On this Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost we're going to grow in our understanding of being trapped. When the text says "the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Jesus in His words," it uses a hunting word meaning to capture game without the animal being aware. The Pharisees think they've trapped Christ but in reality they're the ones trapped, and so are we.
Jesus was trapped by the question they spring on Him. After buttering Jesus up with honored titles such as "teacher," "man of integrity," and truthful teacher of the way of God, they ask Him, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" They wish to trap Jesus between the rock of religious faithfulness and the hard place of rebellion against the government. The trap is all the sharper because some of those asking the question are disciples of the Pharisees and some are Herodians. The Pharisees' disciples thought it unfaithful to pay taxes to Caesar. It supported his idolatry, his oppression of God's people, his war-machine. On the other hand, the Herodians were followers of King Herod who was put in power and supported by Caesar. It was rebellion against Rome not to pay taxes to Caesar.
The government apparently had a faithful Jew between a rock and a hard place, and so it seems in our day too. Many Christians feel trapped by government today. It use to be that the government supported the 2nd Table of the Commandments, Commandments 4 through 10. The power of the government was behind parents; the government recognized it to be a crime to kill unborn babies; assisting someone to commit suicide was murder. There were laws against homosexuality, pornography, obscenity. The government supported the Bible's morality by its laws. The government recognized as illegal what the Bible for centuries had declared immoral.
All that is changed now. The government says children have rights that their parents can't deny. Children can divorce parents. The government in 1972 declared it legal to kill unborn babies in the womb anytime the mother wished to, and now some states say it's legal to assist someone to kill themselves. The government supports and defends homosexual behavior and pornography on the Internet. Nightclubs that used to be found only in a red light district are now found all over town. Where laws were put on the books to stop the snake oil salesmen of the 19th century from making ridiculous claims of health and wellness for the use of their products, today ads for vitamins, hair growth formula, and dieting drugs make outlandish claims in our magazines and on our TVS and radios.
Can you feel the trap? On one side the morality of the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 8th Commandments still stand. It is immoral to disobey your parents, to kill unborn babies, to help someone kill themselves, to be a homosexual, to use pornography, and to tell lies - even in the name of advertising. Yet, the government declares it perfectly legal for a child to get birth control products behind their parent's back, for a doctor to kill an unborn baby, for a person to kill their ailing loved one, for a woman to be a lesbian, for men to debase women in pornography, and for Metabolite to claim it can melt pounds away without diet or exercise.
Here is the trap. What was once immoral is now morally acceptable because the government declares it legal. Disobeying parents, abortion, assisted suicide, sexual immorality no matter how base and lying, all once immoral, are now regarded as legal and even virtuous by government; Christians feel trapped into concluding these things must therefore be moral for them too or at least for the individual who chooses to do them. But dear friends, it isn't going to stop here. Right now what is still morally repugnant to all Christians, pedophilia is in the process of making the leap from government legality to Christian morality. You can't imagine the day when pedophilia will be acceptable, can you? 25 years ago no one could imagine pornography would be; 50 years ago no one could imagine abortion would be. Look about you now.
How can we be freed from feeling we are trapped between government legality and Christian morality? Only by the Word of Christ. Jesus alone can free us from such traps by His Word. He frees Himself from the trap of religious faithfulness or civic rebellion by placing an "and" where His enemies had placed an "or". They said either faithfulness to religion or faithfulness to government. Jesus said by giving to each what was due it, both could be done. Government had a right to what it owns. It had a right to taxes because it owned the money to begin with. It did not have a right to our faith, trust, or worship. These belonged only to God.
Government doesn't own or make morality. That is something that comes from God. All government can do is recognize and abide by it or not. By making or passing laws, government can't make something immoral, moral or something moral, immoral. Because the governments that be are from God, as Paul tells us in Romans, doesn't mean everything they do, decide or legislate is from God. Because the government has all but abandoned the 2nd Table of the Commandments, it doesn't mean that the Church or individual Christians can or should.
