A Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (18/10/20): A Trick Answer to a Trick Question

 A Trick Answer to a Trick Question
Matthew 22:15-22

Jesus’ answers the question which the Pharisees put to him:

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that the emperor’s and to God the things that are God.”

There is a fundamental question which God’s people must always answer, how does God’s people live in the world. How do God’s people live and remain faithful and obedient to God in the face of all the powers that exist in the world? How do they retain their identity as God’s people? But also how do they fulfil the mission which God has given? How can God’s people engage with the world and do in and for the world what God wants them to. The two sides of those questions are in tension. They seem to pull God’s people in opposite directions. One impulse among God’s people is to stand apart from the world as separate and different and distinctive, as a way of maintaining their identity. The other is to become immersed in the affairs of the world and engaged in the needs of the world and its politics.

Opposition to Jesus produces strange alliances. Often it is a case of “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The Pharisees and the Herodians could hardly be further apart. They truly are strange bedfellows. It is a curiosity to find them united in an attempt to embarrass and discredit Jesus. They represent opposite poles of the answer to the question of the place of God’s people in the world. The Pharisees are the ones pulled in the direction of separation. Their mission among God’s people is to call them to faithfulness to God.  The Herodians represent the opposite impulse. They are the ones who accommodate themselves to the world. They engage with the world and its politics on the world’s terms Despite their opposition to one another, both the Pharisees and the Herodians recognise Jesus as a threat to them and their influence among God’s people. Jesus presents a third radical way of being faithfully God’s people in the world, that is in opposition to both the separatism of the Pharisees and the accommodation of the Herodians.

The question which the Pharisees take to Jesus is a trick question. They intend that Jesus either embarrass or incriminate himself with the answer which he must give. They wish to use his sincerity and forthrightness against him. But their question is as insincere as the compliments their followers pay to him:

“Teacher we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth and show deference to no one for you do not regard people with partiality.”

They don’t mean it. The “disciples” of the Pharisees are a strange group. This is the only place they appear in the Gospels. Surely disciples, followers, of the Pharisees are just Pharisees? What appears to be happening here is that the leading Pharisees are plotting against Jesus, but realise that Jesus will suspect a trick if they go in person. So they send their less prominent and less well known disciples, who Jesus might not recognise, to pose their trick question. What they say about Jesus is true. It’s just that they don’t believe it themselves. If they did, they would know that it wouldn’t matter who asked their question, Jesus would always give the same answer. That is what sincerity means. Jesus is always truthful. The Pharisees and their disciples say things they don’t actually believe. They are hypocrites.

The disciples of the Pharisees ask their masters’ question:

“Tell us what you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”

This is the way in which the question of the relationship between God’s people and the world takes a concrete form for the people of Jesus day. God’s people are living in a world dominated by the power of the Empire. Just as God’s people have always and will always live in this world which is dominated by the latest shape that that power takes. The question for God’s people is; can they accept that rule? To what extent can they allow themselves to acquiesce or even be co-opted by that power? Jesus of course knows that the question is a trap. It is a trick question. It is meant to present him with an insoluble dilemma, between defending the sovereignty of God and accepting the actual power of Empire in the world. And of course, as he always does, Jesus sidesteps the trick question and turns the tables on his opponents:

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites. Show me the coin used for the tax.”

Jesus’ questioners, the Pharisees, again demonstrate their hypocrisy. They are caught in possession of a denarius, the silver coin with its idolatrous graven image of the emperor and its blasphemous inscription that declares Caesar both Lord and Saviour. But perhaps on this occasion their hypocrisy is less willful, it is merely the product of the impossibility of their project. There is simply no way to separate yourself from the world. Their puritanism is unobtainable. There is no space in the world where it is possible to live apart from the world And it’s not possible to construct such a place. Try as we might we can’t make ourselves separate from the messy compromises that are necessary simply to live in the world.

