Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
The weather is finally starting to cool down, and one of the positive side effects means that we are entering chili season. There is something about a little coolness in the air that makes chili sound like the perfect dinner. I have a question, that I bet every single one of you has an opinion on: In chili, pasta or no pasta? Chances are a few of you probably get unreasonably fired up over that debate. Chili is an interesting phenomenon because there are all kinds of variables that can be included or modified. It seems no one makes chili quite the same way as anyone else. Since everyone makes it the way the way they prefer, most people tend to think there chili is the best. Seriously it is odd, no one takes pride in how they make pancakes, but anyone who cooks even a little takes a lot of pride in how they make chili and they always consider their chili to be among the best. This is one of those oddities, because statistically speaking not everyone’s chili be the best. It is kind of like how the majority of drivers believe they are among the best drivers. Another similar oddity that I have observed, is that the vast majority of people tend to think they are good at arguing and debating. Again, this statically cannot be true. It is impossible for the majority of us to be in the top half of something. I think one of the reasons why we think we are so good at arguing is because we have a lot of experience. I’ve parented through the terrible twos twice now, so I can confirm that we start being argumentative at a very early age. The other reason why many people think we are good at arguing is that our brains are wired in a way to help convince us of this. There is a psychological phenomenon called the backfire effect. When someone is confronted with information that goes against what they already believe, then most people are actually less likely to change their minds and they are more likely to double down and dig into their beliefs even more. One of the reasons why this happens is that being proven wrong activates the same part of the brain as actual physical pain and so we instinctively try to prevent ourselves from experiencing that. This is why when pundits “debate” on cable news shows they always end up yelling over each other and their supporters walk away thinking the person on their side won. It is why the comment sections on any webpage become toxic as people become more and more petty and more and more pedantic as they endlessly go back and forth. Arguing our beliefs is a trap, because often the person engaging us is not wanting a discussion they want to prove they are right and we are wrong. We are being goaded into a fight, that even if we win, we did not really win. In this morning’s scripture, the opponents of Jesus try to set a trap and pull him into a debate and we can learn a lot from the example that Jesus gives us.
This morning’s scripture takes place during Holy Week, the week that led up to the crucifixion and resurrection. At this point Jesus was well known in Judea and the Pharisees had long decided that Jesus was a threat to them and their beliefs. The Pharisees were desperate for anyway to discredit Jesus, and that led them to the genius plan they tried to execute in this morning’s scripture. To fully understand this scripture requires some cultural and historical context. The Jews were under Roman rule, and the Jewish monotheistic faith was not a good mesh with the Greco-Roman polytheism. In addition to this the Jews had a strong national identity. They identified themselves more as Jews and less as subjects of the Roman Empire. This put the Jewish people and the Roman rulers at a tentative and uneasy peace. While the majority of the Jews merely tolerated Roman rule, a minority embraced it. The Romans had propped up King Herod as a local ruler. The Herodians mentioned in this scripture were those Jews who supporter King Herod and by extension Rome. The Herodians were the closest to loyal Romans that could be found in Judea. Typically the Pharisees and the Herodians would have been two factions not on speaking terms, but in this instance the Pharisees get their help to debate Jesus.
It is, of course, all a trap. The Pharisees are hoping to trap Jesus in an argument that he cannot win. Here is how the Pharisees were hoping that thing would play out. They asked Jesus is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? If Jesus answered yes, then they would argue that Jesus was a sellout, that he was not fit to lead true Jews because he bowed down to Caesar and not God. However, if Jesus answered no, then the Herodians could argue that Jesus was rebellious, teaching sedition, and laying the ground work for insurrection. Jesus was asked a yes or no question and either answer would put him on the losing side of an argument. Jesus’ response is brilliant. He completely chooses not to engage the debate. He does not pick sides but acknowledges the reality of the situation. Caesar is an earthly authority but he (and all Jews) answer to a higher authority. Jesus recognizes that this is a trap, and he refuses to engage in the argument. As followers of Jesus, that is an example that we should follow.
