Tony's Reflection 89 

The institution of Prime Minister’s Questions was 60 years old last summer. What began as sedate and respectful in the days of Harold Macmillan has turned into a high-stakes gladiatorial contest. No one asks the questions because they want information. They want to make the Prime Minister look incompetent or ignorant, preferably both and ideally in front of TV cameras. Tony Blair likened it to the tooth extraction scene in the film Marathon Man. His apparent relaxed poise at the dispatch box came only through intense rehearsal and an intellect sharpened by public school, Oxford University and a successful career as a barrister.

At this question time, the Prime Minister stands alone, with some 300 of the best minds in the country baying for blood, doing their best to destroy his reputation in front of a watching nation.

Back in Jesus’ day, the Sanhedrin was the Jewish equivalent of Parliament and much more. It not only ran the political affairs of the country, but its religious life as well. Its members were the elite of the nation. In this week’s episode (
Mark 12:13-17), they send their brightest and best gunning for the Galilean carpenter. They had the equivalent of Eton, Harrow and Oxbridge educations. Degrees up to their armpits. Jesus had none. An uneven contest? We shall see…

The impromptu gathering of leaders in the darkened temple backroom had been red-hot with rage. The carpenter had made them fools, in front of thousands. “Our so-called leaders don’t even know where John the Baptist’s authority comes from…”. Political satire is as old as the hills and thanks to this peasant crowdpleaser they were now on the receiving end, butts of humour from the ignorant masses.

The rabble had certainly been roused when he went on to say the authorities were no better than tenants who don’t pay their rent and murder the son of the landlord, to get his vineyard. The crowd had turned angry and ugly. The great and powerful of the land huddled and plotted, utterly embittered. Jesus had to be stopped. But how? If they sent the heavies in to arrest him, there would be a riot. The crowd loved him. But what did they know?

They had to discredit Jesus. And they had to do it in front of everyone. Were there any skeletons in his cupboard? No. He was squeaky-clean. They would have to trap him in his words. That shouldn’t be hard. They were accomplished debaters, razor-sharp intellectuals, used to political cut and thrust. He was simple and uneducated. A country bumpkin, he wasn’t used to the crowd and clamour of the temple, or its refinement. They came up with a question as savage and destructive as any man trap. Whatever answer Jesus gave, it would be wrong. Disastrously wrong.

The trap is sprung. Ready to sever and mangle Jesus, as soon he sets foot into it. Armed with their question, they send out their very best. Pharisees and Herodians. The crowds looked up to the Pharisees and would admire their spirituality. That took care of religious credibility. The Herodians were wily politicians, closely aligned to the “King” of the day. Political nous covered, too.

The question is viciously sharp: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

That was one of the burning issues of the day. Everyone had an opinion and most couldn’t wait to give vent to theirs. Surely Jesus would do the same? And when he did, he would be caught, helpless and hopeless.

If he said, “No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar” they would have him for preaching insurrection. The Empire had to be paid for. The Herodians were part of the Empire-system. What delight they would take in grovelling back to their Roman masters and reporting Jesus for sedition. The Romans knew how to handle rebels. He wouldn’t last long.

If he said, “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar”, then others would be baiting for his blood. The Jews were a proud race, born to be free in their homeland. The presence of the occupying Roman army was an affront to their national identity and the very promises of God. If Jesus said “pay taxes” he would be trampling the national flag and spitting on their faith. The crowd would lynch him in the name of God and the Pharisees would be there to cheer them on.

Smug and self-confident, Pharisees and Herodians approach. They are from different ends of the political spectrum. Underneath they hate each other. Today they unite to destroy their enemy. The crowd respectfully parts, bemused to see normal hostilities suspended.

They begin with flattery. Disarm Jesus. Put him at ease, offguard. Appeal to his ego as a fearless teacher of truth. Then, whatever truth he decides to teach, the pitiless trap will clamp shut. The killer question is delivered, looking deceitfully harmless, thinly veiled in “genuine” curiosity. They wait with bated breath, for the teeth of the trap to bite closed on the victim without mercy.

Jesus fixes them with a gaze that penetrates their souls. The ignorant peasant sees right through their sophistry and reads their very hearts.

“Why are you testing me?” He has spotted the trap, so deviously laid. How does he manage that? He has no education. No refinement. No class.

Jesus asks for a denarius. No loose change, this. It’s a coin worth a day’s wages. A Herodian reaches into his pocket. He is proud to have the wealth the carpenter clearly lacks.

Jesus holds the coin up high, for all to see. “Whose image is on this coin?” he asks.

“Caesar’s,” comes the obvious reply.

“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” says Jesus with a relaxed and disarming smile, “and to God what is God’s.” Mere money belongs to Caesar – let him have that. But never short-change God.

A murmur ripples through the crowd. One or two start to applaud.

Pharisees and Herodian alike stand wide-eyed, stupefied. How can they ever hope to lay a finger on this Jesus, who sees into their very hearts? Even what is plotted in secret is open to him. He sees what only God can see. How?
signed Tony