my attempt to align the two types of Righteousness.  Since I cannot change the Spiritual Righteousness, I look to try to change the civil righteousness.  But my fault is that sometimes I forget that most of us are trying to do the same thing.  We can disagree 100% on any issue or how to solve it, but God still loves both of us.  We are both still created in the image of God. 

     And maybe there are areas where these two will never align in our lives.  I read a suggestion this past week to take out your credit card or debit card and put a cross on it.  Whenever you make a purchase you will see that cross and ask yourself if this is part of your civil righteousness world, or if that purchase is an attempt at changing your status in Godís eyes, change your Spiritual Righteousness.  Sometimes we buy things that, in addition to being in conflict with our two types of righteousness aligning, also are an attempt to change our spiritual righteousness. 

     Money can be a god that we worship.  Many people live their lives based around this false god.  Many of my friends talk about how much they hate their work, and how much they are looking forward to their weekends or vacations.  They work hard, Monday through Friday, often starting early in the morning, working into the evenings.  And they get paid for that work.  That money they spend on cars and motorcycles and big houses and boats.  And they work hard in order to have those things for the weekends when they can enjoy them.   Although they would not use the same words I use, I believe they are trying to purchase things in order to fulfill some kind of desire to be loved.  For those of us who know God, who know that we are Godís beloved children, the need for love from others is not as high on our list of priorities.  And while buying things like nice cars and houses might impress those around us, it does not affect Godís love for us at all. 

     This is not saying that you should not buy things, but rather look at which area of righteousness these purchases fall into.  Maybe you want something, a nice car or a boat for your own enjoyment.  I am asking you to question your own motivation, not the purchase itself, although it may affect the purchase.

     Jesus tells us to pay to Caesar what is owed to Caesar and pay to God what is Godís.  We are Godís.  Godís image is on all of us.  We are asked by God to do good things, and we do.  All of us have participated in some way in the work that happens here.  A few weeks ago we sent off a bunch of flood buckets and donations to help with the hurricane recovery efforts.  We sent a gift to the school just last week to help buy boots, coats and winter weather gear for kids whose families might not be able to afford it.  But we know that all these good things do not increase Godís love for us.  We do these things because, in the civil righteousness world it is the right thing to do. It aligns our Civil Righteousness world with our Spiritual Righteousness world.

     We do live in a world with two areas of righteousness, and two sometimes competing authorities to answer to.  Jesus was not backed into a corner he could not get out of. Jesus found a way to meet the demands of both those authorities, and I pray that I might be able to always do the same.