In our Gospel reading for today, Luke 20:19-26 we find the Pharisees testing Jesus. They wanted to know his loyalty: to the government of Rome or the common cause of the Jews against Rome. They assumed that no matter which answer Jesus gave, they would have him trapped.
Now one day, as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the gospel, the chief priests and the experts in the law with the elders… watched him carefully and sent spies who pretended to be sincere. They wanted to take advantage of what he might say so that they could deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. Thus they asked him, “Teacher, is it right for us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar or not?”
So, if he answered “Yes,” then he would be seen as a supporter of the oppressive Roman Empire. But if he said “No,” then while he would have the support of the people they could turn him over to the Roman officials for rebellion. But Jesus would not be trapped.
But Jesus perceived their deceit and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” They said, “Caesar’s.” So he said to them, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In one sense this gives an ideal answer for what Lutherans call “the two kingdoms” theology. That is, we live in this world, as part of a society and under a government (Kingdom of the left), in which we respond as any citizen, whether Christian or non-Christian. We follow the laws of the land.
At the same time we also live in the kingdom of the right (the Church). The Church is based upon the Gospel, and the power is through forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ answer seems to give us the basis for understanding the text this way. We live in two kingdoms, recognizing that each kingdom is ruled in its own sphere.
Let’s go back to the text, though, and see whether we miss something when we reduce this text to a two kingdom theology statement. “Give to God what is God’s.” Jesus’ loyalty becomes evident in his own commitment to giving God (his Father) what belongs to him. Namely, Jesus’ loyalty is not to settling disputes. Jesus’ loyalty is proven in his desiring to give to God what is God’s — redeeming his people, bringing them back into his Father’s kingdom.
His loyalty is to the task before him: go to the cross to die for all people, but all whom the Father desires to save:
This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:3-4)
Jesus’ loyalty is not fulfilled by answering the Pharisees’ testing question to their satisfaction. His loyalty is to provide the perfect answer to their question: He is bringing back to God what belongs to God.
Jesus’ loyalty is proven later in the week when he is arrested, beaten, spit upon, ridiculed—for us. His loyalty is proven when they nail him to the cross—for us. His loyalty is proven when he endures the Father’s wrath against the sin of the world, now poured out on Jesus unto death—for us. His loyalty is proven in his resurrection from the dead—for us. He proves it again when He sends the Holy Spirit to testify to him—for us.
And now, His loyalty continues through his Word and the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper)—for us. His loyalty continues every moment of every day—for us. And as Paul declares, his loyalty will bring us to God. Nothing can stop him.
No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Romans 8:37-39)
His loyalty, tested by his enemies, but proven by his saving work—for us. That is sufficient for us.