You know why this matters so very much? Not because of the 2nd Table of the Law, but because of the 1st Table of the Law. Not because disobedient kids, abortion, assisted suicide, homosexuality, pornography and lying are such grave sins but because idolatry is. If you let government rewrite the 2nd Table of the Law, you have in effect made government your God. And this is precisely what's at stake in the matter of the prayer service at Yankee Stadium where clergymen of Christian and non-Christian religions were invited by the government to pray to the one God in which we all supposedly trust.
The Atlantic District of the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod issued a confession of faith where they say it was right for the Atlantic District president to pray at this event because he was invited to by the civic officials. This is no different than saying disobeying your parents, abortion, assisted suicide, homosexuality, pornography, and lying are now right because the government says so. Only now it's not just a question of morality but idolatry because now not the Second Table is at stake but the First.
The grand trap of our day and time that Jesus must free us from is that our government is god. That it is has the right to make morality and sanction idolatry, and since we need our government to take care of us, protect us and bless us, we must go along with it. The lie is that the future of God's people rises and falls with government; unless we go along with the State morally and theologically God can't save the State or us. Friends, we must break with the lie that says God's people depend on the government to prosper. No, our government needs us. We are the salt of the earth. Salt preserves. For the sake of us, the people of God, God preserves governments.
Read your Bibles. Wherever God's people go that nation prospers. Follow the Church as She moves from Egypt to Babylon to Persia to Rome. Each of these governments were exalted for the sake of God's people, the Church. Government needs us. We pray for her every Divine Service; we pay our taxes; we serve to defend her and protect her. She has a right to these things from us, but she has no right to the love, trust, and obedience that rightly belong to God. She has no right to tell us what is morally or theologically acceptable.
What Christians need is Christ. He alone can support us in life and in death. O He may indeed use our government even as He used Egypt to provide food for His Church; Babylon to discipline His Church, Persia to free His Church, and Rome to spread His Church, but all earthly governments will crumble. Christ does not; will not. It is never right to side with government over against Christ not in the 2nd Table of the Law and especially not in the 1st Table. Government indeed has a right to our prayers but it has no right to expect us to share a divine service with those who pray to idols.
It's all a matter of seeing the proper relationship. Upon whose shoulders does Isaiah say the government rests? Upon the shoulders of Christ. "The government will be upon His shoulders," prophesied Isaiah. In His eyes how do all nations appear? "All the nations are as nothing before Him. They are regarded by Him as less than nothing and meaningless." We must repent of putting an asterisk in this 17th verse of Isaiah's 40th chapter. We must repent of putting an asterisk by the word "nations" which reads, "Except the United States of America." No dear friends, this great country with her fruited plains and her majestic purple mountains, this country for which our fathers and grandfathers and some of you fought and bled for is still nothing before the holy, almighty eyes of our King and Savior, Jesus.
Yet, and this is an important yet, yet this Jesus, God the Son descended into the dust, sweat, and blood of a man to redeem all nations including this one. This Jesus, though very God of very God, took on a body of clay to sweat and bleed under the judgment of God in place of us very guilty sinners. The God of the First Table of the Law kept the Second Table of the Law perfectly in our place and suffered the hellish wrath of God to pay for our breaking of the 1st and the 2nd Tables of the Law. And this Jesus, God the Son did this not just for you and I but for all nations. He went into the depths of our humanity and bore the weight of human sinfulness to redeem all the nations. And you and I think we love our country! Well, I tell you this. I may love her enough to die for her, but I don't love her enough to have a child of mine punished and crucified in her place. But the true God did and does.
Can you see that the trap in our text is one of the Pharisees and Herodians own making? They made a false either/or case. Likewise with us. There is no question when it comes to following God's Word or our government's laws. If there is a difference, we are to follow God not men. And this is how we best serve our dear country. How come? Because our country is best served by having Christians in her. For our sakes, the Lord will bless her. But if we follow the rest of the country in regarding as moral whatever the government says to be legal, then we would cease to be salt of Christ that preserves the nation.
It's really as simple as this: if we join with all the other religions in prayer services sponsored by our government, then we would cease to be Christians. Since only prayers in Jesus' name our heard by God almighty, there would be no one left to pray. By God's grace and mercy we will avoid this trap, and instead be trapped by His gospel of salvation which longs to not only save us but the nations. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XXII (10-20-02), Matthew 22:15-21