Today’s reading outlines the encounter that Jesus had with the followers of the Pharisees and the Herodians. When I read this, in some ways it reminded me of a play involving different groups or parties; it has it all – political intrigue and guile, clever dialogue and rhetoric and of course a take home message and imperative. Life can all too often seem like a play too, can’t it?
Let’s consider which groups or parties are involved:
- Firstly, we have the followers or disciples of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious group opposed to the Roman occupation of Palestine.
- Secondly, we have the Herodians. The Herodians were a political party that supported the ruling family of the Herods and the policies instituted by Rome.
- Finally, we have Jesus and his disciples.
Under normal circumstances the Pharisees and the Herodians groups would be antagonistic towards each other – because they held diametrically opposed beliefs. It is almost incredulous that a group of Jews would support Rome and the Herods, but we have to bear in mind that the key hope of the Herodians was to preserve stability in the nation so that one day they would ultimately be free from Roman rule and have their national identity and land restored. They were prepared to work together only because it served their own specific interests.
These two groups became united in the face of the common enemy they found in Jesus. The Pharisees did not like Jesus because he exposed their hypocrisy and was a challenge to their role and status. The Herodians also saw Jesus as a threat with a concern that he would cause political instability in Judea and undermine the status quo that they were so desperate to preserve.
So, the Pharisees ganged up with the Herodians. Their own efforts to undermine Jesus thus far had failed and there was no limit to the extent they were willing to sacrifice their integrity and abuse their authority and power by “selling out” and working with the Herodians.
Once again, the Pharisees set out to trap Jesus through his words and how he responded to their line of questioning. If you are in a place of moral righteousness, integrity and truth, in my opinion it is perfectly acceptable to give people space to condemn themselves by their own words. That is like the light of truth revealing that which is hidden. But if you seek to malevolently bring down someone who is ‘The truth’ and holds all authority, integrity and moral righteousness in a scheming and underhand way it is reprehensible.
Let me give you an example…I once had a conversation with a person whose clear intention was to undermine an orthodox and doctrinally sound position in a form of Christian ministry. It was destructive, malevolent, and underhand. I came alongside this person and asked her to explain her view and position. She said that in her opinion there is no such thing as absolute truth, that ALL “truths” are equally valid, and that all roads lead to heaven. In stark contrast, the orthodox Christian view is found in Jesus’ words from John’s Gospel… “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) If all roads lead to heaven, Jesus’ sacrifice becomes meaningless as does salvation, and justification. I thought carefully about what she had said and then eventually replied… “If as you say ALL truths are EQUALLY valid, then hear MY truth since surely my truth is also equally valid.” She immediately replied, “I don’t want to hear your truth.” I finally said, “By your own words you condemn yourself.” Her response revealed her position and intent.
The followers of the Pharisees and the Herodians were not in a place of moral righteousness, integrity and truth. Their intent was nefarious, and their line of questioning was deceitful. ““Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”” This line of questioning reminds me of an another discussion that took place millennia before in the Garden of Eden between the serpent and Adam & Eve – if you get chance read Genesis 3 and you’ll see what I mean.
So often the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus by asking him to choose between two positions which at first seem contradictory. The Pharisees were against imperial taxes on religious grounds; the Herodians supported taxation on political grounds. Thus, either a yes or a no could get Jesus into trouble. If Jesus agreed that it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees would say he was opposed to God, and the people would turn against him. If Jesus said the taxes should not be paid, the Herodians could hand him over to Herod on the charge of rebellion.
Of course, Jesus knew their evil intent, much as I knew the intent of the person I spoke with. His response brought the light of truth into the situation and showed he knew full well their intent. So, he challenged them by saying, ““You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.””
Jesus taught that Christians should render or give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Since the coin bears his image, it belongs to him. In contrast, we bear God’s image, and we belong to him in faithful obedience. We must remember that the state might have claim to our money through taxes, but it doesn’t have claim on our eternal wellbeing.
In response to Jesus’s words we are told that “When both parties heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. Neither could contest his reply.” When we are presented with the light of the world and the truth it is a tragedy if we ignore it. The Pharisees and the Herodians did exactly that.
In these duplicitous times in which we live, I believe it is so important for us to strive to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). It is important for us to take stock of our priorities in life. Yes, we should cooperate with the authorities and our local and national government. We should pray for them constantly. But that doesn’t always mean we have to agree or lose sight of how we have a dual citizenship – on earth and in heaven. In a democratic society we often fail to take advantage of the freedom and choice that brings. I think we should lobby our local MPs far more than we do, speaking out against the injustices in our society and holding them to account.
Beyond that we have to remember that everything is from God and belongs to God and ultimately God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven!
Lord, may you bless us with wisdom as we seek to engage with power structures in our society. Help us to be a voice for the voiceless, speaking out against injustice. Help us to recognise the freedoms we have in a democratic society, freedoms that we often ignore or take for granted. In a time when your Church is challenged, help us to be known as people of integrity and truth. May we carry the Christ light in all our undertakings. Amen