‘But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?’ Matthew 22:18
Hearing part of a conversation can be misleading, without knowing what had been said before and what might be said afterwards, there is a danger of drawing conclusions about the conversation that do not reflect the full truth of what is being said. Sometimes the reading of Scripture is like hearing a snatch of a conversation, there is not a sense of what had happened previously or what would transpire afterwards, and there is a failure to ask questions that might have arisen if there had been awareness of the context of what had been read.
We do not expect to be in Holy Week in mid-October, so we read the Gospel passage without being aware of what is happening. It is part of the story of the dramatic final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It is important we have a sense of what is taking place so that we might understand how the pressure on Jesus was building up and what tension there was in the conversation. This is a moment very different from Jesus teaching the crowds gathered along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
If we read the previous chapter of Saint Matthew we see Jesus riding into Jerusalem and the crowds cheering and Jesus, at the end of the day, going out to Bethany to stay the night.
In Matthew 21:18, Jesus returns to Jerusalem in the early morning and goes to the Temple to teach and the parables he tells enrage the chief priests and the scribes. They would have liked to arrest him at that point, but they cannot do so because they fear the reaction of the crowds.
There are moments earlier in the ministry of Jesus such as Matthew 8:34, when he is implored by people to leave the Gadarenes area, and Matthew 14:13, when he hears the news of the killing of John the Baptist, when Jesus retreats from situation, but this time there will be no retreat, Jesus is intent on a confrontation with his critics and his enemies.
Jesus continues his teaching with the parable of the man who has no wedding garment and, while he teaches, his opponents rally themselves. “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said,” says Saint Matthew.
The opponents pursue a controversial topic, paying taxes to the Roman authorities. They believe that the question is a win-win option for them: if Jesus says “yes” to paying taxes, he will alienate the crowds; if he says “no” then they can call on the Romans to arrest him for incitement to treason.
Jesus sidesteps with great agility their attempts to catch hold of him. What they believe to be a win-win question ends up as a clumsy piece of duplicitous argument. Jesus is almost dismissive in his manner as he swipes away their effort, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
His opponents are again astonished at their failure. They are learned men, men skilled in arguing legal cases, men used to debate, but in each encounter with Jesus they are left seeming dull and flat-footed. “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away,” Saint Matthew tells us. Amazed, they have been, but they were more determined than ever that they will have the last word.
If we are not aware of the context of what is happening, we can think that this is just another encounter between Jesus and the Jewish authorities; we can fail to appreciate how close things are to the moments we recall each Good Friday.
What is astonishing when one reads these verses is the sheer bravery of Jesus. He stands alone, with no power, no protection, and he calls things as they are. Jesus knows what is unfolding; he knows the intentions of those who challenge him,
“But Jesus,” says Saint Matthew, “aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This is not a theological debate, it is a confrontation with malicious intent. The word used by Saint Matthew for “test” is the word used of the temptations in the wilderness; it is about an evil purpose and Jesus knows the purpose.
We read these Gospel passages and we attempt to discern their teaching— in this case we might try to discern teaching regarding the relationship between church and state—and in doing so we can miss what we might learn from Jesus himself.
Did we ever try to imagine ourselves standing there with Jesus? Did we ever think what it might mean to be without power in the face of evil, and to still have the courage to speak for truth and righteousness?
‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,’ says Jesus. When the emperor, the worldly power, stand and threatens you and you know that your words might cost you your life, to hold firmly to a faith in God is the ultimate challenge.
Reading just part of the story might be more comfortable than thinking about what was happening as Jesus spoke these words. But part of the story tends to be what suits most Christians.