Jesus’ answer is every bit as much a trick answer as the question is a trick question. His reply is subtly ambiguous:

“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus is carefully disingenuous. His answer can be interpreted in opposite ways depending on your outlook. And as such how you hear those words exposes what you really think. It is an ingenious reply to the question which was trying to trap him. The Heriodians can hear Jesus say:

“Engage with the world, accept the world the way it is, and deal with it on its own terms, pay the tax to Caesar and see what you can accomplish after that.”

The Pharisees can hear Jesus say:

“Hand that filthy lucre back to Caesar, get that idolatrous and blasphemous currency out of your purses and give it back to where it came from and have nothing further to do with the world after that.”

Or of course they could both hear it in the opposite way, and take offence at Jesus’ answer. Jesus pushes the question of the relationship of God’s people and the world back onto his questioners and onto everyone who is listening to him. And their response is Jesus’ judgement against them or their judgement against themselves. But Jesus has also cleverly avoided the trap which the Pharisees have set for him. He has not said anything for which he could be held accountable for in the courts of the Empire. He has not said in so many words: “Resist the Empire, do not not pay its taxes.” But nor has he said anything that shows any disloyalty to God. He has not said in so many words: “Accept the sovereignty of Caesar, acknowledge that the Empire rules here.”

This of course appears to leave us with a problem. Jesus’ answer is just as ambiguous to us as it is to the Pharisees and the Herodians. Jesus does not give us anything here to help us navigate our relationship with the world and its rulers. He doesn’t help us at this point decide how we are going to live as God’s people. Except, he does tell us how to do that in everything else he teaches. His answer here is ironic, even satirical. His listeners should know better than to accept his answer at face value. He, the Pharisees and even the Herodians all pray everyday, the Shema, the words from Deuteronomy that announce the basic faith of God’s people.

“Hear; O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

There is only one God. Israel knows no king apart from God. God’s sovereignty is absolute and universal. There is nothing over which God does not rule. So when Jesus says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It cannot be taken at face value. There is nothing that isn’t God’s which could be given to anyone else. In that way Jesus is close to the Pharisees. He shares with them the absolute insistence that God’s people owe loyalty and obedience to God alone. Jesus more than once reminds his listeners that it is not possible to serve two masters:

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24)

The Pharisees are right as far as their loyalty to God and their recognition of God’s sovereignty is concerned. But they are wrong in their desire to withdraw from the world or to create a separate sacred space in the world. There are not two kingdoms. The world and our lives cannot be divided into sacred and profane spaces.

The Herodians better understand that you must be involved in the world as it is. This is the only world in which we can live, and this is the world in which we have to work out our relationship with God and with our neighbours. Where the Herodians fail is in respect to the sovereignty of God. They concede too much to the power of this world. They engage with the world on the world’s terms and use the world’s methods, and as a result utterly compromise the mission that God has given his people. One of the other fundamental teachings which Jesus, the Pharisees and the Herodians all share is the Great Commandment, part of which follows on immediately from the Shema in Deuteronomy:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,and with all your soul, and with all you might” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

And the other half is from Leviticus:

“. . . but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)

Jesus’ answer to the question of God’s people’s relationship with the world and its powers is already embodied in that ancient commandment. This is the commandment which Jesus says stands above all other commandments, and remains binding on God’s people. The Pharisees and the Herodians both fall short of the fullness of that commandment, but in opposite directions. Separatism fails to fulfil God’s call on his people by not engaging with the world and therefore failing to love the neighbours God has given us. Even as separatism seeks to fully acknowledge and abide by the sovereignty of God. Accommodation fails to fulfil God’s call on his people by not recognising the absolute and universal sovereignty of God. Even as accommodation seeks to be realistic in its dealings with the world and the power that is in it.

Jesus doesn’t give a simple answer to the question of how God’s people should live in the world. He doesn’t because there isn’t one. Nor could or should there be. And that is part of the problem. And that perhaps is why the impulse which drives the Pharisees and the Herodians and everyone like them is so powerful. Being God’s people in the world isn’t easy. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid the question. Instead Jesus offers us a challenging adventure of expressing our loyalty to God and our love of our neighbours in the actual circumstances of our lives. He calls us to live out the fulness of the great commandment, and to do that by following him where he leads.


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A Trick Answer to a Trick Question by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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