Jesus under Surveillance
Jesus was in Jerusalem. It would be the last week of his life. At the end of the week he would be condemned and crucified. But if his enemies thought that was to be the end of him they were in for a shock – resurrection was to follow, but that is for next week!
For the moment, however, the Jewish leaders felt they were fighting a losing battle. Every attempt they had made up till then to counter Jesus’ popularity had failed. It just seemed as though he generated more and more interest as time passed. But they weren’t about to give up – they were determined to do whatever they could to bring this man down and to nullify his influence.
It is worth noting that those who oppose Jesus are often unrelenting in their opposition towards him and his followers – it was so then and it remains so today. Not only that but those who want to get rid of Jesus are not necessarily that bothered about the means they use – anything will do, honest or not, if only they have done with this man.
This morning, as we continue our studies in Luke’s gospel, we are going to see how the Jewish leaders were not above employing hypocrisy and deceit in their attempts to discredit this man.
Opportunities Wasted, Privileges Abused
Jesus had burst onto the public scene some three years previously and caused a real stir. He taught in a new way – everyone recognised that he wasn’t like the other teachers who were around: he knew what he was talking about and he taught with authority. And that authority wasn’t restricted to his teaching ministry alone: he exercised authority over the spirit world in exorcising demons; over the physical world as he healed sick people of their diseases; and over the natural world as he turned water into wine, fed multitudes with one boy’s packed lunch and told the winds to stop blowing!
The Jewish leaders had long known about Jesus and they had sent delegations to him before to listen to what he had to say and to observe what he was doing. Being the recognised leaders of the nation they had a ready access to Jesus as the crowds would let them get right into the front row where they could easily see and hear and speak with Jesus.
But instead of being ready to take him seriously these leaders refused and were intent on finding fault with whatever he said and did. They had wonderful opportunities for asking deep and sensible questions, the type of question that springs readily from the heart of a man or woman who is concerned about how to be right with God and how to live in ways which please him. But they didn’t do that. They would rather ask silly questions, point-scoring questions, questions that didn’t flow out of a genuine desire for knowledge or direction but which they hoped would make them look good while at the same time make Jesus look bad. But again and again their efforts backfired against them.
And so, angered by their very recent lack of success, they watched carefully. They were keeping a close eye on Jesus but not because they wanted to know more about him and his teaching, no, what they were waiting for was another opportunity to get at him. They were looking to see if they could find some "skeleton in the closet" with which to discredit him and if no skeleton was there to be found they weren’t above trying to plant one! They pretended to be sincere but they were only hypocrites – and hypocrisy seems to have been something of an occupational hazard for the Jewish leadership whenever Jesus was concerned.
I wonder, ‘Are you looking at Jesus?’ ‘Are you carefully considering him and weighing up his claims on your life?’ ‘Or are you more like those leaders who were on the lookout for a way to have done with him? It’s pretty easy to pull the wool over the eyes of others – you can ask some fine sounding questions and even do some of the right things but what are your motives for doing so?’ Do you genuinely want answers to your questions or do you simply want to find an excuse for turning your back on Jesus?
Don’t be like these leaders that we’re looking at today. They had many privileges and they had golden opportunities too – but they blew it all. Please don’t do the same.
An Otherwise Good Question
The leaders came up with what they thought was a good plan. They would ask Jesus a difficult, emotionally charged, question and they’d do it in such a way that whatever he said he’d be in trouble.
In order to draw him out the question would have to be an important one, a relevant question that was of pressing concern not just to the questioner but also to those listening in. But how was this to be done? Oh yes, they could send some of their men as spies! They would set up this verbal "honey-trap" and then Jesus would be caught out!
They began with the soft soap treatment – a little bit of flattery works won’t go amiss, they thought:
v.21"Teacher, we know that you’re honest and straightforward when you teach, that you don’t pander to anyone but teach the way of God accurately."
