“Jesus Answers a Gotcha Question” (Matthew 22:15-22)

“Jesus Answers a Gotcha Question” (Matthew 22:15-22)

If you’ve been following the news lately, and you watched the presidential debate, the vice-presidential debate, the Judiciary Committee hearings, or the dueling town halls, you heard a lot of “gotcha” questions. I’m guessing most of you have heard that term before, a “gotcha” question. But in case you haven’t, let me explain. A “gotcha” question is one in which the questioner asks someone a question designed to trap or embarrass the person being questioned. It’s designed to cast that person in a negative light, no matter how he might answer the question. The classic example of a gotcha question is this: “Have you stopped beating your wife? A yes or no answer, please.” You see, no matter how the guy answers, it sounds bad. If he says yes, it sounds like he was beating her before. If he says no, it sounds like he still is.

So you heard a bunch of gotcha questions over the past few weeks. The questions were constructed in such a way as to make the person look bad, no matter how he or she answered. “When will you denounce white supremacy?” As though he hasn’t already. “Why haven’t you denounced Q-Anon?” As though he even knows what Q-Anon is. “Judge, have you ever sexually assaulted anyone?” As though she might be likely to have done that. These are examples of gotcha questions. They’re designed to get the person in trouble, any way they answer.

But then this is nothing new. People have been asking people they don’t like gotcha questions for many centuries. We see it in the Gospel reading for today from Matthew 22. There the enemies of Jesus, the Pharisees and the Herodians, try to come up with a question that will get Jesus in trouble, no matter how he answers. But today we’ll see how he turns the tables on them, when “Jesus Answers a Gotcha Question.”

The enemies of Jesus have been trying to trap Jesus for several days now. We’re in Jerusalem, during the days leading up to Passover. There are tons of people in the city, and the tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. Jesus’ enemies are trying to trap him with a series of gotcha questions. They tried asking him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” But that didn’t work.

So now they’re going to try another question. But first they try to flatter him, to butter him up, so as to catch him off guard, to get him to speak more freely. Our text says: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.’”

Well, I have to say, this is the first time I have to agree with the Pharisees and the Herodians. For Jesus is indeed true, and he does teach the way of God truthfully. He does not care about anyone’s opinion, and he is not swayed by appearances. All of that is true, but they are only saying those things to get him to speak more loosely, so they can trap him in what he says.

Now here is their gotcha question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Now here I need to explain why this is such a brilliant gotcha question. Notice the two groups who are coming together to ask Jesus this trap question. It’s the Pharisees and the Herodians. Now normally these two groups would not be getting together. On the one hand, you have the Pharisees, who were angry about the pagan Romans occupying their land and running the show. On the other hand, you have the Herodians, who were content to work with the occupying Roman Empire, if it would increase their own wealth and political power. Normally these two groups would be at odds with each other. But they found common cause in their hatred of Jesus. For he was upsetting the applecart. The Pharisees didn’t like him, because he had been exposing their hypocrisy. And the Herodians didn’t like him either, for he spoke of a kingdom much higher than Caesar’s. So the Pharisees and the Herodians came together on this occasion to try to trap Jesus and catch him in his words.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” That is their gotcha question. They figure, either way Jesus answers, his goose is cooked. If he answers, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then the Pharisees would accuse him of not being a loyal Jew, of subsidizing a godless pagan empire. And if he says, “No, as proud Jews, we definitely should not pay taxes to that blasphemous Caesar,” then the Herodians can report Jesus as being a rebellious insurrectionist. Whichever way he answers, Jesus will be in big trouble. They have laid the perfect trap. Or so they think.

But Jesus sees through what they are trying to do. He won’t fall for it. Our text continues: “But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius.” Jesus has something in mind. He’s going to turn the tables and put them on the spot. They bring Jesus a denarius, a common coin that the Romans used in their empire.

Very often, when someone asks Jesus a question, he answers them with a question of his own. As he does here. He holds up the denarius and asks them: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Now if you were to hold up one of these coins and look at it, you would see the image of the current Roman emperor, which at this time was Tiberius Caesar. And his name would be on there too as the inscription. So in response to Jesus’ question, they answer, correctly, “Caesar’s.” OK, pretty straightforward.

And now Jesus is going to answer their question. Remember, they had asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” And he has shown them Caesar’s image and inscription on the coin. So Jesus says: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Now where is Jesus going with this answer? For one thing, he is saying that it’s OK to pay taxes to the government. And we affirm that. “Render unto Caesar.” This is one of the passages that teaches us Christians to obey the government and pay our taxes, even if we’re not crazy about the current government. God has instituted civil government for our good. Romans 13 teaches likewise. “Render unto Caesar.” OK, we’ve got that.

But really that is the lesser point of this story. For Jesus’ answer concerns something much more important than rendering unto Caesar. Jesus goes on to say this: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Whoa! This is where Jesus turns the tables on his enemies. For they were not rendering unto God the things that are God’s!

How so? For standing right there in front of them is God’s own Son, who bears the image of God in his person and who has God written all over him. And they were not rendering faith and obedience unto God by believing in the one he sent, namely Jesus, and receiving him! That’s what they should have been doing, and they weren’t. In fact, they had rejected Jesus and were trying to trap him. They even were conspiring to kill him! How in the world is that rendering unto God the things that are God’s? It isn’t. And that’s the big issue, not this trick question about paying taxes to Caesar.

Dear friends, Jesus bears the image of God in his person and has God written all over him. Jesus Christ is the very Son of God, come down from heaven to reveal God to us and to win our salvation. Jesus has grace and truth written all over him, in his words of wisdom and his works of mercy. He is here for you! Christ is right here for you today! Listen to his voice! See him by faith in his presence among us. Jesus is speaking truth to you today. Do not reject him, like the Pharisees and the Herodians did. Instead, receive him as your dear Savior! Jesus lived and died and rose again for you! He bore your sins on the cross, so that now your sins are forgiven. Christ wipes away your debt of sin and gives you his righteousness in its place. Jesus suffers your death and gives you his life in its place. Freely. Nothing you have to do to earn it. It’s a gift–forgiveness, and life, and eternal salvation in Jesus name!

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world–your sin! And then ask yourself this question: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” In Christ Jesus we see what God is like: He is just and merciful, and he loves us so much. We see God inscribing our names into his book of life. Rejoice in this, brothers and sisters!

You want to hear a gotcha question? Here it is: Who has gotcha safe and secure in his loving hands? God does, my friends. And the proof is in Christ Jesus our Lord. In his likeness we see God for who he really is. And his inscription spells out life and salvation for you and me.

On my heart imprint Your image,
Blessed Jesus, King of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may Your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation!

Published in: on October 17, 2020 at 8:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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