Tests and Traps Set For Jesus

English speakers have long been adept at using questions for purposes other than finding out information (e.g. “Really?”). However, we seem to be moving increasingly into a time when questions can be set to catch the other person out. It was the religious authorities, not the Romans, who produced tests and traps for Jesus. It seems worthwhile to see how He dealt with them. The same story is often described in more than one of the Gospels.

Not predictable
There is no general rule or formula about how Jesus responded to test questions, though we can still discern some principles at work. He repeatedly astonished, amazed or surprised people, and we can aim to surprise people too - and maybe ourselves. That goes hand in hand with becoming better at discerning what the Holy Spirit is saying to us in everyday situations.

A riddle
The Sadducees, who did not believe in the Resurrection, thought they had a great puzzle to set Jesus. It was about a woman who was married in turn to seven brothers. In heaven, whose wife would she be? Jesus began with the devastating observation that they knew neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. His evident understanding of the Resurrection, as seen in His reply, reduced His questioners to silence.

Taxes to the occupying power
His opponents came to ask if it was right to pay tribute money to Caesar. There were Pharisees present, who were opposed to Roman rule. There were also Herodians there, who supported it. Between them, these two parties were ready to catch Jesus out however He replied, even if He just hesitated. He saw through the hypocrisy behind the question and commented on it. He then asked for someone to produce a denarius, the amount paid in tribute. Whose head was on the coin? It was Caesar’s. That settled it then: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. His answer was beautifully delivered with the help of an everyday object, and his reply added more than the question demanded.

Grounds for divorce
The Pharisees thought up a sticky question, about whether there was any lawful reason for divorce. Jesus would be discredited if He sounded too lenient or too strict about divorce. His initial response to people such as this, who should know the Scriptures well, was “Have you not read … ?” He went back to first principles about marriage, and quoted from Genesis. That was not enough for them, though, and they wanted to know why then had Moses said that a husband could give his wife a divorce certificate? He said that was because of their hardness of heart, but that did not make divorce part of the creation plan. Only one circumstance was sufficient for divorce, namely adultery. He made it clear, though, that not everyone would be able to accept what He had said.

The woman caught in adultery
This was another pincer question, where Jesus could be caught out either way about what to do with the woman caught in adultery. Jesus simply knelt down and traced in the sand. When pressed for a reply, He proposed that the person without sin should cast the first stone. The accusers of the woman departed in order of age. Finally, His advice to the woman was “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Wanting a sign from heaven
‘Let’s have a miracle to authenticate who you are’ was the sentiment. In fact, there had just been one: after seeing a dramatic deliverance of someone, there is no room for neutrality about Jesus. On another occasion, Jesus said that that generation asking for a sign was not going to get one. There are rare occasions like that when a test question cannot be responded to positively in the way that it is framed.

The greatest commandment in the Law
The Pharisees of those times had much finicky debate about what were the most important commandments, so it not unusual that an observant lawyer asked Jesus a test question on the topic. Jesus referred to His ministry of deliverance and a universal law, and He applied some irrefutable logic. His answer provided foundational teaching for understanding the Scriptures. However, the two main commandments He referred to are attitudes (impossible to fulfil completely) rather than actions. After giving His reply, Jesus came straight back with His own question, about the Messiah. They didn’t dare ask Him any more questions after that.

Some general principles
This leaves us with some useful principles:
  • • Jesus knew well the Scriptures and the power of God and, to an increasing extent, so can we.
  • • Just as many British people are apt at finding some humour in almost any situation, Jesus was well practised in spotting and using similes and stories. He constructed and developed set-piece stories, known as Parables. Some of these were unnerving for His critics, because it was evident enough that some of those stories were told against them. The Parables still work. We can build up, with practice, our own collection of stories too.
  • • Everyday objects or phenomena, like a banknote, a map or clouds can be used to make a point or tell a story.
  • • Jesus did not always ‘supply the goods’ that He was asked to give, nor did He always reply immediately. However, He never simply said the bland equivalent of ‘no comment’.
  • • Every Christian has the Holy Spirit available and ready to help.
  • • An interest in universal principles (e.g. you reap what you sow) and the finer rigours of logic have their place.
  • • Giving a decent reply can in some instances lay open the time and opportunity to ask a powerful question back.
  • • Wisdom in all kinds of areas can be nurtured.

Nigel Paterson