The gospel’s adversaries are not interested in honest discussion or answers, but in trying to impugn or divide so as to marginalize believers.
The Pharisees, who were religious, and the Herodians, who most probably were not (they were politicos, supporters of the king), conspired to ask Jesus a hot-button political question: whether to pay taxes to Caesar. They butter him up a little: “Master, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and are no respector of persons or power. So tell us then ¦”
To our ears, the question sounds more practical than political, a matter of degree rather than allegiance. But for the Jews of Jesus’ time, especially the hyper-religious and the political realists, it was a question as incendiary as current questions regarding abortion or gay unions.
And whichever way Jesus answers ”you should pay taxes, or not ”he will offend one side or the other in the feverish debate. The Pharisees and Herodians know that; in fact, they are counting on it. If they can alienate Jesus from at least part of his base, their power and position remains secure.
Jesus answers differently, and better, than they ask. Most sermons and lessons on this text from Matthew 22 immediately go there ”to Jesus’ answer, which both confounds the Pharisees and Herodians and challenges us. Jesus points to Caesar’s image on a denarius and says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The lesson becomes a spiritual one about our own priorities, etc.
But while we are offering those bromides ”and who doesn’t know that we should be rendering to God more of ourselves? ”it escapes our attention that in our own day the gospel’s adversaries and enemies (some of them, sadly, even in the church) do much the same thing.
That is, they pose questions which are not questions at all, but litmus tests: “What do you think about the war? Should gays be ordained? What is your stand on abortion?” They are not interested in honest discussion or answers, but in trying to impugn or divide so as to marginalize believers. Every answer offends someone. We find ourselves mired in futile debate. Our witness is eviscerated.
Joseph Bottum has recently argued that the Mainline denominations died when they were irretrievably politicized along partisan lines. It is a cliff Jesus avoided in this text, a ledge to which our enemies try to lead us over and over again.
Beneath an “innocent” query there is often a diabolical agenda, a divide and conquer tactic that would be worth many coins both to Caesar and to the self-important detractors.of a religion, a congregation, a preacher.
Thomas R. Steagald is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Stanley, N.C. A version of this column appeared first on his blog.