So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?’ They said, ‘The emperor’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.
They watched him – the “they” being the scribes and chief priests – whilst they sent spies, first to flatter and then to ask questions. Jesus, of course, had another audience, for the people were following this rabbi who promised new ways of living and an end to the misery of occupation and oppression.
The spies had been carefully chosen, people able to seem plausible, to ask questions which looked as though they had confidence in Jesus’ teaching whilst at the same time having the intention of turning the adoring crowds against him. The question seemed simple enough, we might say deceptively simple and the answer was quite clear even if not the one the spies expected. In both the question and the answer are layers of possibilities. There were issues here of political and religious power struggles and like many questions then and now, the important thing was to determine which were the central issues.
In our Statement of Nature Faith and Order we declare “In the things which affect obedience to God the Church is not subordinate to the state but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ …… “. But it isn’t as easy as two tick lists headed, loyalty to God and loyalty to Caesar.
There are decisions, priorities and loyalties in there which require us to examine our response to any of the complex issues of our day, homelessness, Universal Credit, violence, to name but a few. If we observe what Jesus did in these circumstances, we find he understood the hidden agenda, and identified the central issue.
In the complex world in which we live, our prayer must be for wisdom to spot the “spies” who will flatter and then undermine us, and for discernment to judge what is at stake in any given situation.
Compassionate God, in a world in which it seems as though nothing is simple we pray for wisdom to recognise the messages we can trust for discernment to understand the situation and for commitment to act in accordance with the values of justice and peace demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Val Morrison, Hall Gate, Doncaster. Former Moderator of General Assembly
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