Honourable Truth

Matthew 22: 15-22:

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

This passage reminds me of an experience a couple of weeks ago.

While leaving my congregation for a brief time, I took holidays to our little fisherman’s shack down at Port MacDonnell. While I was near the breakwater in a little dinghy, I noticed there was a conflict between the wind and the tide. It was possible to make a great cast with the wind, but then within minutes the line would find itself wrapped around the anchor rope. The creeping tide always won out.

Off The Dodman-Head

On the surface the wind seemed all powerful; it was the wind that whipped up the waves, but it was the tide that always won out. Its power and depth over-rode the surface turbulence, and this leads us to our text.

The connection may not seem immediately obvious, but it is there. On the surface the text appears to be about taxes and the basis for church and state relations. But I am convinced that that is the stormy surface of the dialogue.

The tidal movement in the text surges in a different direction. Its ebb and flow is shaped by a deeper issue. For the text is really to do with relationships: people relating to people, especially amongst those who believe.

In the Greek, there is a crucial little conjunction left out of the translation we are using today. It says ‘Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.’ The tricky question of verse 17 arises because they were incensed about something.

Matthew indicates that Jesus had told a parable, and it is one which obviously hit the mark. It was about how the obvious guests for the king’s banquet would be overlooked and the least likely guests would be invited.

Translation: Pharisee’s out, tax collectors and others in.

So they set out to trap Jesus in verse 15. ‘Trap’ is a word from hunting which means to ensnare an animal by cunning and trickery. That is exactly what they had in mind.

And so in verse 16 we see a curious amalgamation of parties: the Herod supporters teaming up with the Pharisees.

It reminds me of a photo that was in the Advertiser a few months ago. It showed Nick Tumbers and Alexander Downer working together. The Identification Card was such an issue that they transcended their political and other differences and became allies. It is the same in our Bible story.

It was like a boxing match. Usually we have the Pharisees in the white shorts, anti-taxes, anti-Rome, anti-part-Jews like Herod, and in the other corner in the black shorts are the Herodians who want to keep things the way they are, and so are pro-taxes, pro the infant-murderer Herod and pro-Rome.

As the Americans and the Russians fought against Germany, so we here have a liaison of convenience. However, Jesus is their common enemy.

We see the snare being set in verse 16 where the hook is baited with the burley of malice and the fish oil of deception. The leaders don’t come themselves, they send disciples. The Pharisees would be too recognisable, so they send some verbal bouncers along to clear the religious terrain. And not how the spool unfolds.

They have five things to say about Jesus:

  1. He is a teacher.
  2. He tells the truth.
  3. He tells people about God’s will for people.
  4. He does not worry about whether people like what he says.
  5. He treats equally an unemployed teenager and a Robert Holmes a’Court.

What they say about Jesus is perfectly true. None of us would dispute their public relations patter. If we found them as a series of words about Jesus, detached from this verbal cloak and dagger encounter, we would think of them as a beautiful summary of the ministry of Jesus.

Yet here the truth of their words is distorted. Amidst the platter of strawberries lies the viper of deception. The truth becomes untruth because it is clothed in the rags of deceit.

The great Soren Kierkegaard in Volume 4 of his Journals and Papers says that ‘when truth conquers with the help of 10,000 buzzing men – assuming also that which conquers such as it is to be a truth: then by the form and method of the victory a far greater untruth is victorious.’

We can have the truth but because of what we do with it, it can become a lie.

We may be right, we may have the truth on our side, but if it is not planted in the soil of integrity it becomes a poisonous thistle.

A few weeks ago, a persuasive minster rang to invite me to chair a meeting about building extensions. Now fortunately, these days there is so much of an emphasis on spiritual gifts it is possible to say I don’t think my gift is in the area of administration and meeting chairing. But I sensed from the fact that he was calling unlikely outsiders that this may have become an issue in this church.

Issues like this have the potential to divide congregations. Pharisees and Herodians may even come together. And one side may well have the truth. All its arguments may seem clear and logical and bristling with truth, however the truth can be lost if it is not handled with integrity.

Relationships are the primary concern, so that what is said of Jesus in verse 16 can be said of us by our opponents.

Truth is a servant of love, yet it can be fashioned into a verbal bullet to pierce the armour of those who resist us, and then we have lost it, and them. But it can also be made into a ploughshare to till the soil and create a harvest of the fruits of the Spirit.

That is not to say that decisions cannot be made unless there is total unanimity, but it is to say that we must never become hypocrites in the cause of the truth, as did these people in verse 18.

It is a danger for us all, at church, work or Synod, to be Christians in profession, but unforgiving of that person in the church who snubbed us, who does not like our music, or who never talks to us. That is, as Jesus says in verse 18, hypocrisy (literally mask-wearers in Greek drama).

These people talking to Jesus don’t really want an answer to their question. They want to put him in a no-win situation, to make him a subversive to Rome, or a traitor to most Jews.

So Jesus’ answer speaks a word to all, then and now. Render to Caesar what is due to him, even though the Jews were heavily taxed. Render to God what is his, which is everything. Your life, your time, your family, your future, your past, your money, your brains, your needs, your problems, your hopes.

Render to Caesar your scraps, render to God your all.

So this is not a doctrine of church and state relationships, but is a call to put relationships first. Firstly with God, and also with one another. When Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’ he meant it. He wasn’t providing a few touches of spiritual landscaping for our human plateaus. He meant it. He expected it. He makes it possible.

So in this text, taxes are the wind, relationships are the tide, truth the catch and love the feast. Let is be said of us as Paul says in Thessalonians, Chapter 1 Verse 3, ‘For we remember before our God and Father how you put your faith into practice, how your love made you work so hard, and how your hope in our Lord Jesus Christ is firm.

By George Robert Iles