Damned If You Do; Damned If You Don't?

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

In our Gospel reading from Matthew, we hear that the religious leaders simply could not listen to Jesus any longer. They could not stand what Jesus was about, and they could not stomach the message that He taught. So, they put their heads together to figure out a way to get rid of Jesus.

There was a catch though. The religious leaders knew that they could not destroy Jesus publicly and they did not want to reveal their evil intentions. So, they devised a plan where they would complement Jesus as if they could butter Him up, only to then follow up with a tricky and malicious either-or question. You know what I am talking about, one of those questions where no matter how you answer, you will be found guilty. Yes, they planned to sweet-talk Jesus and then drop a question on Him to trap Him. They wanted to put Jesus into one of those damned if you do and damned if you don’t type scenarios.

The religious leaders then did just that. They praised Jesus for being sincere and teaching the truth. And then they asked Him whether Caesar should be given tribute or not, through the paying taxes. In other words, Jesus was asked to answer whether it was lawful to give tax money to Caesar or not. Now, if Jesus says, “Yes,” the people would go after Him as being a supporter of Rome and not being sympathetic to those trying to liberate Jerusalem from Rome’s oppression. On the other hand, if Jesus says, “No,” then some of the people in the crowd – namely this group called the Herodians – would arrest Him as a rebel against the authorities.

No doubt about it; all of this was a very devilish strategy that was intended to bring about Jesus’ destruction. It was an evil plan to be rid of Jesus and His teaching.

Dear friends, this hostile spirit towards Jesus is nothing other than that Old Testament spirit of Cain. You remember that story of Cain and Abel that we have heard before? Cain murdered Abel because Cain sought to offer God his own sacrifice resulting in God rejecting Cain’s works and accepting Abel’s gift given in faith. In other words, Cain’s hatred towards Abel was due in part to his own hatred of God for refusing to accept his righteousness. Yes, that spirit of Cain is an evil disposition and a nasty way of thinking and living. It is a bloodthirsty disposition that causes people to want to be in charge of everything and pass judgment on anyone else that does not worship at their feet. It is about eliminating others who stand against the unholy trinity of “me, myself, and I.” The point being, just as we see Cain go after Abel, that same spirit was prevalent in the religious leaders who were plotting Jesus’ destruction. It was especially prevalent in that tricky either-or question posed to Jesus of whether or not to support Caesar. Yes, that question was not a question that was intended to grant clarity and they were not trying to learn from Jesus, but that either-or question was meant to undermine, trap, discredit, and destroy Jesus.

And here is the catch, that same spirit of Cain is alive today. All we have to do is listen to the questions that are being asked today of the church, and we quickly realize that many of the questions are not being asked to grant clarity but are being asked in a way to undermine, trap, discredit and destroy Christians.

For example, there has been a question circulating on the internet that asks the following, “You are in a burning building, and there is a container with 1000 embryos and a five-year-old child, and you can only save one. Which one would you save?” Now, if you say, “The 1000 embryos,” then you are a monster for letting a five-year-old die. However, if you say, “The five-year-old,” then you are admitting that an embryo is not a valid human life on the same level as a five-year-old. You see how this works? This question is not intended to learn or create a healthy dialog, but it is only meant to trap and discredit. It does not allow the Christian to say, “I would try to save both because all life is precious!” It does not allow the Christian to say, “Instead of running out of the building to save just myself, I would risk my life to save as many lives as possible – embryos and five-year-old children.”

Or there is this question, “You are not one of those ignorant-foolish Christians who believe everything in the Bible is true, are you?” Which if you correctly say, “Yes,” you are then inadvertently admitting to being an ignorant-foolish Christian, and if you say, “No,” you are admitting that the Bible is full of errors. In other words, this question is meant to undermine and discredit the Christian. It does not allow the Christian to give a thoughtful, educated, and respectful answer that the Bible is truth.

