This Week’s Focus: Gotcha, Then and Now
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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. Matthew 22: 15-22
There are at least two powerful lessons packed into today’s brief gospel passage. First lesson: You’re in way over your head, if you think you can trifle with Jesus.
The atmosphere in the temple had turned from hostile to murderous. Herod’s henchmen didn’t dream up their gotcha question just to embarrass Jesus. They’re literally out to destroy him. If Jesus says don’t pay the tribute, they’ll turn him in to the Romans as a rebel. If he says pay, they’ll denounce him to the people as a collaborator. Then in a dozen words, Jesus tears their clever subterfuge to shreds. And their sweetly phrased deceit is exposed for all to see
There’s probably more than a little Pharisee or Herodian in many of us. Do we trifle with Jesus? Do we split hairs on our promises to him? Do we bait and switch on our commitments – praising God and then kicking him way down our queue of priorities? If so, we’re in good company. St. Augustine prayed for virtue…but not now. He was having too much fun. Sounds incredibly arrogant, but don’t we all play the same silly game from time to time. And while we may fool ourselves, the God who made our every atom isn’t buying it. He knows when we’re hedging our commitments, trying to rationalize our neglect, justifying our self-absorption.
Let’s get honest with ourselves and with Jesus. Are we living in him and for him? Or is he a bit player in the self-centered fantasy we call life? It’s time to get real, to edit the script, to put Jesus back in the center of the action. It’s guaranteed to make for a much happier ending.
The second lesson is a familiar one: We are in the world, but not of the world. The state has its own institutions, laws and currency and so do we. Our basic institution is the body of Christ. Our fundamental law is love of God and love of neighbor. Our currency is faith, hope and charity.
Great mischief has been made over the centuries because we have had to learn this lesson over and over again. The faith that claims the power of Caesar to work its will in the world is corrupted. The state that claims proprietorship of God’s favor is a fraud. Love, not coercion, is Christ’s currency. Truth, not subterfuge, is his language. Jesus is our answer to the world’s snares and gotcha questions. In him we are saved.
Faithfully yours in Christ’s love,