I have a confession to make: I like the Pharisees. I’ve probably written about this before, but I know in my heart that if I had been a Jew in Jesus’ day I would have been a Pharisee. I’m a Type-A, Follow-the-Rules, Make-No-Exceptions kind of guy. I wake up every morning thinking to myself, “I wonder what the objectively correct path of my day will be.” Yes, at times I think it would be more fun to wake up and “go with the flow,” but that’s not who I am.
In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 22:15-22), we are told that “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” Although it’s clear their motives were impure, let’s at least applaud the care with which they approached their task. They took the time to meet and discuss their options, choosing the best plan. Once they had decided on their trap du jour, they approached Jesus and did their best.
“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…” I’m sure Jesus wasn’t at all fooled by their mock-flattery, but it has a nice ring to it. The Pharisees are operating in the world of rhetoric, and they are building a foundation for their trap. It’s not so much an attempt to bring Jesus’ guard down as it was a way of helping any witnesses understand what sort of assault would follow.
And then they spring their trap: “Tell us, then, what you think: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Really, it was a beautiful ploy. We lose sight of that because Jesus so handily dismisses them with his own rhetorical skill, but stop for a moment and consider the nature of the question.
First of all, everyone had to pay taxes. Palestine was under Roman control, and it wasn’t held by the Empire because it was a popular vacation spot. It was supposed to generate money for the government—taxes. And that was a part of life that every resident of Palestine had to deal with.
Second, the Romans were not popular among the Jews. No one was thrilled to be governed by the heathen Empire. Yes, the Jews had certain political, economic, and religious freedoms, but they knew that they were not free. During this period, several armed Jewish revolts against the Empire sprung up, and there were people in Jesus’ companionship who likely would have supported such anti-Roman activities (e.g., Simon the Zealot).
Third, the commandment against making a graven image included putting someone’s likeness on a coin. The very fact that official imperial transactions were carried out with coinage that had the face of the emperor inscribed upon them was itself a violation of the second commandment.
So the Pharisees asking Jesus about paying taxes is like going to an AARP rally and asking a candidate whether Medicare spending is out of control. There really is no good answer. If he says, “No, of course not!” the crowd would have loved it, but Jesus would be risking arrest by the Roman authorities for leading an insurrection. And if he says, “Yes, we must,” the crowd would lose interest in this counter-cultural religious authority. Really, there’s no way out of the trap. It’s artfully designed.
But then Jesus dismisses their plot with rhetoric more crafty than the Pharisees. After asking them to identify whose head it was on a coin, Jesus declared, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God’s” How do you argue with that?
Well, actually, he didn’t really answer the question. He’s saying yes and no. He seems to be supporting paying the required taxes but also shifts the focus back to God. Everyone leaves amazed at his wisdom. But think about it for a minute. In what way does the coin on which the emperor’s face is inscribed not belong to God? Jesus’ answer is the kind of straddling the fence that would have driven the Pharisees crazy. They want answers—clear, definite, unequivocal answers. That’s the way religion is supposed to work, right? Is it right or wrong? Is it God’s will or not? Should we do this or do that?
As much as this Pharisee would love for religion to be that simple and straightforward, it’s not. It’s all shades of gray. I’m going to spend the rest of this week pondering this parable—not looking for the answer but searching for a direction. How can I learn to accept the conflicting overlaps of faith? What is Jesus really inviting us to do? There isn’t always an objectively correct path to life. In fact, there rarely is. Maybe that’s the truly powerful teaching here.