Personal identity and social influence (Matthew 22:15-18)

Are you your own person, or what people want you to be? How did Jesus navigate this struggle?

How do you balance remaining true to yourself with pleasing and influencing others? Few questions are more relevant today. It’s not a big issue in the Bible, but there was this time when Jesus overtly faced this struggle.

Matthew 22:15-18 (my translation, compare NIV)
15 Then the Pharisees put their heads together to trap him with his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians to say, “Teacher, we know you’re authentic, and you teach God’s way with authenticity. You don’t care what anyone thinks or look for people’s approval. 17 So, tell us what you think: should we pay tribute to Caesar or not?”
18 Aware of their evil intent, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you play actors?”

Just wow! Reading this, I feel like I could learn more from Jesus than from years of psychological research. Sure, Matthew has summarized a longer conversation, but how did Jesus gain such anthropological insight?

Who were the participants in this drama?

The Pharisees were the self-appointed moral police. They expected the kingdom of God to be restored when the people had abandoned their sins and repented sufficiently (Deuteronomy 30:1-10). That’s why they publicly shamed “sinners.” Their goal was getting people to conform, and their method was social pressure.

Jesus annoyed the life out of them because he wouldn’t conform. Instead of purifying the community by excluding sinners, Jesus went out of his way to include the ostracised people, sharing their meals. He was undermining everything the Pharisees were trying to do, but their attempts to get Jesus to comply failed because he didn’t care about their approval. In their words, he seemed only interested in being true to himself (personal authenticity). He didn’t need social approval from the influencers.

The Herodians were a completely different group, supporters of the Herodian dynasty. King Herod had received the title King of the Jews from the Roman Senate (see on Matthew 2:2), and he was willing to kill members of his own family to keep that title. His son Archelaus (2:22) was so militant that the people had him deposed. Palestine was then divided into four regions, with King Herod’s son Antipas controlling Galilee. This was the guy who put John the Baptist to death rather than lose face with his dinner guests (Matthew 14:9).

Politics is all about popularity. That’s inevitable: ultimately, it’s the people who give you power. The Herodians were a small but vocal group devoted to enhancing and maintaining the public image of Herod’s family. An influential prophet like Jesus was as unwelcome as John the Baptist (Luke 9:7-9; 13:31). The way he talked about the kingdom of God and enacted heaven’s authority on earth meant they viewed him as a threat to their power.

Why were they colluding against Jesus?

These two groups in collusion was the weirdest alliance: Herodians who want the powers to remain unchanged, in bed with the Pharisees who want a society based on Torah law. What did they have in common? a) Both groups existed as influencers (though for totally different goals). b) Both groups viewed Jesus as a threat to their agenda. Together, they’ve been colluding to terminate Jesus’ influence since the beginning (Mark 3:6).

So, when Matthew tells us they laid plans to trap him in his words (22:15), he’s not kidding. We’ll discuss the details of the trap next time. For now, just observe how their words serve as a mirror to their hearts.

They butter Jesus up. Their problem with Jesus is that he rebuffs their social influence. Jesus is King of the Jews not because people gave him the title but by divine appointment. That’s why Jesus isn’t dependent on public opinion — precisely because he’s dependent on God.

And that’s how they describe him in 22:16:

  • He’s focused on personal authenticity: being true (alēthēs).
  • He teaches others to be concerned only with genuinely pleasing God: teaching the way of God in truth (alētheia).

He’s frustrating because they cannot shape him with their (dis)approval:

  • He’s unconcerned about what anyone thinks.
  • He’s not looking for human approval (literally face = prosōpon).

In short, Jesus gets his personal identity and approval from God, not people.

Who had the greater influence in the long run?

Now, there’s always a danger of projecting our postmodern individualism back onto Jesus as we read Scripture. But in this case, I suspect the influence goes the other way. Social influence has been foundational to most cultures worldwide throughout history: indigenous cultures Australia and the Americas, African cultures, oriental cultures such as China and Japan, as well as the Middle East.

So, Jesus is the fish out of water here, and his influence cascades down through history. He taught his followers to be lambs in the face of wolves (Matthew 10:16), to listen to God rather than people (Acts 4:19). Encountering the resurrected Christ, Paul no longer cared about status before people (Philippians 3:4-11) or what they thought of him (1 Corinthians 4:3-4). The cross overturned human wisdom on climbing the social ladder (1 Corinthians 1:17 – 3:13). Martyrdom was the ultimate expression of pleasing God, not people.

Unfortunately, the church absorbed the Pharisee’s agenda when they became the major influence of European society in the Middle Ages, labelling people as sinners so we could control them. The inquisitions were our most violent attempts to control people. The Renaissance promoted individualism, and the Enlightenment levelled the playing field. Postmodernism disbelieves the colonial and national propaganda, calling each person to create their own identity.

But our culture hasn’t escaped the influencers. We’ve commercialized it, so we’re inundated with advertisers and social media massaging our egos and buttering us up for their benefit.

Why did Jesus see them as actors?

Jesus didn’t fall for their flattery because he was never about being his best independent self. His goal was to be a true human as defined by the Creator — not by others, nor by his independent self.

The Pharisees guys were writing their own scripts for the community to follow. They wanted everyone living in a drama of their own making. Jesus called them play actors. The word hypocrite (hypokritēs) was literally that: people acting in a play, playing a role scripted by someone else, so not being their authentic selves.

The tax question wasn’t the issue. It was a trap to get Jesus to side with the people against Rome, or Rome against the people. Jesus wasn’t joining that drama: he was living a bigger story, a role defined by the God who guides history.

So here’s the deal. Despite what the influencers tell us today, freedom does not come from being our own independent selves. Follow that path and we all end up in isolation rather than community. Conversely, trying to comply with what people want of you leads you into a fake world where you’re no more than a player in someone else’s movie. You’re promised a part, but you don’t really belong.

There is a community where you truly belong. You don’t find it by writing your own script. You don’t find it by acting in people’s scripts. You find it by remaining true to God’s script of what it means to be human. Together. As family restored in the Son.

It all comes down to whose drama you’re living in.

Open Matthew 22:15-18.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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