I remember very clearly the first time I ever encountered a trick question. It was in the seventh grade. My history teacher was Mr. Byrd. I couldn’t stand him, really. He was an ultra-conservative and often let us know his political opinions. I was, of course, a radical liberal (it being the 60s, but then I’m still pretty radical when you come to think of it). But being a thirteen-year-old, I couldn’t say anything because he was my teacher. So I had to sit there and listen to his right-wing claptrap and keep my mount shut. It was good training for the day I would have stupid bosses.
Anyway, Mr. Byrd gave us a test about the American Revolution and right there on the test, the very last question on the test, for extra-credit, was the following question: Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? Well, the first thought I had was what the hell does this have to do with the American Revolution? Then I wrote the obvious answer, Grant. Which is, as far as I know, true. At least I got the twenty-five points. Mr. Byrd, however, was amazed at the number of people who gave other answers: Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, etc. Actually, the truth is that Grant’s wife is buried there too. But I didn’t know that at the time.
The definition of a trick question is a question to which the asker thereof already knows the answer. Moreover, it is the purpose of the asker to get you, the askee, to answer incorrectly. This is sometimes just to make you look stupid. For example, when people tell you that an airplane has crashed on the border between the United States and México and then asked where the survivors would be buried, and when the person being asked answers either one, the asker then says, “No, dummy. You don’t bury survivors!”
Other times, people, or lawyers, ask such questions in order to trick you into a specific answer. For example, a lawyer might ask a prospective juror if that juror would convict someone on the evidence of only one witness. Many people will say that they would require more than one witness, or corroborating evidence, thinking that the lawyer would prefer someone who would accept the testimony of one witness, hence getting out of jury duty. In fact, lawyers prefer someone who wants the testimony of more than one witness, so the person gets accepted. And of course, there is the famous “is this not true” questions. Is it not true that you beat your wife? When you say “no”, do you mean “no, it’s not true,” or “no, it IS true?” The answer could be accepted to mean either one.
Generally, we love to ask these questions, but hate to be asked them. After all, nobody likes to look like an idiot. Moreover, we have a general distrust of these questions because we know that they can be used to make you say things you never meant to say. That’s why guys hate it when our wives and girlfriends (hopefully not at the same time) ask us if a particular outfit makes them look fat. There is no good way out of that question. And that is why questions like this seem to always show up during political campaigns.
And since Jesus was such a controversial sort of guy, a guy who pissed off the temple elders and leaders of his time, it stands to reason that they would go after him with plenty of trick questions in order to trip him up. If Jesus answered any of their questions the wrong way, they could hold up his answer to either the crowds and he would be discredited. If he answered really badly, they could even arrest him for blasphemy.
The most famous trick question of the Pharisees, who were lawyers (big surprise), comes in Matthew, Chapter 22. I am sure you have all heard of it. It shows up in just about every Jesus movie ever made.
“Then the Pharisees went off and planned out how they might trip Jesus up in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians (temple officials), saying, "Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
Now this really puts Jesus in a spot. Notice that they don’t ask if you should pay taxes to Caesar. There really is no choice about that. They ask if it is lawful. If Jesus says “no”, then he is in trouble with the Romans. All the officials have to do then is to tell the Romans that Jesus says people shouldn’t pay taxes and he’s toast. On the other hand, if he says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the Romans, he would be telling an untruth. It WAS unlawful to pay taxes to the Romans. So, as a perceived holy guy, he couldn’t very well say that what was unlawful was lawful. The people would hate him also. So there wasn’t an obvious answer out of that question, until Jesus spoke.
“Knowing their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they handed him the Roman coin.”
Now the fact that one of them could hand him a Roman coin proved that they were hypocrites. This is because, as Pharisees, knowing it was against Jewish law to use Roman coins, the fact that one of them HAD a Roman coin showed that they themselves were breaking the Jewish law. Their intent was to ridicule him had he said that taxes should be paid to the Romans. And yet they had the required coins in their own purses.
“He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?
“They replied, "Caesar's."
“At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’"
Even the most unreligious among us can appreciate the way Jesus maneuvered around that question. He totally put them in their places. It would be easy to take that answer and admire it for its cleverness and miss the real point that Jesus is making. Yes, give Caesar his taxes. But give to God what belongs to God. What, exactly, belongs to God? How do you repay God?
Well, what is it that God gives us? You usually repay what you have received. God gives us love. That’s what God gives us. God gives us love, and takes care of us. S/He provides that daily bread stuff, and forgives us, and crap like that. That’s what God gives us. So that’s what we should give to God. We should give God love and bread, and forgiveness. But how do we do that?
Jesus says whatever we do the least of us, we do to him. Jesus teaches us that God is present in each one of us. Saint Paul tells the early church that we are all part of the body of Christ. We are equally part of God. So we give to God when we give to each other. We repay God by loving, comforting, forgiving, feeding, clothing each other. We are the hands of God on earth. So while we give the government its due, we also must give to one another. In doing so, we repay God.
The Pharisees did give to Caesar what was Caesar’s. They were not so good at repaying God. Yes, they performed all the rituals and followed all the rules. But that isn’t what God cares about. God doesn’t want ritual. God doesn’t care about our rules. God wants us to take care of one another. God is love, after all. So each one of us, being created in the image of God and God being created in the image of us, is love, needs to love. Our very nature is to love.
Jesus said there were two commandments: to love God, and to love one another. And by loving one another, we show love to God. Jesus said that he had come to fulfill the law. And it was lawful to pay taxes. Not paying taxes is unlawful. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Just so, it is lawful to give God what belongs to God, and that is love. Anything else in unlawful. You can laugh at the hippies if you want to, but the love generation was right.
The image of Caesar was on that coin. That’s how they knew it belonged to Caesar. Well, the image of God is upon you, upon your face, upon your spirit. That is how you can tell you belong to God. So render unto God the things that are God’s, including Caesar, who was also a part of God. And you too, belong to God. So do I. So does that homeless guy in front of the 7-11. So give yourself to God, whatever you want to call that force, the Tao, the Atman, the Great Spirit, Prajna, the Force, whatever. Give yourselves to one another. Give yourself to love. Love really is all you need.