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From the perspective of Israel’s leaders, that miracle working Bum from Galilee is a royal pain in the neck. Jesus is His Name, and when He’s not winning more fans with His miraculous feats, He’s telling snarky parables which are so obviously meant to rip all over Israel’s spiritual leaders. Where is His respect? He clearly doesn’t have any. Unlike the poor folk who accept their place as spiritually inferior to the pompous Pharisees, Jesus seems to think that He—the uneducated son of a carpenter—is more qualified to teach about Yahweh then the men who have been extensively trained in the sacred Scriptures. How very galling. The Pharisees are fed up with hearing Jesus constantly exalt Himself as having some special calling from Yahweh. If Jesus really thinks He qualifies as Israel’s Messiah, He has apples for brains. When it comes time to throw off the shackles of Rome, the Pharisees want a Messiah who will dance to their tune—not some unpredictable Know-It-All who might drive them out of their current positions of power.
By now, Jesus has made His personal hatred of the Pharisees quite clear. Well, they hate Him with equal fervor. But the problem is that just hating Jesus isn’t neutralizing the threat that He is being to everything the Pharisees hold dear. In a disturbingly short period of time Jesus has gained far too much influence over Jewish commoners, and whenever He shows up in Jerusalem, He is the One the people run to listen to. The Pharisees really don’t like the gross disrespect Jesus is showing them. If someone doesn’t shut Him down, the commoners are going to stop being so impressed by the Pharisees, and then where will they be? And yet so far, the Pharisees haven’t been able to stop Jesus by themselves. What they need are some allies. But who?
The upper crust of Israel’s society had several layers to it. The priestly Sadducees who ran the Temple in Jerusalem were super rich and snooty, but their influence was limited to Jerusalem. The Pharisees were more “men of the people” who had become rich by manipulating the people, and their greatest influence was everywhere except Jerusalem. Then there were the Herodians—the wealthy family line from which Rome was currently drawing its local leadership. Since serving as Rome’s puppet kings came with a lot of ego pleasing perks—such as glory, power, and a little kingdom in which you could boss people around—the Herodians were big fans of Rome. If the Roman emperor was the president of a huge corporation, the Herodians functioned like the managers over one large division of that company. So while the patriotic Pharisees despised the pagan Romans who were robbing the Jews of their independence, the Herodians loved the way the Romans had turned their family line into a line of kings. Such different feelings about Rome would normally keep these two groups apart, but Jesus has become such a threat that in Matthew 22 and Mark 12, common Jews are quite surprised to see some Pharisees and Herodians coming over together to try and take Jesus down. Their scheme is to force Jesus to declare a clear position on Roman oppression. If He says He’s for it, the Pharisees can make Him out to be anti-Israel. But if Jesus expresses a negative view of Rome—which is far more likely—then the Herodians will be standing right there to witness it, and Jesus will end up in trouble with the governor of Judea. This conversation is taking place in Jerusalem, which puts Jesus conveniently close to governing authorities who could get Him into all sorts of trouble. Bad mouthing Rome was a dangerous game to play, but the Pharisees figure they can’t lose. After all, Yahweh said that His Messiah would turn Israel into a world power, and Jesus is claiming to be that Messiah, therefore Jesus must hate Rome. All they need is to provoke Him into saying so out loud.
Now whenever you’re working with a passage from the Gospels, you want to check and see how many of the four Gospel writers covered the story you’re interested in. This confrontation between Jesus, the Pharisees and the Herodians is covered in three of the Gospel books: Matt. 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26. Comparing passages helps give you a better idea of what was happening. For example, while Matthew and Mark both tell us that the Pharisees were ganging up with the Herodians for this particular scheme, it is only Luke who clearly spells out the game plan:
Keeping a close watch on Jesus, they sent spies, who pretended to be righteous. They hoped to catch Jesus in something He said, so that they might hand Him over to the power and authority of the governor. (Lk. 20:20)
Next comes the trap. Whenever you find Jews talking about God in the New Testament, you should mentally substitute the Name Yahweh, because that’s the only God they’re talking about. Now watch how these Jews try to butter Jesus up with flattery that He is His own Man, who takes orders from no one. These Jewish leaders actually hate what a confident rebel Jesus is, but here they praise the way He refuses to be controlled by others as a way of trying to bait Him to make some strong declaration about how much He hates the tyranny of Rome.