And then this was the cleverly devised question they came up with:
v.22 "Tell us: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
The question was actually a very good one – there was nothing at all wrong with the question itself. It is a question that deals with issues Christians have often wrestled with down through the centuries. It is a question about the Christian’s relationship to the state and how he is to live out his faith in the many different political circumstances in which he might find himself. We still need to know the answer to this type of question for ourselves in the 21 st century. We still need to know how we should relate to the secular powers. Jesus’ answer is just as relevant to us today as it was then – his answer wasn’t an attempt at evasion, it went right to the heart of the matter. The question was a great question to put to Jesus but only if it corresponded to a genuine desire to know the answer.
We’ll come to the answer Jesus gave in a few moments but before we do we must first think about what the spies were expecting to hear.
The spies pretended to be sincere as they put their question to Jesus. They wanted everyone, Jesus included, to think that they were fine upstanding men of society whose only concern was to do the right thing. But this wasn’t their concern at all. They weren’t really having problems with how they ought to be filling in their tax returns. No, what they really wanted to do was the very wrong thing of destroying Jesus Christ!
Having got Jesus’ ear for their question these spies must have thought that they were bound to succeed. They had devised a fool-proof method – it was a win-win situation as far as they were concerned.
v.22 "Tell us: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
If Jesus said it was lawful, the right thing to do, to pay taxes to Caesar then Jesus’ stock amongst the Jews would take a serious tumble. The Romans were generally hated by the Jews and paying them tribute in the form of taxes was for many a humiliation too far.
On the other hand were Jesus to say it was not right that Jews had to pay this tribute – well the Roman authorities would know how to quickly put an end to that kind of sedition. It would seem that the Jewish leaders expected this to be the opinion Jesus’ held on the matter for they fully expect to be able to hand him over to the governor as soon as the answer is given.
Of course a third option was that Jesus might have said nothing at all. It wouldn’t have been difficult for these insincere men to turn any such silence into arguments that would stir up opposition against him from both sides of the divide!
But they hadn’t reckoned with either Jesus’ spiritual perception or with his wisdom.
The question had been put under the guise of sincerity as though the subject matter of the question was vitally important to them but Jesus saw right through their hypocrisy.
Hypocrisy is such a common feature of fallen humanity and that right from the beginning. Do you remember the encounter that took place when God spoke to Cain after Cain had murdered his brother Abel? Asked where his brother was Cain replied:
"Am I my brother’s keeper?"
In other words "Can I be expected to know all about him and his comings and goings?" Cain’s reply implied that he simply didn’t know but it was all a front – he knew only too well, he’d just killed his own brother!
Or think of Judas Iscariot. He was the disciple that betrayed Jesus to his enemies. Do you remember how he did it? He did it with that gesture which in normal circumstances indicates warmth and friendship – but a kiss from Judas’ lips signalled something completely different.
Hypocrisy means play-acting and we probably all do it from time to time – but if we imagine that we can put one over on God we’ve got another think coming! The implication of this should be crystal clear to us: don’t play with Jesus – he can see through us just as easily as he saw through those men that day.
Let us rather learn to come to Jesus openly and honestly without trying to catch him out with our own cleverly formulated trick questions. Jesus has come to help and to save us. He has come so that he might do good to our never-dying souls. If you come playing the hypocrite you’ll not get the benefit he would willing bring you!
Jesus Gives his Answer
Although the question had not been asked with the right motives Jesus nevertheless gave and honest, direct, clear and oh so helpful answer which has been a help to his followers ever since.
Before he gave his answer, Jesus first engaged his questioners by involving them more personally in their own question.
v.24 "Show me a denarius."
You can picture them fumbling in their pockets to find the coin he has asked for – of course they had one, didn’t everyone?
v.24 "Whose likeness and inscription does it have?"
Well that was an easy one, wasn’t it? They knew the answer to that one. It seemed as though Jesus was simply making their question all the more clear and precise:
v.24 "They said, "Caesar’s."
