No one serves an Earthly master so faithfully, no one honors an Earthly king so truly as a good Christian, because he does it for the sake of a Divine Master and a Heavenly King.
Now this the Gospel sets before us in a very memorable incident and divine saying, to which it gave rise. When our Lord was teaching in the temple, a few days before his death, we read, Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that Thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?
They feigned themselves just men; as if troubled by a point of conscience, they wanted him to relieve them of their doubts; for, of course, they said, he had no fear of the Romans, and would plainly tell them the truth. For Herod having been made king of Galilee by the Romans, the Herodians, or party of Herod, maintained that they ought to submit to the Romans. But the Pharisees on the contrary contended that the sacred nation, as the people of God, ought not to be under Roman governors. And they thought that if Christ maintained himself to be the long-expected King of the Jews, surely he would not have them to submit to a heathen yoke; and if they could but entrap him by his answer to say this, then at once they would ask the Roman governor to put him to death. For much as these political parties hated each other, they both hated Christ – the true Light – far more.
Now, in reading this account, what, I think, must most strike us, is not their malice and envy against Christ, although he was love and goodness itself; so much as the little, low, Earthly thoughts which possessed them. Our Lord speaks of the great things of eternity, of loving God with the whole heart, of being made his children forever, and as the angels which are in Heaven. But their hearts are so full of things Earthly, of their petty disputes about this world’s politics, that they have no room there for him. Like Judas weighing in the balance Earth and Heaven, putting in one scale thirty pieces of silver, and in the other an eternal weight of glory; and finding that the thirty pieces outweighed it. Surely, my brethren, such things as these were enough to make an apostle weep to think of; yea, and to make one, who is no apostle, weep to think how often he has forgotten the same.
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, – their crafty design in pretending a scruple of conscience in this insidious question, – and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? shew me the tribute money. And they brought him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. When they had heard these words they marveled, and left him, and went their way. They marveled to see the crafty web they had woven so soon scattered to the winds.
The answer seems to imply, You accept Caesar’s money, you submit to his sway; your duty therefore is simple and obvious, as far as that is concerned; but stop, rendering tribute to Caesar is not all; remember there is something infinitely higher and more important. Render unto God the things which are his. Give not over unto Caesar your religion, your conscience, your Savior. For this both of you, Pharisees and Herodians, are combining together to do.
But our Lord’s calling for the tribute money seems to imply that the matter of duty in such eases is generally a very simple and easy one. And if there should be any doubt, our Lord has taught us on another occasion what is the better part. When asked at Capernaum to pay the tribute money for the temple, he explained to Saint Peter that from him, as the Son of God, it was not really due, but nevertheless, by a miracle of divine power, he paid the same, that he might not offend them.
But now, if these Jews had but known themselves to be citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem, how different would their conduct have been? Taken up with the thoughts of the earthly Jerusalem, they lost that and the Heavenly also. As for the Roman Caesars they were always raising tumults and seditions against them, and yet they rendered up to them the things of God. The reason which they gave for putting Christ to death was, lest the Romans should come and take away their place and nation, while by that very circumstance they brought upon them destruction from the Roman Caesars.
And now to apply all this to ourselves; what numberless perplexities, and difficulties, and dangers shall we escape by having our conversation in Heaven; and thereby making God, as the Collect says, “our refuge and strength”? Many cares and temptations under which we now sink would at once vanish away, if we considered ourselves as citizens of Heaven; and if our only joy was that our names were written there. But how can we expect that Heaven should be our portion hereafter, unless our heart and our treasure are there now?
Our blessed Savior wept, and his Apostle wept, because with “many” it was not so; and surely that “many” has been increasing ever since, while the world goes on to its end. So that now there are “very many.” And which of us may not be of that number? The Spirit of God it was that made his saints so sorrowful at this thought, because the Spirit of Truth alone fully knew how many there are who now weep not for themselves, but shall do so throughout a long – long – long – eternity. Oh! what shall that sorrow be which our Lord speaks of as the “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” at being shut out from that kingdom? O sorrow of all sorrows! O sea of all bitterness, which that weeping shall be, which shall then begin, but shall never know an end!
Surely this is nearer to us than we think for, because those whom it hath overtaken have always been those who have least thought of it. So was it with those of whom Saint Paul spoke. He would not have wept for them, if they had wept for themselves; if they had thought themselves in danger he would not have so despaired of them.
So was it with those who came flocking around our Blessed Lord with captious ensnaring questions; their conversation was assuredly not in Heaven, but was with evil spirits; yet they trembled not. They stood on the brink of the bottomless gulf, with none but Christ to rescue them, but they cared not for it.
How many are there among ourselves who walk erect as if all were well with them, who know not what it is to bow their heads and humble themselves; whom neither warnings, nor afflictions, nor mercies of God, nor words, nor example, seem to have any power to move and subdue; and to all appearances nothing but the sound of the last trumpet itself will do so. Nay, many there are, our Lord himself has declared to us, whom not even that sound itself nor the very coming of the Judge, will move and humble; who will be taken by surprise even at the last, and will doubt even the Judge’s own words, when he shall say, “I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity!”