They came to Him and said, “Teacher, we know that You are a Man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because You pay no attention to who they are; but You teach the way of Yahweh in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (Mk. 12:14-15)
No one likes being taxed, but having to pay money to an empire who is oppressing you is extra galling. The common Jews loathed having to give their hard earned money away to Rome, and if the Herodians weren’t standing there, Jesus would be viewed as a hero for ripping on the empire. But since the Herodians are standing there, flapping their ears, this is a very loaded question.
In America, when politicians are trying to run for office, they try to stay as neutral as possible on controversial issues. They are only willing to make strong declarations when they know that all of their likely voters feel the same way on an issue. For example, in the past, Republicans used to be against abortion, whereas Democrats were for it. A politician who is running for the Republican party who is competing with other Republican candidates for Republican votes is going to say he’s against abortion, because this is what Republican voters want to hear. It’s not what Democratic voters want to hear, but the Republican candidate figures that Democratic voters won’t vote for him anyway, so it doesn’t matter. In such a situation, it is wise for the candidate to take a strong stand on an issue if the stand he takes will please his voters.
But now let’s say there’s a more controversial issue. Maybe the country is debating about whether it should deploy troops and get involved in some other country’s problems. If the candidate running for office knows that his voters are very divided about a particular topic, then taking a strong stand will only cause him to lose a lot of votes. If half of the people who might vote for him are saying, “Yes, let’s send our troops and get involved,” but the other half are saying, “No, keep our soldiers home and let that country solve its own problems,” then no matter what our candidate says, he just can’t win. He need votes to get into office, and he can’t afford to irritate half of his potential supporters. So when he’s giving a speech and someone shouts out, “Hey, what about our troops? Do you think we should send them out or not?” then the smart thing for our man to do is to avoid giving a yes or no answer. Instead, he’ll want to give an answer that both sides like, and sometimes that just doesn’t seem possible, especially when a guy isn’t given any time to think.
This is what Jesus does when the Jews try to trap Him into saying something bad about Rome. The question is meant to force Jesus to side with either Israel or Rome, thus guaranteeing that He’ll make instant enemies since He is currently speaking to an audience of mixed loyalties. By picking the hot topic of taxes, the Pharisees figure that they can’t lose. But much to everyone’s surprise, Jesus finds a way to answer their question while still remaining politically neutral.
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap Me? Show Me the coin that is 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 Yahweh what is Yahweh’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away. (Matt. 22:18-22)
By saying, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus shows respect for Roman rule. And since Caesar’s face is stamped on the coin, it’s pretty hard to argue that the coin isn’t his property when it was obviously Romans who minted it. But when Jesus then says, “Give to Yahweh what is Yahweh’s,” He is saying that respect for Rome shouldn’t cancel out respect for God. Instead, He’s saying that both authorities should be respected. Well, how can anyone argue with that? The Herodians don’t have a problem with Jesus teaching the Jews to obey the Jewish God as long as Jesus is also preaching respect for Rome, which He just did. The Pharisees can’t find a way to argue with the fact that Caesar has a right to demand some of his own property back. This brilliant trap they laid for Jesus has totally failed to catch their prey. Once again, Jesus has outsmarted them, and found a way to publicly insult them into the bargain by calling them shady hypocrites. Well rats.
This tax trap comes on the heels of Jesus firing off a string of three parables which all punched home the same bottom line: Israel’s pompous spiritual leaders are on their way to Hell because they’re refusing to submit to Yahweh (see Parables of Jesus: The Two Sons & The Evil Tenant Farmers and The Parable of the Wedding Feast). Trying to get Jesus in trouble with the Herodians was a desperate move by the Pharisees to shut Him down. Now that their plan has flopped, they go off grumbling to the Sadducees. Normally the Pharisees and Sadducees despise each other, with each group claiming to be more righteous than the other, and both groups angrily clashing on certain theological issues. But Jesus is such a threat to them all that during His public ministry, we see some strange alliances forming.
When the Sadducees hear that the Pharisees failed to lure Jesus into a trap with the Herodians, the Sadducees decide to make their own attempt at trapping Jesus. The Pharisees tried a political approach. Now the Sadducees are going to go for a theological angle. They’ve cooked up a handy “what if” scenario that they figure is guaranteed to theologically stump Jesus, thus making Him look foolish in the eyes of His followers. Will their plan work?
Trapping Jesus – Part 2: The Sadducees Ask About Resurrection