Reading Time: 8 Minutes
The setting has not changed, since we listened to Jesus tell the last three parables. There is a crowd of pilgrims to the Passover Celebration, who are listening to Jesus. He is somewhere within the 33 acre Temple complex. Religious leaders are part of the crowd, but they are there to challenge Jesus and not listen to him.
I often read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and imagine that I am part of the scene. Ray Martin has told me that he does the same thing. The imaginary narrator that I have used to tell this story is an example of how we can meditate on the Bible and make it more personal. I encourage you to give this method a try and see how it affects your appreciation of what you are reading.
The narrator who has traveled with Jesus the 100 miles from Galilee to Jerusalem continues with the following account.
The crowd around Jesus kept growing. With 180,000 people in Jerusalem for Passover, the crush of people who were trying to hear Jesus battle with the religious leaders was getting intense. Jesus had stopped speaking, after telling three biting parables. I thought we might take a break and let Jesus rest a bit from the tension.
However, there was no rest. The Pharisees in an odd alliance with the Herodians started in on Jesus. We all knew it was a trap, when they said, “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?”
When I heard their question, I wondered how Jesus was going to respond to them. Several years ago, a man from Galilee, named Judas, led a revolt against Rome over the poll tax that they placed on all men and women in Israel. He believed that the tax placed a human being, the emperor, in a higher position than God. He led a revolt over the poll tax that was quickly put down by the Roman army.
Jesus was also from Galilee and was already viewed with suspicion by the Romans. I was sure that anything Jesus answered about the poll tax would quickly be reported to the Roman authorities.
Once again, I was afraid for Jesus. The question put him in a “no win” situation. If he opposed the tax, the Roman government would probably arrest him on the charges of inciting a revolt. If Jesus said that people should pay the tax, all of the people in the crowd who hated the tax would see him as “selling out” to Rome.
Jesus answered the Pharisees as only the wisest person I have ever heard could. He said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”
Like most of us who had come from Galilee, Jesus didn’t have any money. He had to ask the Pharisee who was questioning him to produce a coin. The coin that the Pharisee showed him was a denarius.
It was really hypocritical for a religious man to have a denarius with him. The Romans allowed us to produce our own copper coins that didn’t have images on them. They were less valuable than the silver denarius, but they didn’t offend our religious beliefs.
The Pharisee didn’t have one of copper coins on him. Instead, he was carrying a denarius. On one side of the denarius was an imprint of the emperors face. On the other side were the words, “son of the divine and high priest.” Everything about this coin was a violation of what we Jews hold to be sacred.
The image of the emperor violated the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20.4). The saying on the other side went against the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20.3).
So, we had supposedly very religious man, a Pharisee, carrying into the Temple compound a denarius – a coin that offended the first two commandments. What a hypocrite! He was pretending to hold up the Law, but was violating it right in front of the Temple.
Jesus’ calm demeanor never wavered. He quietly asked the Pharisee, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
The Pharisee answered, “The emperor’s.”
Then, Jesus told him in a matter-of-fact voice, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Nobody expected Jesus to say that and no one had anything to say back to him. The Pharisee was trying to trap Jesus with a question that he thought Jesus couldn’t answer. Instead, he walked away from the crowd with his head drooping, being exposed as a hypocrite.
I heard a couple of people laughing and saying to each other about the Pharisee. “What a joke. He was pretending to be such religious man, but he’s really nothing more than a self-centered control freak on a major power trip. (Matthew 22.15-22).
The “Bad Guys” in the Story
Whether I like it or not, I always have to ask myself how I can be like the “bad guys” in the story.
(1) Arguments Instead of Obedience – The religious authorities used their knowledge to question Jesus, rather than to obey him. When we use our knowledge to avoid being obedient to the will of God, it reveals that we are only playing at being a follower of Jesus.
If we find ourselves talking ourselves out of simply doing the right thing, we are like the “bad guys” in this episode from Jesus’ life.
We may concoct schemes where we justify not paying our fair share of taxes. We may devise ways of not paying workers their fair share in wages. We may devise rationalizations that serve our self-interest and deny God’s rightful rule in our lives. Intellectual arguments that excuse disobedience place our behavior on a par with the hypocritical Pharisee.
(2) Religious Pride – Nathanael’s words, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1.46), were certainly echoed by the privileged religious class of Jerusalem. It was extremely difficult, thought not impossible as was evidenced by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, to be humble enough to to learn from the carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee.
I am indebted to serious teachers. My mind is filled with information that I have received from scholars, spiritual giants, and fiction writers. My heart is often challenged by people who will never write a book, author a blog post, or have a prominent role in the church. They show me an obedience that I can only hope to emulate.
The danger that is evident in the confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus is the potential for our intellectual achievements to blind us to simple and ordinary obedience. If we resist lessons in obedience, because they don’t come from a scholar or respected leader, we can end up looking like the Pharisees.
The Best Way
The best way to understand the Bible is in a prayerful relationship with the Author of the Bible, the Holy Spirit. I have been modeling for you one of the ways that I connect with the Bible, as the imaginary narrator has related the stories the past few blog articles. I hope you have a personal method for “digging” deeper into the Bible. If not, please try the one I have presented here.
Paul wrote, “No one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. We speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” (1 Corinthians 2.11 and 13).
The best way to understand this passage, or any passage in the Bible, is to ask the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to what is being taught. All Bible reading is designed to lead us into a close relationship with Jesus Christ through the activity of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Jesus, this passage shows us your immense wisdom. May we learn from you today. This passage also shows us the tragic end of religious pride. Please give us a humble heart that is willing to learn from anyone you put in our path.