Hunters and trappers know that if you want to catch your quarry, you must ensure that the trap is secure at both ends, having an enticing entrance but no exit. It would appear that the Pharisees had a good plan this time. Since previous plans to entrap Jesus in what he said had failed, they had devised a new strategy – buddy up with the enemy. By forming an alliance with the enemy, the Herodians, the Pharisees had a fairly fail-proof plan. The Herodians had drawn their fortunes and their petty power from their loyalty to the Romans. Consequently, they supported paying tribute to Caesar. The Pharisees, on the other hand, opposed the payment of such a tribute, because that would be an admission that the people of God were subject to a foreign power. They were sure that in his response Jesus would offend either the Herodians or the loyal people of God, like themselves, who could not accept the foreign power. The consequence would be to engage the ire of one group or the other.
They laid out an enticing entrance into the trap, that of flattery. We all know that flattery is hard to resist, but it is even harder to recognize. However, for Jesus recognizing flattery was no problem. He knew these people. He knew their hearts, and he knew their words reeked of absolute insincerity. Therefore the alluring entrance was in fact repulsive to Jesus. He had no need of people’s praise and certainly no need of their flattery.
The manufactured problem presented was couched in a language that appeared to express concern for the law. “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?” We know they were speaking of their religious laws, because of course by Roman law it was lawful. Jesus did not engage on the question of the law. However, he did point out that they possessed the coin with Caesar’s image on it. Since that was the property of the emperor, their possessing it implied a recognition of the emperor’s authority.
On the matter of law, Jesus’ preaching had been clear as to the law that mattered. Yet again he pointed out that there was no problem in giving Caesar what was his. But, their duty was to give to God what was due to God, those matters which surpassed any laws of state or religion – love, mercy, justice.
We see our church leadership struggle with issues that have been confined by laws. Their challenge is to meet these issues with those gifts of God which far surpass the laws – mercy, compassion, understanding, welcome, acknowledgement, love, humility and contrition.
St. Dominic, a man of God, had a good grasp of this concept, hence our custom of dispensation, where nobody is condemned to a state of manufactured sinfulness.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP