BEFORE THE CROSS | Jesus’ approach to false dichotomies guides us

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

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Have you ever wished you could take an entire week to go through one chapter of the Bible — savoring the nuances, thinking about how it might apply to your life? If so, this is your week. The Gospel readings this week cover all of chapter 12 of the Gospel of Mark.

All week, Jesus is in confrontation with the powers that be. His approach to those confrontations is instructive for us.

The Pharisees ask Him a trick question: "Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" They figure they have trapped Him either way. If He answers, "No," then He's guilty of rebellion against civil authority. If He says, "Yes," He's guilty of material cooperation with state-sponsored idolatry.

Jesus doesn't take the bait. He moves to a higher ground: "Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God." They hadn't thought of this distinction. It answers the underlying question of how the faithful should relate to the state.

A similar approach should help us when people ask our position on immigration. All too often the questions are raised in terms of false dichotomies: "Do you support amnesty or deportation? Should the Church respect the law or disregard the law?" We get tripped up when we answer in those terms — we end up denying a fundamental principle of faith or law that we need to uphold. But, like Jesus, we need to move to a higher ground. We need to provide answers that don't feed the false dichotomies.

The Sadducees also ask Him a trick question: "A woman had been married to seven men in succession. All of them died. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?" The Sadducees don't believe in the resurrection. They think they will show Jesus that belief in the resurrection is wrong because it leads to silly consequences.

Instead of accepting the terms of the engagement, Jesus challenges them with a deeper framework: "Are you not misled because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?" He shows the Sadducees that they've misunderstood the nature of the resurrection (the power of God). Then He points out that they haven't taken their own starting point — the Scriptures — seriously enough.

A similar response should help us when people ask about our approach to the LGBT community. People ask: "Do you support diversity or not? Do you accept people as they are, or condemn them?" Like Jesus, we need to provide a deeper framework. If we know the Scriptures and the power of God, we can simultaneously accept diversity that's rooted in the Body of Christ, and reject diversity that removes us from the Body of Christ; we can celebrate the gifts of every child of God while, at the same time, recognizing that all the children of God are fallen.

Likewise, a Scribe asks Him a trick question: "Which is the first of all the Commandments?" Since Jewish scholars recognized 613 laws in the Old Testament, this was a way of asking: "What are you willing to set aside?"

Jesus didn't set aside anything. He answered with a deep synthesis of love of God and neighbor. Then, as the Gospel notes, "No one dared to ask Him any more questions."

Nothing short of that deep synthesis of love of God and neighbor will stem the tide of trick questions in our day, either. Until we show the world that deep synthesis in our lives, we should expect the false dichotomies to keep coming. And as long as they do, we should follow the example of Jesus: don't take the bait, and move to higher ground. 

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