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A Third Option

November 15, 2020
By Rev. David French

To get a feel for how bizarre the situation in today’s gospel lesson is, we need to consider the cultural context of the time. While there are a lot of things that can be said about the Pharisees, one that is relevant for today is that they were extremely nationalistic. They believed that Jerusalem should be ruled by Jews, and Jews alone. After all, the Law of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy [17:15] does say, “One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.” But the Pharisees were also realistic. On the one hand, they understood the Roman army was very powerful and there was nothing they or anyone else in Israel could do to stop them from making whoever they wanted to be king. On the other hand, if someone did bring them a reasonable plan to get Rome out of Israel, they were very willing to help, behind the scenes, of course, in any way they could.

The Herodians however were the exact opposite. As you might guess from their name, they supported King Herod. It was the Romans who had designated Herod the Great as a puppet king and allowed our Herod to stay in power after his grandfather and father died. The problem was the Herod family was not Jewish. The fact that these two groups were working together to attack Jesus speaks volumes about the hate they shared for Him. The idea was to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. They asked Jesus a question that was worded in a way that would cause trouble: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If he answered yes, then the people who hated the Romans would hate Him. If He answered no, then the Herodians would report Him to the Romans and have Him arrested. The trap was set.

The thing is, it’s not so easy to trap Jesus, and He quickly exposes the flaw in their plan. They assumed there were only two possible answers to their question. Jesus came up with a third option: “… render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” You see, these enemies of Jesus created what’s called a false dilemma. That is, they wrongly assume there are only two alternatives. The Pharisees and Herodians suggest that either you pay your taxes or you don’t. Jesus simply exposed their faulty thinking by showing that there was actually a right answer. Give to each of them what belongs to them. That is, Jesus teaches there should be a separation between church and state.

With His answer He instructs God’s children that above all else, they are to give to God the honor, glory, and obedience due His name. That in spiritual matters, things concerning the Scriptures, worship, faith, conscience, and the like, we pay no attention to man. But in earthly matters, things concerning money, possessions, even our bodies, we are to respect and obey the government because as we learn in Romans 13, “… there is no authority except that which God has established” … and what God establishes is good. That means we have to keep in mind, then and now, that an abuse of God’s good gift does not make it evil. That is, the government is due respect even if the people who fill it aren’t. It was a false dilemma.  

Satan, the world, and our own corrupt reasons often present us with false dilemmas. One that endangers the salvation of our very souls is the dilemma between self-righteousness and despair. The lie goes something like this: As we read the Bible, we see that God gives us a lot to do. Do you do what God commands and are on your way to heaven or are you failing to do what God commands and are on your way to hell? This false dilemma, as the result of our sinful condition, is the only thing the unbeliever knows. As we read in 1 Corinthians 14, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” That Sprit, by the way, is the Spirit you received in your baptism.

To the unbeliever, the Bible simply says: good guys go to heaven and bad guys go to hell and here are some rules to judge yourselves by. So, the question becomes: Am I good or bad? And if you answer “good,” how do you know if you’re good enough? You see, I can deny the truth of my sin and insist that I am one of the “good guys” on my way to heaven, but that self-righteous attitude contradicts the word of God we confessed just ten minutes ago: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

My other option, according to this false dilemma, is recognizing the depth of my sin and be left believing there is simply no hope for someone like me. What a joy it is to learn that the two options offered by the Law are not the only options. Just as Jesus provided a third answer to the Pharisees and Herodians, He provides a third answer to this false dilemma of the Law. As you also confessed eleven minutes ago: “But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In this way, God forgives our sin, makes us righteous, and gives us hope. My friends, God has given us a third option through the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Remember, Jesus actually did what God the Father sent Him to do. He kept the law perfectly. He then went to the cross and bore the punishment for our sin which opened the door for that third option to all who believe. Now by grace through faith you are no longer responsible for your salvation. Jesus took that responsibility from you when He came into the world to live and die for you and mercifully gives you the credit as He clothes you with the robe of His righteousness in the waters of your baptism.

The intention of the Pharisees and the Herodians meeting in today’s reading, which takes place on Tuesday of Holy Week, was to make Jesus irrelevant by asking a trick question. When that didn’t work, they gave up on being subtle and decided that the only way to remove Jesus from the scene was to kill Him. During the next few days, they carried out their plan and managed to have Jesus both tried and crucified. As Jesus, with His last breath, gave up His spirit, satan and all the powers of sin rejoiced. They didn’t understand it was all part of God’s master plan and that overcoming death would be Jesus’s and our greatest victory. It’s because of that victory that we receive forgiveness, life, and salvation. It’s because of that victory that even though we die, we will never die.

In Jesus Christ there is a third option, an option that leads to life as God intended it to be. The life He offers to all, but is only received by those who, by grace through faith, believe He is truly our Lord and our beautiful Savior.

In His name, Amen