Jesus today verbally duels with the Pharisees and the Herodians. These are two group that hate each other, but they are making common cause to bring down Jesus. And they put to him a question, but as the gospel tells us, it is not an innocent or sincere question. It is a trap. They hope to have him answer a question on taxation, and so set either the population against him, or the Romans.
Today we would refer to this as a “gotcha” question, the kind you hear from reporters at a White House press briefing or a media scrum outside the House of Commons. The question is not meant to elicit information, but rather it is to embarrass or trick a press secretary or a cabinet minister who isn’t quick witted into a problematic public statement and so generate a headline for newspapers and internet sites, lead stories for news shows. It’s always a question where there is no simple good answer, yes or no, the affirmative or the negative both leave the respondent as a villain or a fool. The classic example of this is “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Yes and No answers both mean you are a wifebeater, and so, horrible.
Now, in my brief time in public relations and as a reporter, but also as an ongoing student of communications, I’ve learned the best way to answer the “gotcha” is to question the underlying assumption, to attack the premise the question proceeds from; to step around the trap and confront the questioner as our Lord does: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”
Indeed, it is the assumption that Jesus attacks, but not simply to sidestep the trap, but to reorient all of us in this world. He effectively calls out the Pharisees and Herodians, not only as politicians masquerading as leaders concerned with their people’s well-being, but to remind us of what our priority ought to be in life, and what the underlying premise of our decision-making ought to be.
He shows them that coin, holds it up, before uttering a word, he has made this silent accusation: you Pharisees and Herodians are about this, money, and the power that flows from it; you only ask me this question because I threaten your chances of having power. And Jesus holds that coin up like a mirror: whose face is on this coin? Well, it’s the Roman emperor’s, Caesar; and what the Pharisees want, what the Herodians want, is to put a different face on that coin, and that is their only concern.
Jesus is not about money and power. Indeed, look at the cross, do we see there money and power? No, we see, at first, powerlessness and the stripping away of everything, poverty in the absolute, not just material, but in humiliation, not even personal honour is left. And yet, because who hangs on that cross is the incarnation of truth, the Word of God, because he expresses by his sacrifice true love, he will triumph over money and power and that cross cannot kill, but becomes the path to resurrection and eternal life.
When later, in the opening movements of his passion, when Pontius Pilate questions him, he tells the Roman governor, “my kingdom is not of this world” and we know Jesus doesn’t care if his face ever turns up on the back of a loonie.
Jesus, we affirm, possesses ultimate power, but does not use it; he hasn’t come to speak of power, but rather about from where life truly spring and finds its eternal dimension: in truth and love.
He does, nonetheless, answer the “gotcha” question his enemies put to him, but so cryptically that I find many try to twist his meaning.
Using the more famous phrasing, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” we ask, what does he mean?
The facile and stupid interpretation that is heard from politicians down through the ages is that this is Jesus dividing up reality into respective jurisdictions, the things of the world, the things of heaven, and about worldly things, God is then to shut up. And by the cleverness of modern politicians, that which is “of God” is consigned to personal opinions best kept private, spoken only of in the secrecy of the home.
What is Caesar’s? What belongs to government? What belongs to the world? Well, I did say money and the power that flows from it; and I imagine the secular-minded would quickly add to that list all those things they’d like faithful Catholics to stop talking about.
But what belongs to God? Why, everything belongs to God? Everything that is. Now, evil might corrupt it, and deprive God of it, as evil corrupts human souls, and steals them away from His loving care; but those are still His, stolen and desecrated and destroyed; just as when a tabernacle was recently stolen from a church in St. Catherine’s, cracked open and the blessed sacrament carried away for whatever diabolical purpose. It’s the same with those who are deceived into thinking that there are things God doesn’t care about.
When I was at journalism school, we were taught how to ask questions. And it was more than, “what, where, why, when and who,” but was about a technique to derive fuller understanding of what someone had to say to you as a reporter, to get more and better information and increase understanding.
Broadly characterized, there were “open” questions and “closed” ones. The first type invites the person interviewed to “open up” and to be expansive in their answers, the latter pushes the person toward little more than “yes” and “no” in their responses.
And sometimes you do need to ask those, to get something clarified quickly, but generally, it’s not an initial question, an opening of the conversation you want to have, however brief. Those degenerate into “gotchas.”
The true question is one that is asked in earnest desire to gain from another some enlightenment, to make of the encounter something that makes, however, briefly, a relationship grounded in love and respect and aimed at furthering our quest for the truth of life. A conversation is not a contest, and an argument properly conducted should not result in victor and vanquished, but in all feeling they’ve learned and been enriched.
We will all face the “gotcha” question in this life, be put “on the spot”. If you are on the internet; use Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, you know that social media wants to know your answers to a lot of yes and no questions. Indeed, it needs to know. Here’s a video clip of the prime minister, for example – idiot or visionary? Vote now! Like or dislike; leave something in the comments section; choose. There are only two options. Do you or do you not approve? Like? Support? Condemn? And once you choose, well the internet is forever, you are chained to your pick that day. It’s like choosing a favourite professional hockey or football team – that’s your team for life. And there are self-appointed judges out there scouring the web for the wrong opinions, the wrong choices, whenever they were made, and they are too ready to also act as jury and executioner.
We need to reject this: such questions and the vicious exchanges that result are not of God. They are, again, about power; in the instance of social media, the power to hurt, even destroy people’s reputations is intoxicating.
But this also applies to those face-to-face encounters we have. There has grown up the impulse to air our political opinions, to test to those we meet: Did you see the latest from Prime Minister? Read so-and-so’s latest tweet? And the tone communicates what the right answer is: said in a derisive tone, or in exhilaration. Most of us haven’t heard, seen, read the latest; or if we have, we probably haven’t formed a proper opinion, or perhaps, don’t think it worth having an opinion. Why inflict this on others? Why make anyone fearful of losing a relationship over matters that likely call for more subtle understanding and expression than can be conveyed through ‘yes’ and ‘no.’
The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart warned, “If I had a friend and loved him… because of getting my own way, then it would not be my friend that I loved but myself.”
Again, we must see all this in its proper context, within the expanse of the eternal, and know that this too shall pass; our central and overriding concern should be as our Saviour put it: to know what belongs to God, and to give that to Him—to give the whole of ourselves to Christ.
Saturday was the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and early Christian martyr. He famously wrote to the Church at Corinth as he was taken to Rome for execution. He wrote,
“I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the furthest limits of the earth. He who died for us is the object of my quest […] Clothe yourselves in gentleness and be renewed in faith which is the flesh of the Lord; and in love, which is the blood of Jesus Christ. […] Faith is the beginning and love is the end.”