Life of Christ 155
It is Tuesday morning. Jesus will die tomorrow afternoon. Already today we have seen His interaction on the way to the Temple with the Apostles, the Greeks, and the crowd in Jerusalem. There we saw the Father encourage Him audibly. On arriving in the Temple, He begins to teach and is immediately hassled about His credentials by representatives of the Sanhedrin. He deflects that by bringing up John the Baptist and then proceeds to tell three parables that absolutely skewer the Pharisees.
Today's story (Luke 20.20-26) follows hard on the heels of this last exchange. The Sanhedrin just openly confronted Christ and was bested in the Jews favorite sport – theological argument. Now, not wanting to risk looking that bad again they decide to send other players against Him to see if He can be damaged in the eyes of the people. And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor. Like a chess player who conceals one move behind another, the Sanhedrin moves into the shadows and begins to launch verbal attacks at Christ via surrogates.
The Sanhedrin has long been angry with Jesus yet beyond privately encouraging mob violence and secretly conspiring to assassinate Him they have done little to physically harm Him. The primary thing holding them back over the last few months from a more aggressive posture against Christ was their perception that His popular support was wide and deep. Realistically, it was rather shallow, as Wednesday’s events would prove, but the Sanhedrin was not sure of this. What follows in our story today flows from this misperception. The Sanhedrin hopes to cause either His popular support to dwindle or to get Him in trouble with the Romans. If they could accomplish the former it would make Him easier to kill on religious grounds. If they could accomplish the latter the Romans just might do it for them.
Their question to Him was downright ingenious. They ask Him if it was lawful for Rome to collect taxes from them or not. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or no? The Jewish people as a whole rejected Rome’s right to collect taxes. This was not simply because of the tax burden but because it implied they thus accepted the Roman Caesar as their legitimate king. This was highly problematic to the Pharisees, the predominant religious group in Israel, who insisted that Jehovah alone could be their king. On the other hand, the Romans were known to deal harshly with those who publicly rejected Rome’s right to rule or tax. They had recently killed Judas of Galilee for just that very reason. (Acts 5.37)
The Pharisees were joined in their question by the Herodians, a group who advocated acquiescence to the rule of Rome. Normally they would take the opposite position to the Pharisees on political questions, and the fact that they joined in with them on this occasion added weight to the question placed before Christ. As well, we must add to this the fact that Jesus is publicly proclaiming Himself to be Israel’s messiah (which means her king as well). Now the simple question is suddenly fraught with political, popular, and criminal overtones.
As the Sanhedrin saw it Jesus had only two possible answers from which to choose and neither one was pleasant. If He approves the payment of taxes He will alienate Himself from popular support in Israel and undermine His own claim to be the Messiah and King of Israel. On the other hand, if Jesus rejects the payment of taxes He will call down the wrath of Rome on His head for stirring up sedition. What to do?
Many people view His answer as a clever evasion. While it was an evasion on the surface it is not so underneath. Jesus’ admonition recognizes two distinct albeit occasionally overlapping spheres of authority. One is political and earthly while the other is religious and heavenly. In this He anticipates Paul’s later development in Romans 13. There Paul explained that civil government itself is instituted by God and that it has a legitimate role to play in life. Jesus recognized that Caesar had God-given authority to collect taxes but that this authority did not conflict with God’s kingdom or rule over the individual or society.
His answer is breathtakingly wise. In one fell swoop He solves a continual conundrum at the intersection of contemporary Jewish theology and politics. Along the way the Sanhedrin discovers much to their chagrin that they failed in their aim. Jesus did not get Himself in trouble with Rome, nor did He lose the respect of the people. In fact, He gained respect. And they could not take hold of his words before the people: and they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace.
…and if you are scoring along at home it is now Jesus two, the Sanhedrin zero.