Posted on: Mar 1, 2022
Bill Clinton may have wished he’d deployed what’s called the “gotcha defense” in 1992, when a reporter asked him if he’d ever violated international law. His response became infamous: “When I was in England,” he said, “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and I didn’t try it again.”
The “gotcha defense” is a tactic politicians use to avoid answering a reporter’s question about some kind of content that they may not know anything about, or that they simply want to avoid. They respond by talking about something else, which is commonly something they may not have thought through before speaking (like Bill Clinton’s infamous words).
Jesus handled gotcha questions very well — so well, in fact, that his prowess helped boost his reputation.
The gospel writers portray Pharisees, Sadducees, political supporters of King Herold, and generic spies sent by the chief priests and scribes as the primary sources of gotcha questions aimed at Jesus.
This odd collection of bedfellows all wanted to trap Jesus and put an end to his growing popularity — a popularity that was dangerous to their power and privileges under the Romans. They wrapped their status in a blanket of self-righteousness — posing as faithful interpreters of the law that governed Judaism.
One of the better known “gotcha” episodes is in Matthew 22. The question posed to Jesus aims to paint him into a corner.
“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Resentment of Roman taxation had sparked pockets of revolt throughout Judea and Galilee for years. Taxation by and for a foreign power was a heated topic—one that could easily cause the crowds who resented the tax to turn against Jesus, on the one hand, or cause the Roman officials to take note of his revolutionary ideas on the other.
Some interpretations of this episode contrast the sacred and the secular, using Jesus’ explanation of the Roman coin with Caesar’s image on it. Others focus on Jesus’ ingenuity as he didn’t fall for the “gotcha” question posed by his detractors.
We don’t usually hear about Jesus’ critics, apart from their unsavory intent. Yet in this season of Lent, when we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Easter resurrection, those enemies merit our attention for a simple reason: we are more like them than we are like anyone else in the story.
It’s not that we’re out to get rid of Jesus as they are. How often, though, do we relate to others in a similarly self-righteousness way?
Jesus’ adversaries present themselves as sanctimonious religious authorities who know the Law. They want to trap Jesus with their “gotcha” question that sounds legitimate but is really about their positions of power and perks.
Psychologists tell us that “with current media and political discourse rife with anger and resentment, it’s sometimes hard to tell how much of the rancor is due to polarization over deeper values and how much is a product of offended egos. . . .”
“Functionally speaking, ego is how we prefer to regard ourselves and how we want others to regard us. Though values are more central to the sense of self, ego disputes are usually more intense than value disagreements. . . .
“No longer about mere loss of status, ego-threats can seem wrought with danger. (Perceived threats to survival override dedication to values.) The adrenaline of anger creates a temporary rise in energy and confidence . . . [and] comes off as self-righteousness.”¹
That describes well a lot of what’s happening in families and communities across our country today. Pride and arrogance have generated a self-righteousness that destroys people’s ability to love their neighbor as they love themselves, let alone God.
When we trust God, we are less likely to focus on ourselves. We concentrate instead on God’s purpose for us as we move into the future. Lent is a time of preparing for the new possibilities that we celebrate during the Easter season.
When God’s purpose governs our lives, we don’t get stuck on egocentric matters. It’s not that we don’t take care of ourselves. We do, but as part of preparing ourselves to help make God’s compassion and justice real for all God’s children. Lent is a good time to discover how we can fulfill God’s purpose in our individual lives.
¹Steven Stosny. Downloaded from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anger-in-the-age-entitlement/202008/is-it-about-ego-or-values