Even though we should follow it, we do not always do a good job at it. You see one of the reasons why I feel confident that a lot of people believe they are good at arguing is because quite honestly I am one of those people. Given that, it only made sense to me when I became a Christian to learn how to argue my faith. If you go to a Christian bookstore today, you will find an entire section labeled apologetics. Apologetics is all about how to argue our faith. It is common to find apologetics books that contain theoretical objections to Christianity and then pages of how to respond to said objective. I read quite a few of these books early on. However, I then began to get a glimpse that arguing with his opponents was not the example that Jesus set.
One of the life lessons that really drove this home happened my senior year of college. Hanging out in my apartment one evening, I got involved in a very big debate with someone. We were both believers, and the debate was over (in the grand scheme of things) a minor theological point. However, I was convinced that he was wrong and I was unfortunately further convinced that I needed to convince him that he was wrong. Which I attempted to do. I suppose if there was some way to keep score, I won that debate. I could counter all of his points and offer up my own. However, when it over and left at a reluctant agree to disagree, I did not feel like I won much of anything. As he left, one of my roommates somewhat sarcastically asked, “Was it a good discussion?” One of my other roommates, who had sat around and listened to a lot of that debate displayed great wisdom and said something that deeply impacted me. He said something along the lines of “It was not much of a discussion. There was a lot of talking but no listening.”
That is a perfect definition of arguing: a lot of talking, no listening. Having a desire to be able to argue my faith was really foolish of me, and honestly prideful. When people argue they do with the intent to have their position win. Do we really think we argue someone into submission so well that they instantly change their beliefs because we won that soundly? The number of people who have been saved because they lost an argument has to be close to zero.
We do live in a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent and sometimes openly hostile to our faith. There are absolutely people who are itching to argue why our beliefs are wrong. It can be so tempting to engage in that fight, but it’s a trap. In this morning’s scripture Jesus was invited to an argument and he did not take it. We could cynically assume it was because Jesus just did not have the gall to fight. I do not think that is it. Throughout the gospels, Jesus has little trouble speaking the truth in tough love. There are instances where Jesus does engage the Pharisees in debate, but not this time. The reason why Jesus did not engage in this argument is because the Pharisees and the Herodians had come specifically to argue. They were ready to do a lot of talking and not any listening. Jesus avoided this fight because there was not going to be anything fruitful to come out of it. We live in a time and a culture that is quick to argue. The ability to communicate instantly through social media means that we are even more likely to talk our mind and less likely to listen. This is a spot where following Jesus will be a little counter cultural. Instead of being quick to argue, let’s be quick to listen.
The example that Jesus set in this morning’s scripture was to avoid the trap of arguing. If we look elsewhere in the gospels we see the example Jesus gives us as an alternative. He ate in the house of known sinners and tax collectors, he engaged the woman at the well when no one else would, he healed lepers that others avoided, he let the little children come to him, and as Matthew 9:36 states when Jesus “saw the crowds he had compassion on them.” The reality is that changing a person’s mind is a hard thing to do. This is especially true when it comes deeply held beliefs that help form our identity such as faith affiliation. Yet throughout the gospels we see that Jesus consistently is changing lives. When people truly interact with Jesus their lives are transformed. In more than one instance in the gospels, someone’s life does a complete 180. In all of these circumstances, Jesus never once argued someone to submission. The trick to changing hearts is not an iron clad argument, it is compassion. That is the example of Jesus that we should follow.
Again, I am not denying that we live in a culture that can be hostile to Christianity. I am also not denying that we live in a broken world that desperately needs Jesus. However, we are not going to argue the world into knowing Jesus. We need to follow the example of Jesus and love the lost, not fight them. We need to be quick to listen and slow to talk. You have probably heard the proverb before, but it is especially true about sharing our faith convictions: No one cares what you have to say until they know you care. I am thoroughly convinced and personally convicted that one of things this world needs are more Christians who care and less Christians who think they are good at arguing.
In this day and age of 24 hour news cycles, endless talking pundits, and unfiltered opinions you will be goaded into arguing and debating your faith. May you follow the example of Jesus and realize it is a trap. Like Jesus did in this morning’s scripture may you not engage in an argument that you truly cannot win. Instead, may you follow the example that Jesus sets in the rest of the gospels and may you have compassion and love for others. May you be quick to listen and slow to speak. This world needs Jesus, and it is not going to be our words that change them. It is going to be the love of God that changes hearts and transforms this world, so may that love be experienced through us.