20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’
23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
25 He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’
26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
In all my years reading these Gospel stories I have never noticed the last clause of the first sentence about the spies “who pretended to be sincere,” (Luke 20:20). It sheds a whole new light on what follows. When they say “we know that you speak and teach what is right” and “teach the way of God,” (Luke 20:21) did they really know it, or did they lie deliberately?
And then Jesus, who “saw through their duplicity,” (Luke 20:23), I wonder why he didn’t blow the lid off the whole thing and reveal the deceit. And I wonder about what it was like being civil to these people who fawned over him, ingratiating themselves into the inner circle in order to destroy him.
Some of us will know what that is like. What it is like to be in the company of those who fake sincerity, but who seek our downfall in small or large ways. We know the familiar knot in the chest, how the continual false civility of ordinary exchanges sticks in our throat because we know things have to be said for public consumption, but we also know the disloyalty. I feel for Jesus here, and I’m angry at those who could behave like this.
I’m writing this on 29 March. So much has happened in the days since then that I suspect you may have forgotten that this was the original Brexit Day, trumpeted by our Prime Minister (or maybe ex-PM by now) as an immoveable date, until she moved it. And I’m writing for the 13 April which is set to be the day after the extended Brexit date (or maybe it’s not). Who knows?
It all reminds me of the corrosiveness of lies and deceit and how it can blind us to the real issues of our lives, our communities or our nations. How easy it is to speak honeyed words designed to gull people into a false sense of hope or security. How easy it is to hide the truth in a blizzard of words and high flown rhetoric when what we really speak are empty, flaccid, meaningless phrases.
Whether it is Project Fear or “Take Back Control,” we have been lied to, often deliberately so, by politicians, media outlets and those with power and influence. They have pretended to care, but were frequently plotting their own advancement in position or wealth.
How Jesus kept his wits about him I don’t know.
How desperately we need penetrating, wise and insightful words to silence those who are deceitful (Luke 20:26).
How desperately we all need friends and family who will speak the truth consistently to us , and not use us for their own advancement.
How important it is that we ourselves are the kind of people who enter relationships with kindness and generosity, without any ulterior motive or false purposes.
Thankfully Jesus also had disciples of courage and commitment who loved him and stayed loyal. In the pressure cooker of his final days, it tended to be the women. But more of that next week.
I can marvel at your cleverness here Lord Jesus,
Your ability with words in the cut and thrust
Of politics and conflict.
And your seemingly endless patience
With those false friends who faked sincerity.
But mostly I’m angry at the people who lied.
Or maybe I’m angry at the people who have lied to me
And secretly I’m angry at the lies I have told.
I am sorry that after all these years of following you
I am still capable of duplicity
And false motives.
Strengthen me to be loyal and true.
Strengthen me to be a valued friend.
Give me courage to wear one face
And not two.