CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Confronted and Challenged
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
- Matthew 22:15-22
What do you do when someone confronts you or challenges you? It is easy in such moments to feel defensive, to want to fight back or to take it personally. You may feel uncomfortable and avoid the conversation entirely. The instinct for fight or flight can kick in and take over in the moment. Do you react impulsively, or do you choose to respond differently?
The story in today’s gospel is one of those moments for Jesus. A group of leaders who have opposed him in his ministry seek to trap him, using his own words. They send one of their disciples to ask him a question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” Jesus recognizes their intent and knows that it is a loaded question. If he says "Yes," he risks losing his followers and influence in the community who are under the oppressive rule of the empire. If he says "No," he risks being put in prison or worse by the imperial authorities. What does he do?
It is worth noticing the way Jesus responds to these confrontations. One of the gifts of having the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus is that we get a glimpse into the decisions he makes. The way that Jesus shows us is more than the words of his teachings; it is in the way he interacts with people. And what we witness in these stories is that Jesus was frequently confronted and challenged in his ministry.
For example, there is the story of when Jesus went away to the town of Tyre, to a house to get away from the crowds. A Syro-Phoenician woman - a gentile, a foreigner - interrupted his meal to ask him to heal her daughter. Jesus refuses, saying "Let the children be fed first, you don’t take the children’s food and feed it to the dogs.” The implication being that he would minister first to the children of his own tribe. But the woman persists, saying that “even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall under the table.” In other words, she believes that even the slightest effort of Jesus, even the crumb, is enough to heal her daughter. Jesus could have been offended by her intrusion. He could have dismissed her for challenging his authority. But he doesn’t. He listens deeply. He stays present in the moment. He is open to a new possibility that is unfolding. He is amazed by her faith. He heals her daughter. (Mark 7:24-30)
This in itself is amazing, but, for Jesus, this encounter leads to something more meaningful. He realizes that his vision has been too narrowly focused on his own people, that his mission reaches farther than he was expecting.
On another occasion, a lawyer asks him a question to test him: ‘Which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus does not limit himself to one commandment but draws together the two commands: "to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 36-40) What was intended as a test for him is the opportunity to lead to deeper insight and understanding.
Indeed, the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry is marked by confrontation and challenge. Upon hearing the voice of his heavenly Father in baptism say, “You are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased,” Jesus is led into the wilderness. There he is confronted by the devil, who challenges him on three occasions, saying “If you really are the son of God…” Jesus does not run from the confrontation. He faces the challenge by not getting pulled into it. He must dig deeper into the truth and into his trust of God. And he emerges from it with a clearer sense of identity and purpose.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus does not fall into the trap set for him by the question. He rises above it. He seizes the opportunity to address a more profound question. He asks for a coin. “Whose image (or likeness) is on this coin?” The answer is obvious: It is the image of Caesar, the Emperor. Jesus says, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s.” That word, "image or likeness," is loaded. It recalls the way that human beings are made in the "image and likeness" of God. In a quick rhetorical stroke, Jesus sets the issue in the larger picture of God’s world and in the recognition that it is much larger than what the Empire has claimed. Give to Caesar this coin that bears his image. What will you do with the people who are made in the image of God?
For Jesus, a confrontation is not something to avoid or even necessarily to win. It is an open window to lead people to the truth of what God is doing in the world. It is a moment that can lead to insight or to transformation.
In this polarized environment in which we live, even an innocent conversation can become a litmus test of whether or not you are on somebody’s side. We easily can reduce people to an opinion or a stance on a subject. Is there a way to let that moment become a holy moment? If we follow in the way that Jesus shows us, will we take that opportunity to seek deeper understanding. We may stop and ask, "What do you mean by that?" "How do you understand this?" "What does that mean for you?"
We may look deeper and inquire what is at the heart of their concern? Why does this matter to them? How does this affect me? What is my role in this? Can I set aside my judgements and listen with an open mind? What is the truth that is in between us? How do we get there?
We may also pause and silently pray for guidance in the moment. I suspect that is what Jesus did on many occasions.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus