Season 10 - Week 2
“It's a trap”
Conflict and tension seem to be everywhere these days. Whether it’s political debates, theological discussions, or dialogues on the latest social issues, meaningful conversations can feel fraught with traps and pitfalls. When our role is to minister to young people, how can we stay focused on Jesus and his teachings? On the one hand, not engaging the difficult topics of the day can make us seem irrelevant or timid. On the other hand, taking a stand can not only alienate some people but can become a distraction from sharing the gospel. How do we be faithful without putting partisanship over Christ or forsaking our call to be in the world but not of it?
Jesus lived in a world of conflict. Not only were there different groups vying for control in a land occupied by the Roman empire, but Jesus had upset a lot of people. In Matthew’s gospel, he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to large crowds, goes straight to the temple, and starts throwing out all the people making a profit off the visitors. He doesn’t leave but starts healing people. If all this was not disruptive enough, Jesus starts criticizing the leaders and influencers in town.
It is at this point that we come to the religious leaders plotting to trap Jesus by asking about taxes. On the surface, the question might not seem controversial. What’s wrong with paying taxes? But in a country under occupation, taxes were paid to the oppressor, or in many people's eyes, the enemy. Underneath, the question is asking Jesus to choose between supporting the legitimacy of Roman occupation, or rejecting the tax and being perceived as a revolutionary that needs to be put down. There is no good way to answer this question.
Or is there?
By saying give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s, Jesus rejects the game that they’re playing, dodging the trap altogether. And it's clever: Even though on the surface it seems like Jesus is saying that coins should be given to Caesar, if these teachers of the law believed that the Romans had no right to rule over them, then nothing of theirs belongs to Caesar. By implication Jesus is suggesting they not pay the tax. But to take it even further, doesn't everything belong to God anyway? It's an extraordinary answer that exposes much deeper questions.
When it comes to the complicated debates of our day, we can get stuck feeling that we either have to take sides or avoid conflicts altogether. Instead, let's consider how Jesus responded.
First, he did not simply answer the question he was given but looked for the motivations behind the question. Next, he responds with a principle that places the burden on the teachers of the law to answer what belongs to God and Caesar.
When we feel trapped or stuck in a difficult situation, could we maybe take a step back and think about the bigger questions behind the issue at hand? We might not be able to do it at the lightening speed that Jesus did, but we can learn to look past the problem on the surface to what is motivating the conflict. Where do Jesus' teachings interact with these bigger questions? Pausing long enough to not just react creates space for the Holy Spirit to reframe our thinking and appraoch it in a different way. (Remember, Jesus often didn't play by the rules).
Listen to the Open Me Disruption podcast with Andy Flannagan exploring the devotion from this week.
Season 10 Episode 2
'Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 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. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“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.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.'
What are the big questions your young people have, or the debates they feel caught up in? It might be around Brexit, or climate change, or perhaps questions around the church's attitude to different difficult issues. Can you take time to step back from the immediate debate to reflect on the bigger questions at play? Can you think of the deeper questions that the issues raise and create a space to explore them with young people?
When it comes to some of those same thorny issues, how do you form an opinion? Is it what your friends think, or your church community, or your family? Or what you read on the internet, or in a paper? Does the Holy Spirit play a role in that process? If we want to move towards the profound creativity with which Jesus engaged the culture that surrounded him we need to make some space away from the noise of the public square to let go of our assumptions and defenses and allow God to reform us.