Matthew xxii. 21. "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."
Many a sermon has been preached, and many a pamphlet written, on this text, and (as too often has happened to Holy Scripture), it has been made to mean the most opposite doctrines, and twisted in every direction, to suit men's opinions and superstitions. Some have found in it a command to obey tyrants, invaders, any and every government, just or unjust. Others have found in it rules for drawing a line between the authority of the State and of the Church, i.e., between what the Government have a right to command, and what the Clergy have a right to demand; and many more matters have they fancied that they discovered in the text which I do not believe are in it at all.
For to understand the original question--Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or no? we must imagine to ourselves a state of things in Judea utterly different, thank God, from anything which has been in these realms for now eight hundred years. The Caesar, or Emperor of Rome, had obtained by conquest an authority over the Jews very like that which we have over the Hindoos in India. And what was working in the mind of the Jews was very like that which was working in the minds of the Hindoos in the Sepoy Rebellion--whether it was not a sacred and religious duty to rise against their conquerors and drive them out. We know from the New Testament that both our Lord and His apostles again and again warned them not to rebel, warned them that they would not succeed: but ruin themselves thereby; for that those who took the sword would perish by the sword. And we know, too, that the Jews would not take our Lord's advice, nor the apostles', but did rise again and again, both in Judea and elsewhere, gallantly and desperately enough, poor creatures, in mad useless rebellion, till the Romans all but destroyed them off the face of the earth. But what has that to do with us, free self-governed Englishmen, in this peaceful and prosperous land? In the early middle age, when the clergy represented and defended Roman pure Christianity and civilization against the half-heathen and half-barbaric Teutons who had conquered the Roman Empire, then doubtless the text became once more full of meaning, and the clergy had again and again to defend the things which belonged to God against the rapacity or the wilfulness of many a barbaric Caesar. But what has that, again, to do with us? Those who apply the text to any questions which can at present arise between the Church and the State, mistake alike, it seems to me, the nature and functions of an Established Church, and the nature and functions of a free Government.
Do I mean, then, that the text has nothing to do with us? God forbid! I believe that every word of our Lord's has to do with us, and with every human being, for their meaning is infinite, eternal, and inexhaustible. And what the latter half of the text has to do with us, I will try to show you, while I tell you openly, that the first half of it, about rendering to Caesar the things which are Caesar's, has nothing to do with us, and never need, save through our own cowardice and effeminacy, or folly.
We have no Caesar over us in free England, and shall not have, while Queen Victoria, and her children after her reign; but if ever one, or many (which God forbid!), should arise and try to set themselves up as despots over us, I trust we shall know how to render them their due, be they native or foreigner, in the same coin in which our forefathers have always paid tyrants and invaders. No. The only Caesar which we have to fear--and he is a tyrant who seems ready, nowadays, to oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God, or is worshipped,--patronizing, of course, Religion, as a harmless sanction for order and respectability, but dictating morality, while telling us all day long, with a thousand voices and a thousand pens--"Right is not the eternal law of God. Whatever profits me, whatever I like, whatever I vote--that and that alone is right, and you must do it at your peril." Do you know who that Caesar is, my friends? He is called Public Opinion--the huge anonymous idol which we ourselves help to make, and then tremble before the creation of our own cowardice; whereas, if we will but face him, in the fear of God and the faith of Christ, determined to say the thing which is true, and do the thing which is right, we shall find the modern Caesar but a phantom of our own imagination; a tyrant, indeed, as long as he is feared, but a coward as soon as he is defied.
To that Caesar let us never bow the knee. Render to him all that he deserves--the homage of common courtesy, common respectability, common charity--not in reverence for his wisdom and strength, but in pity for his ignorance and weakness. But render always to God the things which are God's. That duty, my good friends, lies on us, as on all mankind still, from our cradle to our grave, and after that through all eternity. Let us go back, or rather, let us go home to the eternal laws of God, which were, ages before we were born, and will be, ages after we are dead--to the everlasting Rock on which we all stand, which is the will and mind of our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, to whom all power is given (as He said Himself) in heaven and on earth. And we have need to do so, for in such times of change as these are, there will always be too many who fancy that changes in society and government change their duty about religion, and are, some of them, sorely puzzled as to their duty to God: and others ready to take advantage of the change to throw off their duty to God, and run into licence and schism and fanaticism.
Now let all people clearly understand, and settle it in their hearts, that no change in Church or in State can change in the least their duty to God and to man. If the world were turned upside down, God would still be where He is, and we where we are--in His presence. Right would still be right, my friends, and wrong wrong, though all the loud voices in the world shouted that wrong is right and right wrong. No change of time, place, society, government, circumstance of any kind, can alter our duty to God, and our power of doing that duty. Whatever the Caesar of the hour may require us to render to him, what we are bound to render to God remains the same. The two things are different IN KIND, so different, that they never need interfere with each other.
Even if, which God forbid, the connection between Church and State were dissolved; even if, which God forbid, the Church of England were destroyed for a while--if all Churches were destroyed--yea, if not a place of worship were left for a while in this or any other land; yet even then, I say, we could still render to God the things which are God's, and offer to Him spiritual sacrifices, more pleasing to Him than the most gorgeous ceremonies which the devotion, and art, and wealth of man ever devised--sacrifices, by virtue of which the Church would arise out of her ruins, like the Jewish Church after the captivity, more pure, more glorious, and more triumphant than ever.
What do I mean? I mean this--that there are three sacrifices which every man, woman, and child can offer, and should offer, however lowly, however uneducated in what the world calls education nowadays. Those they can offer to God, and with them they can worship God, and render to God the things which are God's, wherever they are, whatever they are doing, whatever be the laws of their country, or the state of society round them. For of these sacrifices our Lord Himself said, The true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him.
