The danger in setting a trap, particularly one designed to kill, is that it can close on the hand putting it in place. You can watch one snap back on the Jewish leaders who tried to trap Jesus.
The trap to which I refer is a question in Matthew 22:15-22, one designed to make Jesus appear either a traitor to the emperor—a crime punishable by death—or a collaborator unworthy of his populist following.
To follow what’s happening here, we first have to understand where Jesus is in the gospel story. He has entered Jerusalem in a parody of a conqueror’s parade, riding a donkey instead of a stallion. He has cleansed the temple of the merchants exploiting poor worshipers.
He also has told a series of parables that are quite deliberate about insulting the Jewish leaders. He paints them as hypocrites who have ignored the will of God.
In short, Jesus is near the end of his ministry and headed toward the cross. Knowing this, he boldly makes a clear distinction between how the world is working and how God wants it to work. And the clarity of the message has made these leaders very, very angry.
In the “trap” story, some unlikely partners emerge, bound by a sense that Jesus is a common threat to their positions. Some of them are disciples of the Pharisees, a strict, legalistic Jewish sect with significant political power; others are Herodians, highly secularized Jews who openly work with the Roman Empire as part of the puppet King Herod’s court.
After flattering Jesus, they ask him a straightforward question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
By “lawful,” they mean “correct under Jewish law.” Paying taxes to the Empire raised all sorts of problems for Jews, the biggest being that taxes could be paid only with official Roman coins, all of which bore the image of a deified emperor. To many Jews, using such coins meant violating at least two commandments.
In response, Jesus asks for such a coin. (Underscoring the hypocrisy behind the test, someone apparently has one handy. The image of another “god” has been carried into the temple by a Jew!) Noting whose head is stamped on the coin, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus’ questioners are “amazed” and slip away from the scene, Matthew tells us.
This text sometimes is preached as evidence that the state must exist alongside the church—that somehow Jesus predicted our need to pay both taxes and tithes. To go down that path is to miss the reasons for amazement, however.
Jesus first of all has shown great wisdom in sidestepping their trap, looking like neither a traitor nor a collaborator with his response. But more importantly, Jesus’ answer confronts those who hear it with what theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls an “insoluble problem.”
As followers of the living, redemptive God, can we really offer parts of ourselves to other powers that demand our allegiance? Even if those powers threaten us, should we not avoid what opposes God’s will?
It seems to me that if we are among the things that belong to God, then we need to give ourselves to God totally.
I know—easy to say, hard to do. Compromise just seems like part of life. I can give you a common example we see repeatedly in the Christian community.
I’m not one to argue that Sundays should somehow be jealously guarded by society. I don’t think the old “blue laws” that once forced the closure of shops and restaurants on Sunday were a good idea. No one should have Christian beliefs imposed on them.
But at the same time, I’m disturbed at how flippant Christians are becoming regarding Sundays, particularly when sports are involved. I hear this casualness about worship and fellowship voiced along these lines: “Well, we would have loved to be with y’all, but the big professional or college game/kids’ game/cheerleading competititon/practice/other sports event interfered.”
And I’m not talking about an occasional outing. It’s the excuse made weeks and months on end for being absent from Christian fellowship. The sporting world wants Sunday morning for its own; Christians acquiesce.
Christians, just say “no.” Enough of us remain that the sporting world will modify its schedules when we choose worship and fellowship instead.
To avoid despair in the face of Jesus’ challenge, we have to read Jesus’ temple test in the bigger picture of Matthew’s story. The Jewish leaders, in particular the Pharisees, do finally manage to trap Jesus, sending him to his death on a cross. There is no cleverness in the final trap they set. Anger trips the trigger; lies and betrayal serve as its jaws.
But God proves his supremacy, anyway. Nothing in this world, not even murderous evil, can overcome God’s plan to remake a broken world.
Thus, Christ’s resurrection from death; thus, resurrection and eternal life for those who follow Christ. And in the resurrection, Christ solves what seemed insoluble by setting all things under him, even the emperors of the world and their coliseums.