They sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for You do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22.16-17)
Although I’m fairly sure the rule no longer applies, it’s often said three topics are taboo in polite American conversation: sex, politics, and religion. Lord knows, we should be eager and at ease to discuss all three, as they inform much of what contributes to our national distress. Meanwhile, Parisian friends confess they’re often perplexed and always amused to see how eagerly and easily we’re scandalized by subjects we should have put to rest long ago. “Here, sex and politics are the first things we talk about,” they say. (As devoutly secular people, the French seldom mention religion, which isn’t to say it’s off-limits.) It took several years, but Walt and I slowly discovered Parisians have a few taboos too, the greatest being money. What one earns or owns simply isn’t discussed. The reason may not be what you suspect. They don’t think money is too personal to talk about. It’s too impersonal. Financial worth has no bearing on friendship.
Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22.15-22) brings to mind American and French conversational taboos, with three of the four shaken together into a nasty cocktail contrived to do Jesus in. Only sex gets left out, and had the devious mixologists who serve up the noxious frappé—the Pharisees—found a way, they’d probably have tossed it in. They do a swell job as it is, distilling a vindictive brew of politics, religion, and money into a trick question they hope will knock Jesus senseless. Their audacity to confront Him with these topics has nothing to do with taboos, though. All three subjects are widely discussed and, in fact, routinely figure into Jesus’s sermons, parables, and conversation. The lethal scheme laced into the Pharisees’ cocktail is what makes it offensive.
This Is It
All along, the Pharisees and other sects have tried to stump Jesus with cleverly devised brainteasers. But such tests are customary in rabbinical circles, with Jesus’s adversaries employing them to refute one another as well. This one is different, because it seeks to destroy, not merely discredit, Jesus. The whole thing reeks of conspiracy; every detail is calculated to belittle Him and erase all doubts about the Pharisees’ endgame. The leaders who poison their proposition don’t even show Jesus proper respect to present it personally. They ship it via their followers, backed by a cadre of Herodians. Their sole agenda is protecting the dynasty of paranoid puppet-king, Herod the Great, whose son (and Israel’s current ruler), Herod Antipas, beheaded John the Baptist.
While the overtly displayed hostility escapes no one, least of all Jesus, the question poses the gravest insult to His intelligence. It masks politically volatile ingredients with sweet talk and tangy religiosity, as if Jesus is too thick to detect what’s really going on. Not only is He savvy to the set-up. He’s played a major role building up to this showdown. Since His triumphant arrival in Jerusalem for Passover, He’s done nothing but humiliate His detractors with lacerating criticism and stupefying challenges. The air hangs thick with “give it your best shot.” Once Jesus gets a whiff of the Pharisees’ concoction, noting they’ve arranged for plenty of loyal onlookers to testify against Him when He chokes, He knows this is it. As the Herodians lean in to catch every word, the underlings spill the question. No doubt all involved naïvely expect it to go exactly like they rehearsed: flattery first, then the fall. “Teacher, we know that You are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for You do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22.16-17)
Everything they say about Jesus is true, of course. But coming from their mouths, it’s a lie that exposes the deceit swimming beneath the question’s surface. If He approves paying tribute to Caesar, He’ll be vilified as a traitor to His people; they’ll run Him out of town and that will be that. The alternative is worse. Suppose Jesus takes the popular religious stance, insisting Jewish Law forbids idolatry—which imperial taxation basically amounts to, since the Romans worship Caesar as a god. The Herodians will pounce on that, declaring Him an insurgent. The king will see He’s delivered into Roman hands by sundown; by sun-up, the Baptist’s fate will look like a cakewalk compared to what He’ll face. To His inquisitors’ amazement, Jesus refuses to swallow one drop of their venomous swill. First, He calls them on their treachery. “Why are you putting Me to the test, you hypocrites?” He replies. (v18) Then He asks for a coin. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” He demands. (v20) They answer, “The emperor’s,” to which Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (v21) Foiled once again, they walk away.
The incident speaks volumes to our duty to honor obligations as believers and citizens. And it’s often cited as clear-cut doctrine supporting separation of church and state. Most of all, it depicts the deviance people knowingly resort to when their beliefs are threatened. As long as the Pharisees call the shots, provoking Jesus is no big deal. It’s another story when He turns the tables with challenges they can’t answer. Then they put their heads together to mix up their mash of tasty controversies and make a point of lengths they’ll take to regain control. They have no business teaming up with Herodians. Pharisees are all about God’s Law. Herodians are all about placating Roman power. It makes no sense.
We observe similarly mismatched mixologists in our time. It astounds us when vehemently professing Christians join ranks with political groups that directly oppose the Gospel of compassion and peace. We can’t imagine what causes them to think we’ll swallow their toxic cocktail. We’ll never figure out why they don’t realize we smell and taste the venom in their love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin sweet talk and boldly bigoted religiosity. Not that it matters, since we’re not Who’ll ultimately demand an explanation for their treachery. What we’re asked to take from this story is a keener grasp of severe panic set off by any threat to their beliefs. We hear it in cries to “take back” America and “return to God.” We see it in resorting to sin as the only means to defeat sin. We sense it in desperate alliances forged with extremists. It’s a sad, sad sight to behold.
It only takes a penny to turn down their yeasty cocktail. What’s God’s is God’s, what’s Caesar’s is Caesar’s. But there’s a far more troubling question we have to answer. Can we follow Jesus all the way to the cross, look into the faces of those who desire our destruction, and pray, “Forgive them. They know not what they do”? That calls for selfless sacrifice at a price we must be willing to pay.
Most holy and righteous God, we’re forever grateful for spiritual discernment to detect poison laced in devious challenges to our faith. Now grant us the discipline to repay evil with good, malice with mercy, and intolerance with grace. Amen.
Like the Pharisees, many who perceive threats to their beliefs will concoct ridiculously obvious and contradictory arguments to eliminate their challengers. Dismissing their ploys is easy. Forgiving them isn’t.