The Pharisees construct a trapdoor for Jesus under which lies a bottomless pit. They want Him to say something they can use against Him. This is why they invite the Herodians into their scheming. The Herodians want to keep Herod in power, and Herod stays in power only if the Romans say so. The Romans keep him in ‘power’ because he is their first and best tax collector. If Jesus says something against taxes – and who doesn’t! – he can be accused of sedition against Rome. The Herodians will testify that they heard it with their own big ears.
If, however, Jesus submits to the tax, he will discredit Himself among his followers. They hate everything Roman, but especially taxes, which were often raised from painful to excruciating by bribery and corruption. If Jesus sanctioned the tax laws, He would have to contradict most of His teaching.
So, the Pharisees swing a two-edged sword at Jesus. He drums his fingers on the heart of God asking, what to do, what to do? Worse still, the Pharisees have iced the ground beneath Him. He might slip on their flattery as He tries to reveal himself with plain speech. They remind Him of his honesty and integrity and that He is a prophet who will say what most people are thinking. What to do, what to do?
Their flattery is right, of course. Jesus knows the malice in the hearts of those who are trying to set him up. He sees their hypocrisy – their untrustworthiness. What they are saying with their mouths does not match what they are saying in their hearts. They are not interested in taxes. Worse still, they are even less interested in God! Their real interest is in obliterating the message of the Saviour of the World.
Jesus does not have a Roman coin and has to ask for one. What does that mean? He then invites them to answer their own question and rounds His response off with the now famous, ‘give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’. He just won’t answer their question!
So, let’s tell the story one more time. We might find it helpful to identify the ‘trapdoors’ when we are dealing with a difficult situation. Trap One: The Ego Massage. Trap Two: Did you win or lose? Trap Three: Choose between two false alternatives, Yes or No.
Notice how Jesus avoids all three. He does not give too much weight to the compliments being dished out. Instead, He names the malice and the egos behind the game that is being played. Then, He doesn’t seem to be overly invested in winning. Isn’t it better when everyone wins? Finally, He offers an alternative to yessing or no-ing everything by offering new terms for discernment – the everlasting tension between God and those who think they are God – like, say, a Roman Emperor. Is this a better map in a complex world and especially in the places where faith commitments and social responsibilities meet? Well, there was once a man who screamed at the people in the boat that was heading towards a collision with his own. They seemed to be ignoring him so he screamed louder. He only stopped when he realised the other boat was empty and no real threat. He steered clear, reminding himself that it can be easier to fight to be right than it is to be empty to be true.