The Roman Empire had spread widely and had brought many benefits to those who lived within it and under Roman rule. The pax romana was an impressive thing too. It had already been in existence for some 50 years and would extend for another 150 or so years. Peace was largely assured within the empire – safe travel routes existed – and the rule of law prevailed. No, it wasn’t a democracy and no it wasn’t perfect but it did secure many benefits for its subjects – the Jews included. These very Jewish leaders seemed quite happy to enjoy those benefits – why else do they have a Roman coin on their persons that they can immediately show to Jesus when he asks for it?
And now Jesus was ready to give his answer: if these leaders were already benefitting from the Roman presence then they ought to realise that it was only right that some contribution be made to pay for it. Or, as Jesus more memorably put it:
v.25 "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s"
The state has a legitimate claim upon to make of its subjects – paying our taxes is one of them.
But that was not the whole of Jesus’ answer. He knew that the states and governments of this world all too frequently tend to overstep the mark and to make demands of their citizens which they have no right to make. The state has its rights but these rights are nevertheless limited. The state goes wrong when it claims too much for itself as Rome itself had done by adding the inscription to its coins that Caesar was the "Highest Priest". There are some things that belong to God alone and to these things Jesus referred in the second half of the wonderful answer he gave:
v.25 "and to God the things that are God’s."
How are we to live in the world? We are not to set up false dichotomies as though the answer to our involvement with the state is either all or nothing. Jesus told these men that we are to give to each his due but we must never allow our loyalty to God to be trumped by our loyalty to someone else. We owe God our service, our gratitude and our worship. But "offering to God the things that are God’s" could not be made to stretch to cover such things as plotting to kill his own Son!
The apostles would put this principle into practice as is made clear for us in the Acts of the Apostles. Arrested for preaching about Jesus the apostles were told by the Jewish leadership that they were not to preach any more in his name. The Jewish leaders had no right to insist upon such a course of action – they were overstepping the limits and Peter politely reminded them of this as he replied to them:
Acts 4:19-20 "But Peter and John answered them, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard."
Jesus’ opponents were stunned by the answer that Jesus gave them. They simply hadn’t seen such an answer coming and they didn’t know what on earth to say next so they said nothing.
It is well reported of Jesus elsewhere that "no man ever spoke like this man." (Jn.7:46)
They had tried again to catch Jesus out but had once again failed dismally and were reduced to silence:
Had they genuinely been concerned about the question they had put then surely they would have found some word to express their appreciation for such a simple and clear answer!
Had this whole issue been a real concern for them and they still felt they needed further help in understanding just how to apply the principle they had just been taught then surely they would have asked for further explanations.
But their silence speaks volumes – it was a guilty silence of men who had been found out and didn’t know what to do next. They were left absolutely amazed and they marvelled at the answer he had given them.
But amazement is not the same thing as conversion! Being impressed is not the same thing as being saved. It wasn’t for them and it won’t be for you either!
My friends, Jesus came into the world sent by his Father in order to save sinners. Those who do not receive him as their Saviour and Lord will be brought to a similar silence before God as these insincere men were in their day.
When we are confronted by God and by his holy law all our questions and excuses will be shown up for what they really are – futile attempts to evade our own responsibility. Unless we learn to call upon the name of the Lord for salvation before then we will be reduced to silence.
Rom.3:19 "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God."
Jesus saw through the deceitfulness craftiness of these men in his day and yet he still gave them a great answer to the question they hoped would flummox him. He didn’t call them out for their dishonesty, he didn’t rub their noses in it, he didn’t mock or castigate them in front of others but he did speak words that caused them to marvel. He was giving them yet one more opportunity of rethinking their prejudices and of re-evaluating their need of a teacher like him.
You may have tried to keep Jesus at bay for a long time hoping to find some reason that would allow you to justify your refusal to trust him – but why go on like that? Stop and think again!
This man is the Lord and Saviour that you need. At the end of that week he would die on the cross – it was the only way he could justly deal with your sins and open the door for you to a new life with God as your Father.
You too should marvel at this man – for his words and for what he has done for sinful men and women, boys and girls. It is time for you to stop speaking against God and high time for you to start pleading with God to forgive you your sins and to save you.
And may God be gracious to us all.