Matthew 22:15-33: Wisdom Sans Pareil
March 4, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Having been called out by Jesus for refusing to accept his invitation to the banquet of the king—to come into the kingdom of God—the Pharisees form an unholy alliance against Jesus. They send their disciples, along with the Herodians, to catch Jesus in his words. The Herodians were those who sided with the infamous king; the Pharisees did not cozy up to the royal power. And yet here they are; the enemy of your enemy is your friend, and they come together to try to trap Jesus.
The trap is particularly carefully laid. First, there is the flattery (22:16). When someone flatters you, they are setting a trap for your feet. Beware Greeks bearing gifts, and beware Pharisees with smooth tongues singing your praises. But not only are they flattering Jesus, their flattery is intended to force him to be frank, by suggesting that he is always a truth-teller. There are times when we must hold confidences, not give away private information, unless we become gossips. And Jesus here, by being told that he is a truth-teller, is being set up to speak in an unguarded way.
But then the actual question is clever too: the Herodians would expect and want Jesus to support the payment of taxes as Herod was a supporter of the imperial power. The Pharisees, loathing such imperial power, would be against Jesus supporting the payment of taxes to Caesar. If Jesus sided with the Pharisees, he would be potentially arrested or get into deep trouble with the authorities; if he sided with Herodians, he risked losing the popular support that he rightly enjoyed at this time. What is the way out of this trap?
As so often, Jesus finds a way out by asking a question. The Book of Proverbs, in two famous apparently contradictory verses, tells us both to not answer a fool according to his folly, and also to answer a fool according to his folly. How can we do both? By replying to a fool’s questions with another question, as Jesus does here. That way Jesus is not accepting the premise of the question that is being put to him.
He asks them to bring out a coin. Ah! Here is the hypocrisy! They have a coin. They have accepted the currency of the emperor, and therefore it is right that they pay for this currency by the means of taxes. But at the same time, it is not right that they give ultimate allegiance, much less worship, to that emperor. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
If only the church through the long years of its existence and its pock-marked relationship to the state had obeyed Jesus’ instructions here with more consistency! What pain and confusion would have been avoided! Given such unpromising circumstances—the trap that is set for Jesus—what sweet wisdom comes from his lips. A godly man can find light to shine even in a jail, and salt to spread even in the midst of a poisonous atmosphere.
The Sadducees then come along, and they are no better. Their trap is different, however. The important context to grasp is that the Sadducees only accepted the authority of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and because of that, did not think that the Bible reliably taught the resurrection of the dead. So they ask this ridiculous hypothetical question, attempt to form an argument of a “reductio ad absurdum” sort, and throw the mess at Jesus to sort out.
Brilliantly, Jesus defeats their calumny by two moves. First, he establishes the principle. They are wrong because they know neither the power of God nor the Scriptures. We, instead, must know both the power of God and the Scriptures. How often has the church attempted to have one without the other! As John Owen once put it, if the devil cannot set up a ministry without the Word, he will set up the Word without the Spirit—but, as the book of Ephesians tells us, the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. This is why they are wrong: they don’t know their Bibles, and they cannot conceive the power of God for whom even the resurrection of the dead is an easy matter. And then, in a move of majestic authority, he defeats their reliance on the first five books of the Bible by quoting from those books to make his point (Exodus 3:6).
Rightly, the crowd is astonished at his teaching. Who is this who can teach in this way? No other man has ever taught thus, for this is not merely a man who so teaches. Worship him, believe in him, follow him, bow before him. He is the Lord!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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