The Questions Jesus Asks:
Why Are You Trying To Trap Me?
March 28, 2021
It all happened so quickly. But there I stood in the wreckage of what would certainly go down as the worst house-sitting gig ever. The screen door was ripped to shreds. A lamp laid on the floor broken right in half. The ceiling fan was still spinning at full speed, minus one wooden blade. I stood there in stunned silence, asking myself “What in the world just happened?”
I was 22 years old and working as the Director of Youth Ministry in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Wendy was my colleague who worked with the children – she asked if I would stay in their house and take care of their dogs while they were on vacation. I knew that by “the dogs” she meant two sizeable Siberian Huskies, which made me a little more nervous than usual, but I agreed to it.
I head over to their house the day before they leave to get all the instructions – She takes me out to see the large kennel for the dogs – she shows me the food stash – where they hang the leashes – she gives me their routine – pretty simple really – they just need to come out of the kennel a few times every day – run around the yard and do their business. Easy enough I think.
We go inside – and that’s when I see Justin, her eight-year old son, walk down the hallway holding an itty-bitty fur-ball in his arms.
“What is that?” I ask. The fur-ball meows. I drop my head.
Wendy winces a little and says “Yeeeaaahhhh – we saw him at one of those sidewalk shelters a few days ago and, well, I just couldn’t say no.”
You see where this is going.
Fast forward a couple days – I’m at the house and on my own. I make sure that the cat is safely inside before I let the dogs out of the kennel. I open the gate – both dogs charge straight for the house – they did not like that kitten. They break through not one but two screen doors like they’re butter and before I know it they’re both in the living room, growling and pawing underneath the ottoman where a frightened kitty has taken refuge.
In a panic, I run and grab the leash – hook it on one dog collar and heave…dragging him back outside to the kennel, hoping that cat has the good sense to stay under that ottoman.
I run back for dog number two – hook the leash on and heave. I drag him half-way across the room before this Husky – clearly the smarter of the two – turns towards me, dips his head down – the leash and collar slip right off – causing my arm that had heretofore been pulling against 60 pounds of dog flesh to fly up into the air – wrist connects with ceiling fan, fan blade snaps off, twirls across the room – hits lamp – lamp tips over and breaks.
Like I said – worst house sitting gig ever.
After getting that second dog back in the kennel, the kitten cautiously creeps out. I say to him “It’s a good thing you’re small and slippery…THAT was a close call.”
Jesus had some close calls, too. In the 22nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew – which we will read in a moment – Jesus finds himself flanked by two huskies – the Pharisees and the Herodians. They really are unlikely allies though.
Pharisees emphasized the study of Torah, which was a way to preserve Jewish identity in a time of Roman occupation, when it would be easy for the people to just assimilate. By teaching the Jewish faith to all, The Pharisees supported a subtle form of resistance against the Empire and so they were popular among the common people who had little love for Rome.
Herodians, on the other hand, were the Jewish elites who, along with King Herod – cozied up to Rome, because, well, collaboration did have its perks.
Pharisees and Herodians are not on the same team AT ALL.
But as they say “the enemy of your enemy is your friend,” and they both really didn’t like Jesus. So they come to him with a question that is really more of a trap – now that’s nothing new, we’ve seen plenty of that in this series – but now the stakes are getting higher. This question goes way beyond making him look foolish in public. This question is more of the Monty Python “Bridge of Death” variety – you answer incorrectly, you die.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So 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?”
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.
Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Does anybody remember Eddie Haskell? He was the friend and frequent barnacle to Wally Cleaver in the 1950s show “Leave It To Beaver.”
On the surface, Eddie presents every bit the well-groomed, wholesome young boy – he’s all “Hiya Mrs. Cleaver” and “Yes sir, Mr. Cleaver,” but only when in front of the adults. As soon as it’s just the kids, you see his true colors – and all the brill cream in the world can’t cover up his more devious character.
Eddie may not have picked up much work beyond his run on the 50s sitcom circuit, but I tell you these Pharisees and Herodians had a job worthy of a Haskell.
They approach Jesus with false flattery oozing out of their mouths – “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth…” They are buttering him up real good. And then comes the question “So…Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?”
It may seem odd to us in this day and age where the IRS becomes the punchline to more than a few jokes as April 15th approaches, but frivolous talk about taxation was far more dangerous in first century Judea. One could thank the Jewish revolt of 6 AD for that.
A man named Judas of Galilee led a coup during the time of the Roman census – if this census sounds at all familiar it’s because it provides the backdrop to Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. Rome wanted an accurate count of every Jew in Judea – why? So they could tax them.
Judas of Galilee galvanized the resistance – and of course they were handily defeated – but after that, if you criticized the Roman tax, you were taking your life in your hands. All of this would have been the talk of the town when Jesus was a young boy – so he knows how dangerous a question this is about paying taxes.
But was the resistance to the Roman tax just about money? Hardly. It had more to do with what the money looked like. The typical Roman coin would be imprinted with the image of the Emperor and include the following inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” This coin proclaimed that Caesar was God…which is a theological problem for devout Jews.
Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” Any Pharisee worth his Torah scroll would know that this coin is blasphemy. And so to pay the tax, to even handle the idolatrous coin, is a betrayal of the First Commandment – You shall have no gods before me. So Husky #1 – the law-loving-Pharisees – would clearly say it is NOT lawful to pay the tax.
Husky # 2, however, The Herodians would have been all in favor of paying taxes – pacify Rome, keep the peace – and thus maintain their power and their influence.
Do you see how this simple question about paying taxes is in fact a powder keg. If you side with the Herodians and say “yes – pay the tax” you betray God and incur the wrath of the people. The most revolutionary among them – the Zealots – assassinated people for far less.
But if you side with the Pharisees and say “Do not pay the tax,” you may well earn yourself a place on a Roman crucifying tree. It’s a trap and the Huskies have Jesus right where they want him.
But as we are learning in this series – when you ask Jesus a question – more often you’re going to get a question back in return. Jesus cuts through their buttery praise and asks “Why are you trying to trap me?” And, in a brilliant turn, he says “Show me the coin.” I like to imagine a Pharisee sheepishly pulling one of those blasphemous Roman coins out of his own pocket – implicating himself as a participant in the tax. Jesus follows with another question – “whose head is this and whose title?”
“Well then give the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor,” he says, and he could have left it alone there – but as we are also learning, Jesus can’t resist turning it up to eleven. And so he adds “but don’t forget to give to God the things that belong to God.”
And just what is it that bears the image of God? – It’s not coins or anything fashioned from silver and gold – it’s you and it’s me. We bear the image of God. That much is clear from the very first chapter of the Bible.
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Just like that – Jesus slips right out of their trap.
Give Caesar back his little vanity coins if he asks for them – tax evasion is not the heart of faith.
A lot of people think this story is about the relationship between Church and State – I’m not saying that’s not in here, but it’s secondary. If I understand this text, Jesus is warning those Pharisees – and warning us all – how easy it is to make our faith far too small.
When we reduce faith to just this or that one thing – that’s the real trap.
“Faith is so much bigger than that,” Jesus says, “this is about giving your whole life to God.” Not just this or that part but your whole life.
Which is precisely what Jesus will do.
As we step in to Holy Week – as the story turns so quickly from waving palm branches to carrying cross beams – this is where we see just how different Jesus is:
While the Caesars of this world stamp their image on as many coins as they can – on those tiny monuments to self-preservation – Jesus can be found laying down his life for the world so loved by God, never once counting the cost.
It didn’t look much like a victory at the time – but here we are two millenia later, still waving Palms for him all the same…still greeting him with the words “Hosanna – Save us – Hosanna in the highest.”
 Genesis 1:27