The False Dilemma
You’ve heard me say it before and will no doubt hear me say it again but context is always an important factor to consider as we listen to a text. Now to understand just how bizarre the situation is in today’s Gospel, we need to look at the societal context of Jerusalem. In our lesson we heard that some disciples of the Pharisees and some Herodians came to Jesus. Since most of us have never met any Herodians or Pharisees, we probably don’t realize how strange that is.
One of the many things that you can say about the Pharisees is that they were extremely nationalistic. They believed that Jerusalem should be ruled by Jews, not by gentiles. After all, the law of Moses states, [Deuteronomy 17:15] One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.
So, the Pharisees hated the Roman occupation. Now they were also realistic enough to understand that Rome had a lot of power and they weren’t in a position to force them out. On the other hand, if someone presented a reasonable plan to get Rome out of Israel, they would certainly help in any way they could.
The Herodians were just the opposite. As you might guess by their name, they supported Herod. Herod was a puppet king of the Roman Empire. The Romans had put his father in power and they kept him in power after his father died. The Herod family was not Jewish. So, if you were a Herodian, you were a fan of Herod, and, since Herod was a puppet of Rome, you were by association a fan of the Roman occupation.
Normally, the Pharisees and the Herodians were at each other’s throats … if not literally, certainly figuratively. The fact that these two groups worked together to attack Jesus tells you something about how much Jesus was hated. But they had a plan.
The idea was to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. They asked Jesus a question that was designed to get Him into trouble: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? If he answered yes, then all those who hated the Roman occupation would turn against Him. If He answered no, then the Herodians would report Him to the Romans to be arrested. If He didn’t answer, then the crowd would label Him as a coward. The Herodians and the Pharisees thought they had Jesus trapped.
Of course, it is not so easy to trap Jesus in His words. Jesus saw the error in their thinking; that is, they were focused on Herod instead of God. So there is a third answer given as Jesus says: Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
The Gospels record many plans to trap Jesus by His enemies and we’re no doubt tempted to believe that Jesus won all these debates because well He was such an excellent debater. We’re tempted to believe that it was His superior skill and divine knowledge that won all these debates.
And while Jesus was the perfect human being and had flawless thought, that was not His main advantage. His main advantage was that He knew the truth and He never wavered from it. Making your case based on truth gives anyone a tremendous advantage over those who depend on lies.
You see the opponents of Jesus in today’s Gospel engaged in a logical fallacy known as a false dilemma. The fallacy is that it falsely offers only two possible alternatives even though a wide range of possibilities exist. His opponents offered two possibilities: either you pay your taxes or you don’t. Jesus simply exposed their faulty reasoning by showing that there actually were other answers.
That is we can pay our taxes, give our offerings, and care for our families. God is gracious enough to give us the resources to do all three and maybe even have a little left over for recreation.
But make no mistake there are still many who face false dilemmas to this day. One that involves our very salvation is the dilemma between self-righteousness and despair. It goes something like this. And please remember this is a fallacy.
We read the Bible; that God gives us a lot to do. So do you do what God says, that is are on the road to heaven, or are you not doing what God says and on the road to hell? This false dilemma is all that many unbelievers have every heard about Christianity. They’ve never been taught there is another way. All they’ve heard is good guys go to heaven and bad guys go to hell. So, are you good enough or not?
This is the false dilemma of the law. I can deny the truth of my sin and insist that I am one of the good guys that go to heaven … but this is self-righteousness and directly contradicts God’s word found for example in John’s first epistle: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Or: If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us. Or again Jesus saying to the rich you fool when he calls out good teacher, why do you call me good, there is ono one good but God.
To even think: I hope I’m good enough to go to heaven is a thought born of pride and is nothing but sin. Continuing on that path is lying to yourself and calling God a liar.
The other option according to this false dilemma is total honesty about your sin and believing there is simply no hope for you so what’s the point. This is despair. Here too, there is a strange sort of pride … the belief that my sin is more powerful than Christ blood shed on the cross … for me. That my sin is so great that there is nothing even God can do about it. In the case of Judas, his despair was so great that he took justice into his own hands and hung himself.
What peace there is when first we learn that the two choices offered by the law are a false dilemma. Just as Jesus provided a third answer to the Pharisees and Herodians, He provides a third answer for all to the false dilemma of the law.
In Divine Service 1 immediately after we are directed to our baptism into Christ with the invocation and the sign of the cross, we are reminded of our sin and God’s promise from 1 John as we recite: But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. You see God gave us a third answer to our dilemma when He sent Son to be our Savior.
Jesus is the one who makes a third answer possible because Jesus actually did what God gave Him to do. He kept God’s law perfectly. Then He went to the cross to take the punishment we deserve for failing to keep God’s law perfectly. He by His life and death provided the only way that avoids both self-righteousness and despair.
And He did that by earning forgiveness for all and freely offering that blood bought forgiveness to all through His Word and Sacraments. You see in Jesus Christ there is another way, that is Jesus is the way, the way of forgiveness and mercy, the way of peace and hope, the way of truth the way that by God’s grace you and I and all God’s children rare brought to life everlasting.
In His Name, Amen