Oh, and who can forget this question that comes up all the time. “Did your God have authority over that hurricane or earthquake or not?” This question is meant to either imply that God is not powerful or not loving. You see, if we say that God did not have authority over an earthquake or hurricane, then the accusation is that God is not powerful – that He is a pathetic powerless God. But if we say that God does have power over hurricanes and earthquakes, then the accusation will be that God is not loving because He did not stop the tragedy. Again, this either-or question is intended to trap and destroy, not to learn and be edified.

We in the church, though, aren’t much better. Though we may not have the same malicious intent as those religious leaders in our Gospel reading, we too can put forth these either-or questions to get our way. For example, one that has been circulating for quite some time is this question, “Is your church going to cling to stuffy-irrelevant-dead liturgy or reach out with life and relevance to the youth of the next generation?” So, here again, if a person upholds the liturgy of the church they somehow don’t care about youth and the next generation. On the other hand, if they want to reach out to the youth, then the question forces them to say that the liturgy is irrelevant, stuffy, outdated, and dead. This too is nonsense and divisive! Cannot a church uphold the liturgy and the historical aspects of the church and reach out to youth and the next generation at the same time? Furthermore, if a church has God’s Word and Sacraments, is it even possible for it to be a dead church? 

Oh, and we cannot forget every Pastor’s favorite, “Pastor, would you rather have me in church thinking about the woods or in the woods thinking about God?” To which the Pastor says, “Neither! That is a false either-or question that stems from the sinful nature’s animosity towards God’s Word. It is a way to skirt around the 3rd Commandment of honoring the Sabbath.”

After being asked the tricky either-or question by the religious leaders, Jesus immediately perceived the religious leaders’ wickedness. He understood that they were not asking a question to learn but to trap Him. And so, He said, “You hypocrites!” Yes, He called the religious leaders by their name; He called them hypocrites. They were acting all pious on the outside in asking Him a question, but their question was rooted in wickedness and deceit. They had honey on their lips and poison in their hearts. The religious leaders were speaking with a forked tongue, and Jesus’ called what they were – hypocrites. This must have stung deeply for the truth always hurts the sinful old Adam.

Dear friends, the plot of the religious leaders shows us how God’s Word is usually treated. And it shows us how Satan and his bride (i.e., the world) hate nothing as much as God’s Word and those who believe it, teach it, and preach it. But regardless of the tactics of the world and regardless of these either-or questions that were meant for destruction, Christ Jesus did not sway. He was not ensnared. Jesus is true and teaches the way of God, not being distracted, worried, or entangled by the partiality and trickery of mankind.

And so, Jesus sent the religious leaders home with their tails between their legs. There is an irony here though.  You see, it was only a short time later that the religious leaders decided that the only way to remove Jesus from the scene was to remove Him from this life - to kill Him. During the next few days, the religious leaders carried out their plan and arranged to have Jesus crucified. And when Jesus had died, the powers of sin, death, and the devil thought that they had won. That is to say; according to the power of evil, either one dies and is defeated, or lives and wins. However, what sin, death, and the devil did not understand is that it is not an either-or scenario with Jesus Christ. Christ dies and is not defeated but victorious. In a word: Christ loses on the cross so that He might win not lose. Christ rises from the grave so that death might lose not win.

Baptized Saints, this is your Lord Jesus. No trickery could keep Him ensnared in the grave. No plot could undo His plan of salvation for you. No forked tongue of evil could keep the message of the forgiveness of sin from you.

Christ does not dance to the tunes of hypocrites, for Christ is true. Therefore, as His baptized blood-bought Saints, you shall not be worried or deceived by any deception of the world. Your hearts and minds are guided by the wisdom of Jesus proclaimed to you through His Word, not either-or questions.

As Christ’s own, you are dazzled not by the empty flattery of mankind, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.

May the Lord keep us in His strong Word that severs the schemes of darkness. In the name of Jesus: Amen. 

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