Now what are these spiritual sacrifices?
First and foremost, surely, the sacrifice of repentance, of which it is written, "The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart, oh God, Thou wilt not despise." Surely when we--even the best of us--look back on our past lives; when we recollect, if not great and positive sins and crimes, yet the opportunities which we have neglected; the time, and often the money which we have wasted; the meannesses, the tempers, the spite, the vanity, the selfishness, which we have too often indulged--When we think of what we have been, and what we might have been, what we are, and what we might be; when we measure ourselves, not by the paltry, low, and often impure standard of the world around us, but by the pure, lofty, truly heroical standard of our Lord Jesus Christ--what can we say, but that we are miserable--that is, pitiful and pitiable sinners, who have left undone what we ought to have done, and done that which we ought not to have done, till there is no health in us?
And if you ask me, How is it a sacrifice to God to confess to Him that we are sinners? the answer is simple. It is a sacrifice to God, and a sacrifice well-pleasing to Him, simply because it is The Truth. God wants nothing from us; we can give Him nothing. The wild beasts of the forest are His, and so are the cattle on a thousand hills. If He be hungry He will not tell us for the whole world is His and all that is therein. But what He asks is, that for our own sakes we should see the truth about ourselves, see what we really are, and sacrifice that self- conceit which prevents our seeing ourselves as God our Father sees us. And why does that please God? Simply because it puts us in our right state, and in our right place, where we can begin to become better men, let us be as bad as we may. If a man be a fool, the best possible thing for him is that he should find out that he is a fool, and confess that he is a fool, as the first, and the absolutely necessary first step to becoming wise. Therefore repentance, contrition, humility, is the very foundation-stone of all goodness, virtue, holiness, usefulness; and God desires to see us contrite, simply because He desires to see us good men and good women.
Next, the sacrifice of thankfulness, of which it is written, "I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord." And again--By Christ let us offer the sacrifice of praise continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks unto His name. Ah! my friends, if we offered that sacrifice oftener, we should have more seldom need to offer the first sacrifice of repentance. I am astonished when I look at my own heart, by which alone I can judge the hearts of others, to see how unthankful one is. How one takes as a matter of course, without one aspiration of gratitude to our Father in heaven--how one takes, as a matter of course, I say, life, health, reason, freedom, education, comfort, safety, and all the blessings of humanity, and of this favoured land. How we never really feel that these are all God's undeserved and unearned mercies; and then, how, if we set our hearts on anything which we have not got, forget all that we have already, and begin entreating God to give us something which, if we had, we know not whether it would be good for us; like children crying peevishly for sweets, after their parents have given them all the wholesome food they need. Ah! that we would offer to God more frankly the sacrifice of thanksgiving! So we should do God justice, by confessing all we owe to Him; and so, we must believe, we should please God; for if God be indeed our Father in heaven, as surely as a parent is pleased with the affection and gratitude of his child, so will our Father in heaven be pleased when He sees us love Him, who first loved us.
Next--the sacrifice of righteousness, of which it is written, "Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service." To be good and to do good, even to long to be good and to long to do good, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, is the best and highest sacrifice which any human being can offer to his Father in heaven. For so he honours his father most truly; for he longs and strives to be like that Father; to be good as God is good, holy as God is holy, beneficent and useful even as God is infinitely beneficent and useful; being, in one word, perfect, as his Father in heaven is perfect. This is the best and highest act of worship, the truest devotion. For pure worship (says St James), and undefiled before God and the Father, is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep ourselves unspotted from the world.
Yes--every time we perform an act of kindness to any human being, aye, even to a dumb animal; every time we conquer our own worldliness, love of pleasure, ease, praise, ambition, money, for the sake of doing what our conscience tells us to be our duty, we are indeed worshipping God the Father in spirit and in truth, and offering him a sacrifice which He will surely accept, for the sake of His beloved Son, by whose spirit all good deeds and thoughts are inspired.
Think of these things, my friends, always, but, above all, think of them as often as you come--as would to God all would come--to the altar of the Lord, and the Holy Communion of His body and blood. For there, indeed, you render to God that which is God's--namely, yourselves; there you offer to God the true sacrifice, which is the sacrifice of yourselves-- the sacrifice of repentance, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, the sacrifice of righteousness, or at least of hunger and thirst after righteousness; and there you receive in return your share of God's sacrifice, the sacrifice which you did not make for Him, but which He made for you, when He spared not His only-begotten Son but freely gave Him for us.
That is the sacrifice of all sacrifices, the wonder of all wonders, the mystery of all mysteries; and it is also the righteousness of all righteousness, the generosity of all generosity, the nobleness of all nobleness, the beauty of all beauty, the love of all love. Thinking of that, beholding in that bread and wine the tokens of the boundless love of God, then surely, surely, our repentance for past follies, our thankfulness for present blessings, our longing to be good, pure, useful, humane, generous, high-minded--in one word, to be holy--ought to rise up in us, into a passion, as it were, of noble shame at our own selfishness, and admiration of God's unselfishness, a longing to follow His divine example, and to live, not for ourselves, but for our fellow-men. If we could but once understand the full meaning of those awful yet glorious words, "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" then, indeed, we should understand that the one overpowering reason for being unselfish and doing good is this--that we are God's children, and that God our Father is utterly unselfish, and utterly does good, even at the sacrifice of Himself; and that therefore when we are unselfish, and do good, even at the sacrifice of ourselves, we do indeed, in spirit and in truth, "render unto God the things that are God's."