Jesus said to the scribes and the chief priests, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Luke 20:25)
The first trap of this story is to sucker Jesus into an ego debate. If these Pharisees could manage this it would mean a duel of minds rather than a search for truth. The real question would be: did Jesus win?
A hundred years ago when I was a student studying theology, I was involved in a theological debate. The debate day was the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas. I do not remember what piece of traditional theological knowledge the debate revolved around, but I do remember the outcome. The team I was on won. Afterward, a friend of mine said to me, ‘You really got them.’
I was both flattered and a little taken aback. I was glad we won, but I didn’t see it as ‘getting’ them. In the evaluation of my friend, the debate was not about the subject matter but about gaining or losing stature. It made me think, and eventually it led me to avoid theological argumentation. There had to be another way to think and talk theology. Making it the raw material of ego contests seemed to do it a disservice … [and] I saw the downside of this style in pastoral settings …
I came across a Taoist story about a man in one boat who sees another boat coming at him through the fog. He yells at the man in the other boat to steer aside. But the boat continues to come at him. He then curses and swears and rages at the approaching boat. When the boat is close enough so he can see it clearly in the fog, he sees the boat is empty. There is no one in the boat. Immediately his anger calms, and he easily steers his boat away, avoiding collision.
To avoid the trap of theological exploration becoming an ego test, I tried to become an empty boat. From years of practice, I know one thing for sure. It is easier to fight to be right than it is to be empty to be true.
The second trap Jesus avoids is to be caught between false alternatives. These Pharisees wanted a yes or no. In some areas yes or no seems the right way to phrase things. ‘Is the light red?’ ‘Is it raining?’ ‘Are there fifty-two people here?’ But other areas do not admit to either-or, yes-or-no thinking.
Most theological and spiritual matters are best approached by careful exploration and balanced evaluation. This is especially true when the interaction between the spiritual and social realms is being considered. This is more complex than a factual yes or no. Avoiding the trap of false alternatives is the first step toward more adequate discernment.
Jesus avoids the traps of ego baiting and false alternatives. So he does not best his opponents; he names their malicious and ego-driven game and refuses to play it. He also does not fall into the trap of ‘yes or no’ they have constructed; instead he names the terms of discernment, the everlasting tension between God and the emperor. This has to be a better map for how to reflect the complexities of faith and society.