The Pharisees decide to trap Jesus. They have taken enough stick from him and now they decide it is pay back time.
St Matthew’s Gospel is put together in several great sweeps. First there is the Genealogy and the Infancy Narratives, then we move to the Baptism of Jesus and his Temptation in the Wilderness, after which we come to the call of the disciples and the Sermon on the Mount.
Then he presents us with a series of miracles interspersed with teaching. Jesus then spends a period instructing the Apostles. After this comes a period of teaching of the people by means of parables interspersed with various events such as the Beheading of John the Baptist and the Transfiguration.
We then get to the expulsion of the traders from the Temple and Jesus’ authority is questioned by the Chief Priests and Elders. After all, by entering the Temple he has entered their territory as they see it and has consequently become a threat to them. Jesus answers them with the parables we have heard these last three Sundays.
The first was about the labourers in vineyard being hired at the eleventh hour; then we had one about the wicked tenants who kill the master’s son and then came last week’s about the wedding feast. All these parables are very pointed and obviously directed against the Chief Priests and leaders of the people.
So now they plot against him, trying to trick him by asking whether it is right to give tribute to Caesar. If he answers that it is permissible then he is guilty of co-operating with the oppressor and loses credibility with the Jews. If he answers that it is not permissible then he is guilty of rebellion and can be denounced to the Romans. They think they’ve got him.
Jesus shows himself to be much cleverer than they first thought. He first accuses them of hypocrisy and of setting a trap and then easily evades the question turning it instead into a spiritual challenge to them. He challenges them on their own ground demanding to know if they render to God what belongs to him. This makes them back off very quickly.
But they don’t back off for long. Soon enough the Sadducees return asking tricky questions about the resurrection and then the Pharisees have a go by asking about the greatest commandment. Jesus has had enough by then and he launches into quite a tirade about the hypocrisy of the leaders of the people.
After a few more parables about the end-times Matthew quickly moves us on to the events of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.
That is quite a breathtaking sweep. In about forty pages of any normal Bible Matthew gives us a complete overview of the life of Jesus. He covers the principal events of his ministry, gives us a summary of his teaching and a clear understanding of who he is and his crucial role in the salvation of the world.
Not bad for forty pages. There are probably far less words in St Matthew’s Gospel than you would read in your average Sunday newspaper. That only leaves one little question--when did you last read it?
I remember visiting Glasgow and going to see that great picture by Salvador Dali entitled Christ of St John of the Cross. My cousin was studying medicine there and she went with me together with her current boyfriend.
He was a young Scandinavian photographer in his early twenties and had been brought up with no concept of God or religion whatsoever. He asked me quite simply and directly what the picture was all about. I was taken aback at the challenge of explaining from scratch the whole story of salvation to someone who had never heard it.
Of course, I did my best, as any of you would have done. Incidentally, the thing that he found most difficult was why Christ’s sacrifice was necessary because he had no understanding of the concept of sin.
I had up to that point assumed that even a person who didn’t believe in God but was brought up in our society would have a basic understanding of the principles of Christianity because it is transmitted through our culture. But I now realise that this is increasingly not the case.
You would be quite astonished at how few teenagers know the Our Father; while this is definitely a religious deprivation it is also an extraordinary cultural deprivation.
Increasingly we who believe are going to be put on the spot and asked to explain our beliefs to those who have absolute no prior knowledge of God and Jesus Christ.
Years ago, when we asked our teachers why we had to learn our catechism we were told, “In case you meet a Protestant and they ask you questions.” Nowadays Protestants don’t quiz us anymore, perhaps because sectarianism has declined and we realise we have too much in common. But perhaps it is also because there are far less of them around anymore.
We are far more likely to be quizzed by people who haven’t the first clue about the things of God, by people who have never even considered that there might be a God.
We need to constantly re-examine our faith, we need to sit down and study the Gospels, we need to spend more and more time in prayer and thought, and we need to join in discussions on religious matters so that we are properly equipped to proclaim and explain our faith in Christ.
We need to get that Bible off the top shelf and dust it down and read it; that is if there is one there in the first place!
When Jesus demands of the Pharisees if they give to God what belongs to God he is also asking us the very same question.
We ought to ask ourselves if we have given the time and the thought and the application needed to bring us to a true appreciation of his action in the world sufficient to enable us to explain ourselves to those with no knowledge of God.
The world is thirsting for the spiritual; spirituality is the new word on the lips of many people today. They do not know that spirituality comes not from within ourselves but is a direct gift from God.
We are his messengers, his means of communicating with them. Let us prepare ourselves adequately for this vital ministry.