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Jesus and the “Gotcha” Question

Thomas J Parlette

“Jesus and the ‘Gotcha” question

Matt. 22: 15-22



Last November, BuzzFeed, an entertainment and social news WEbsite, reported that Chip and Joanna Gaines, the popular couple who are the stars of the HGTV series Fixer Upper, attend a church that does not support same-sex marriage and views homosexuality as a sin.

Whatever their church teaches, the Gaineses have never commented on air about LGBT people, same-sex marriage or their religion, and many of the reader responses to the BuzzFeed article took issue with the media company’s motives in reporting the story, some describing it as a “witch hunt.” One respondent wrote, “You are inciting a wave of negative attention on this couple for something that indirectly links to them. That’s not journalism.”

Others accused BuzzFeed of baiting the T.V. hosts into some sort of awkward response – a “gotcha” question without ever actually asking the question.

The Gaineses didn’t immediately respond. But on January 2nd, they released some comments by Chip, titled “Chip’s New Year’s Revelation.” In it, he said that he and Joanna don’t always see eye to eye, but added, “If Joanna and I, who are best friends, don’t see lots of things the same way – how on earth do we expect a world of strangers to magically align? The reality is, we may not all get on the same page and I think that’s okay.”

Then, alluding to the Presidential race of last year, Chip said, “In my lifetime, I can’t recall humanity more divided. Plenty of folks are sad and scared and angry and there are sound bites being fed to us that seem fueled by judgment, fear and even hatred. Jo and I refuse to be baited into using our influence in a way that will further harm an already hurting world.”

He continued, “If there is any hope for all of us to move forward, to heal and to grow – we have got to learn to engage people who are different from us with dignity and with love. We care about you for the simple fact that you are a person, our neighbor on planet Earth. It’s not about what color your skin is, how much money you have in the bank, your political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender, nationality or faith. That’s all fascinating, but we are not about to get in the nasty business of throwing stones at each other.”

Chip then suggested changing the conversation: “You wanna talk about how to build bridges between people that disagree? We want to be a part of THAT conversation.”(1)

All in all, a pretty good response to a tough situation. He managed to step around a “gotcha” question pretty well and refocus the conversation.

Sometimes it’s a good strategy to identify a gotcha question for what it is, and simply not answer it.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker perfected that technique when he responded to a question in February 2015 about whether or not he considered President Barack Obama to be a Christian. Once he identified it as a gotcha question, he just didn’t answer it at all, and moved on to another question.(2)

The problem is, not everyone agrees what exactly a “gotcha question” is. Journalist Carol Costello has written, “sometimes it’s obvious, but often it’s not so cut and dried. If you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 different answers – so I put it to the test on my Facebook page. I asked, “What, in your mind, constitutes a gotcha question?”

My friend Nancy wrote: “A gotcha questions seems to be a question that the person being questioned either does not want to answer or doesn’t know the answer.”

Robin wrote: “I believe a gotcha question is going to get you in trouble with people no matter what you say or how you answer it.”

And Carl wrote: “A gotcha question is one which is asked with a preconceived motive, for the purpose of inciting a predictable response.”(3)

Now for us who follow Jesus, it’s worth noting that Jesus was a master at handling the gotcha question. The gospel story for today is a prime example. It’s the account of the Pharisees and the Herodians trying to trip up Jesus with a question about paying taxes.

Normally, these two groups would have been on opposite sides of any issue. The Pharisees were the Jews who wanted to follow the letter of the Jewish law. They resented any rule from Rome, but were especially upset about having to pay a Temple tax using a Roman coin that had an image of the Emperor and an inscription referring to him as “divine” – thus forcing them to break the 1st and 2nd commandment.

The Herodians, also Jews, supported Herod, the appointed Roman ruler and technically, King of the Jews. The Herodians had no wish to run afoul of the Roman Empire, so they just wanted to pay the tax and get along with life.

This is an argument not against the Jews – but within Judaism. Jesus, the Pharisees and the Herodians, are all Jewish. They are arguing about the civic and religious responsibilities – their duty to the state and their responsibility to God. The Pharisees and the Herodians were not known for working together. But on this occasion, with this young, out-of-town rabbi, Jesus causing commotion at the Temple, stirring everybody up – they decided to team up against him.

These Jewish leaders from opposing sides thought they had the ideal “gotcha” question when they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?” Had Jesus given a straight yes or no answer to that question, the consequences for him would have been dire – he was going to get in trouble either way. If he answers “No” – the Romans could lock him up for sedition. If he answers “Yes” – he loses credibility with his base: the disaffected Jewish people chafing under the Roman occupation.

Fortunately, Jesus is aware of their little game. He chooses a middle course. Once again, he turns the tables on his opponents. He refocuses the conversation with a gotcha question of his own.

He asks to see a coin – “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

“The Emperor’s”

“Then give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperors, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Jesus’ response – asking whose image was on the coin used to pay the tax – is a classic example of the risk a trial lawyer takes when asking a question to which they don’t already know the answer. When this happens, it enables the respondent – in this case Jesus – to use the expected answer to make a point.

And Jesus does just that. When his opponents say that the image on the coin is of the Emperor, Jesus fires back, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

And so Jesus avoids the gotcha question – and changes the conversation. The important thing in Jesus’ mind is that ultimately, all things belong to God. God made human beings in God’s own image – so ultimately we should give our loyalty and worship to God, rather than to the government officials. It is fair to expect to pay taxes for the services that government provides – give to Caesar what rightfully and legally belongs to Caesar, obey the law, pay your taxes, be a good citizen. But give to God the things that belong to God – worship, praise and ultimate loyalty. Our identity lies in God – not in the state.

This idea goes all the way back to the earliest Christian thought. In the third century, the early church theologian Tertullian wrote, “render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin – and to God God’s image, which is on man.”(4)

In more recent times, Henry David Thoreau wrote about this passage in his book Civil Disobedience – “Christ answered the Herodians according to their condition. “Show me the tribute money,” and one took a penny out of his pocket. “If you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar’s government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it; “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God those things that are God’s”- leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.”(5)

Gandhi, known for his non-violent, civil disobedience, also commented on this passage. He wrote, “Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, “How can you who traffic in Caesar’s coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar’s rule, refuse to pay taxes?”(6)

Jesus sidesteps the whole debate about civil disobedience in not paying taxes as a protest against the Roman empire – and instead, changes the conversation about where our ultimate loyalty and identity lie. For Jesus, our ultimate identity is found in the image of God who created us, the image that God imprinted on each one of us. When we honor, respect and love all of God children – then we love, honor and respect God. That is the essence of the law and the prophets.

Martin Luther King Jr. was write when he wrote that “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”(7)

We deal with gotcha questions all the time as we try to figure out in our own time and place what is proper to give to the emperor, and what is proper to give to God. May this passage continue to trouble us that we may serve as “the conscience of the state” in our own time.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.5, p58-59

2.    Ibid… p61.

3.    Ibid… p61.

4.    Susan Grove Eastman, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, p193.

5.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No. 5, p61, 63.

6.    Ibid…p63.

7.    Ibid…p63.