After Pope Francis’s prayer about money, let’s join Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on a discussion on the subject that Jesus refuses to get drawn into needlessly, though his answer puts the question back in his questioners’ court.
The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (see Mt. 22:15-16).
I read these lines from the Gospel of Matthew and it hits me: this spokesman for the Pharisees is really laying it on thick. This is an episode that occurs near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, when feeling against him among the Jewish leaders has reached the danger-point. Now, in their efforts to bring Jesus down, the Pharisees enlist the aid of their disciples – Pharisees-in-training, probably – to do some dirty work, which strikes me as being particularly cowardly. And also they have the help of the Herodians – because Herodians, as supporters of the Herodian dynasty, were the most suitable people to report Jesus, if he could be tricked into saying something against Rome. In which case Jesus would be arrested and conveniently removed from the scene. End of the Jesus Problem for the Pharisees. In this passage, the Pharisees’ disciples are attempting to present themselves as the loyal supporters of Rome – although in fact, none of the Jews were happy under the Roman occupation. But the facts are being manipulated now in order to stack the situation against Jesus. I re-read this passage from Matthew, and I feel anger on Jesus’ behalf as I consider the viciousness behind the overblown flattery of the words said to him. I see the speaker flicking conspiratorial glances at his peers while they all feign seriousness. Sickening.
I continue to ponder this scene, seeking a real encounter with the person of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit working in the sacred text. I try to imagine how I would react if I had been in Jesus’ place. Even at this remove, the main feeling continues to be anger – building up and up inside me. This, along with fear, would be overwhelming if I were really there; I see myself trying to suppress these emotions. I see myself acting – or trying to act – as though I don’t notice the group’s malice, while inwardly being so preoccupied by it, and the implied insult to my intelligence, and the threat to my very life, that I cannot actually answer their question with any show of competence. I see myself quickly trying to end the encounter and escape. The bottom line is that I would be way out of my depth if I were in Jesus’ place, and in the end, even if I managed somehow to preserve my dignity, I would be unable to come up with a response that addressed this complex situation or that impressed anyone – not even my best friend.
Jesus, however, is master of the whole situation. And his flatterers were right. Jesus is not afraid of them or of anyone. He will take them on, astute in every word and gesture. How does he handle things? First, he addresses their falsity. He exposes it. He wants their duplicity to be out in the open, obvious to all. ‘You hypocrites!’ he says. ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’ No one needs to explain why – and no one does. It’s perfectly obvious that they are hoping to trap Jesus, make him look like an enemy of The Establishment. In exposing this, Jesus he easily wrong-foots his questioners – and wins a small victory here. Now he has the advantage in the ensuing exchange.
Jesus clearly knows their game. Nonetheless Jesus has a ‘game’ of his own. He has come into the world as saviour. He will never turn away if there is even a remote possibility that someone present may be open to his person and message. He has been asked a question: ‘Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Jesus sees that the question is a set-up. But he also sees something they don’t see – he sees that the question can be turned into one that touches the deepest spiritual level of the human being. There may be someone, perhaps only one person in that little group of Pharisees’ disciples, who is reachable. And so, Jesus gives them all a most beautiful answer to their question.
And here we are going to slow this reflection down. We know this story; we know the answer Jesus is going to give. But this is lectio divina. Lectio is about giving the text space to speak in a new way each time we read it, not pre-empting the Holy Spirit by rushing ahead to the end, then dusting off our mental hands, closing the book and dashing away unchanged. So, we’re going to pause this reflection here for today, and return to it tomorrow, perhaps with an even greater degree of openness to the message that Jesus, through his Spirit working in us, may wish to give.