Gotcha Questions

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: 29 Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 18, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: A question about taxes was designed to damage and discredit Jesus. But he slipped out of trouble and revealed a new understanding about what belongs to God.

As Election Day approaches, journalists are asking candidates a lot of tough questions. They are correct to do so, since our elected leaders need to be accountable to the citizens of our nation. But questions are not always asked in a responsible manner. For example, it is fair to ask the president how he formulated his views and actions on the situation in Syria and Turkey. But it would be unfair to ask, "Mr. President, why did you desert an ally and support a dictatorial thug?"1

That's a "gotcha question": One that is posed in such a way that it is impossible to answer directly. The question is really an accusation made to look like a question, designed to damage or discredit a politician. It is like saying, "Tell me, sir, have you stopped beating your wife? Please answer yes or no." Or asking someone, "Are you supporting that position just to annoy me, or are you seriously dumb enough to believe in it?" There is no way to answer such questions without getting yourself in trouble.

Rebellion or Rome?

In the Gospel of Matthew, the Pharisees try to lay a trap for Jesus, much like a person who asks you if you have stopped beating your spouse. They try to get him to make a declaration about paying taxes, a choice they think will bring him into conflict with either the Roman government or the parties rebelling against the empire. Whether he says yes or no, he is going to be in hot water.

The Pharisees say, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality." They describe him in glowing terms, no doubt trying to lower his resistance before they attack. Then they ask, "Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" The Pharisees figure that if Jesus approves of paying taxes, then he'll offend the parties that are trying to rebel against the oppression of the Roman Empire. But if he disapproves of paying taxes, then he could be reported as disloyal to the empire and maybe even be arrested. They are saying, in effect, "Do you support rebellion or Rome?" They know that either choice can be used against him.

Fortunately, Jesus is aware of their malice and flips the choice back to them. "Show me the coin used for the tax," he says. They give him a denarius, a Roman coin. Then holding up the coin, he asks them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answer, "The emperor's." Then Jesus says to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." He turns the gotcha question right back on the Pharisees and slips out of their trap. The Bible tells us that when they hear this, they are amazed. They leave him and go away.

This story is a fun one to tell because it shows Jesus outwitting his opponents. We admire his cleverness and clarity of thought, and we enjoy the fact that he doesn't get trapped like a person being asked, "Are you supporting that position just to annoy me, or are you seriously dumb enough to believe in it?" But this question about paying taxes does more than reveal that Jesus was a tough person to manipulate. It also challenges us to discover what it means to give to God the things that belong to God.

Separation of church and state?

At first glance, it appears that Jesus is giving us a neat, clean way to serve both our government and our God. "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Keep them straight, he seems to be saying, don't let them get mixed up. Focus on secular things Monday through Friday, and focus on spiritual things on Sunday. Don't let politics and religion mix. Respect our country's separation of church and state. Let the church stay out of politics and keep government out of the life of the church. On the surface, it appears that Jesus is encouraging us to keep these important parts of our lives separate - divided into neat, clean and orderly compartments.

But if we dig deeper, we discover that Jesus does not want us to live a life that is fractured into isolated parts. He says, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's," meaning that we are to give the government the tax dollars that we owe as citizens. That's clear enough. But then Jesus goes on to say, give "to God the things that are God's." What in the world does that mean? There is no specific tax that we can pay God as a believer, no clear designation of what we owe our Lord in terms of worship, stewardship or acts of charity. We have a 1040 form to fill out each year at tax time, but no standard guidelines to use as we figure out our Christian obligations.

Jesus says, give "to God the things that are God's." This is not a neat, clean, orderly, manageable commandment. It forces us to look for answers to questions such as, "What belongs to God? What should we return to God? What specifically should we give?" And perhaps the most important question for us to answer is, "What are the things that are God's?" This may be the ultimate Christian gotcha question.

The wealth of the church

Back in the third century, persecution was an ongoing reality for Christians in Rome. In the year 258, the Emperor Valerian commanded that all Christian bishops, priests and deacons should be put to death. He also ordered his imperial treasury to confiscate all money and possessions from the Christian church. In light of this news, the pope put a young Spanish theologian named Lawrence in charge of the church's riches, and he also gave him responsibility for the church's outreach to the poor.

The Roman emperor captured the pope and had him beheaded. Then he set his sights on Lawrence and the wealth of the church. The emperor demanded that Lawrence turn over all the riches of the church and gave him three days to round it up. Lawrence quickly sold all the church's vessels and gave the money to widows and to the sick. He then distributed all the church's property to the poor.

On the third day, the emperor summoned Lawrence to his palace and asked for the wealth of the church. With great fanfare, Lawrence entered the palace, stopped, and then gestured back to the door. Streaming in behind him were crowds of poor, crippled, blind and suffering people. He proclaimed, "These are the true treasures of the church."

We should hold on to the insight of St. Lawrence. Yes, we are part of a worldwide church that has beautiful buildings and technologies and bank accounts. But the true "wealth of the church," writes blogger Brandon Vogt, is "in her suffering and vulnerable faithful, who though poor in spirit have inherited a kingdom surpassing even the glories of Rome."2

A gotcha answer to a gotcha question

The wealth of the church can never be found in money. The denarius coin has the image of the emperor on it, so it should naturally be given to the emperor. But the wealth of the church is found in every person who bears the image of God, every single child of God. When Jesus says that we are to give "to God the things that are God's," he is saying that we are to give ourselves completely to God, in all that we say and do. A few chapters later in Matthew, Jesus promises that whenever we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, care for the sick and visit those who are in prison, we are really helping him.3

If you think about it, the reply that Jesus gave to the Pharisees was really a gotcha answer to a gotcha question. They wanted a specific ruling on taxes, a ruling that would cause Jesus to stumble. But Jesus broadened his answer to the point that they could do nothing but abandon their attack. Jesus said for them to give the emperor his pathetic little emperor coins. And then, more importantly, give "to God the things that are God's" - give to God every person who is stamped with the image of God, including yourself. Give God your love and concern for poor, crippled, blind and suffering people - "the true treasures of the church." Give God your efforts to be righteous and to walk in Christian faith. Give God the gift of your whole self.

When the Pharisees heard this gotcha answer, "they were amazed; and they left him and went away." But we do not have to slip away in embarrassment. As people who see the image of God in ourselves and others, we can make an effort to give more of ourselves every day. This means serving the poor who bear the image of God. It means striving to be righteous in our work, because we too are stamped with God's image. When we give to God the things that are God's, we return to God everything that belongs to God - all our time, effort and love.