Seeing to the Heart
Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Albert Robertson preaches on the strange coalition of Christ’s enemies.
We are so used to Jesus being opposed that we don’t take stock at the beginning of this Gospel to see how curious the alliance between the Pharisees and the Herodians really is. The Pharisees, with a strict understanding of the Law and its wisdom, would see any kind of involvement between the Jewish people and outsiders as, in some sense, sacrilegious. Pharisees would oppose paying tax to Caesar on this religious basis. The Herodians are supporters of the dynasty of Herod the Great and owe allegiance to his three living sons who had portioned up Judea for themselves under the sovereignty of the Empire. They would have no qualms, religious or otherwise, in paying the tax.
We stand in the middle of Matthew’s extended account of the teachings which Jesus gives between Palm Sunday, and the events of his Passion later in Holy Week. That Jesus is so greatly opposed, and opposed by strange alliances of people, only serves to underline the coming rejection in his Passion.
What is truly chilling, though, is the way in which those of the Herodian and Pharisee party address Jesus. Teacher, we know that you are true, and truthfully teach the way of God. This is, of course, true. But they are saying something of Jesus that is true, but for wicked motives. It is deeply insincere, and only said because they wish to entrap him. At heart this is a corruption of the Gospel, an anti-Gospel, where the truth is spoken, but only to bring about destruction, to become a trap. The same could be said for the very opening of the Gospel Reading. The Greek tells us that the Pharisees took counsel together. Taking counsel — our ability to come together for reflection — central to the life of any community, is in this situation perverted into a plot. The common pursuit of the truth, and true statements uttered for false motive, become weapons to kill Him who is Truth itself.
All of this is the more extraordinary because they try to entrap one who sees to the very heart of the human person. God does not see as we see; we look to appearances, God looks to the heart (cf 1 Samuel, 16:17). But in doing so, they condemn themselves. They say to Jesus in verse 16, ‘you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you.’ The RSV has it as ‘[you] care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men,’ but the Greek text means something more like you do not look on the face of men. Now they utter a truth which has finally ensnared them. They confess that the one they address does not look at their faces, but on their hearts. They are being prophetic in spite of themselves — much like Caiaphas in John’s Gospel when he tells the Sanhedrin that it is better that one man die for the people (John 11:50).
Jesus is aware of their malice: he does not look upon the face of things, but probes to the heart. And the word which he uses to describe malice here is related to the one used in the Lord’s Prayer to describe the Evil One. Our English translation focuses less on the person of the Evil One, and more on evil as a general category, but in this encounter with the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, he is battling against the forces of darkness which are gathering around Him as he faces his Passion. These antagonists are like the wicked man described in Psalm 7: here is one who is pregnant with malice, conceives evil, and brings forth lies. Like that man in Psalm 7, these antagonists dig a pitfall for the Lord, they dig it deep, but it is on their own heads that their violence falls.
In the face of this appalling attempt to use the truth against the Truth, we can see maybe a little more how this Gospel Reading has more interesting things to say than offering evidence or weight of argument to a dispute about the relationship between the Church and the state. The Lord is resolutely set on his mission to restore our tarnished image, even an image which lies at the bottom of a pit of malice, and bringing it newly minted to the Father. This is why he does not have regard for the face of men, but rather sees who they really are, and for all of us, as with these schemers and plotters, what we might become through His grace.
Image: the head of Tiberius on a Roman coin (public domain)