When we kicked off The Last Week two weeks ago we looked at the first day of Holy Week, what we call Palm Sunday or what is called in Mark 11, the Triumphal Entry. We talked about this story and how in it we see two radically visions of Jesus being King. And how anyone from the outside seeing it, especially Rome, would see the connections to a coronation ceremony and get nervous. I mentioned that this was one of the reasons that only a few days later Jesus was executed, because he claimed himself as a King and as royalty.
Last week we talked about Holy Monday, and the cursing of the Fig Tree, and the cleaning of the Temple. We talked about how they were connected and pointed towards judgement of Israel. How the religious leaders got in the way of people actually finding God. How Jesus flipped tables and drove animals out of the temple because the temple was supposed to be a signpost pointing to a deeper reality, that of Jesus and his Kingdom, but instead they thought it was the reality. And how we can also get in the way of people finding Jesus as well as the similar danger of believing that we are the deeper reality, and not the signpost that is supposed to point to Jesus.
Today we are looking at two days, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week. These two days could be probably summarized by saying Conflict and More Conflict. Have you ever had one of those days where it seems like everywhere you went you ran into questions, accusations, conflict, etc..? Jesus had many days like that but especially during Holy Week.
If we look at Mark 11:27-13:37, we see almost every section of these two and half chapter starting with one of the religious leaders of the day coming and either asking him to explain himself, have him justify what he was doing, asking him questions, or as in the case of the section that we’ll be looking at, trapping him and basically putting him between a rock and a hard place, or so they thought.
So let’s turn to Mark 12:13-17 and see what this conflict was all about and what we might learn about following Jesus in our 21st century world.
Mark 12:13-17 says, “Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.”
So in this text we see the Chief Priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders (meaning the religious leaders of Jesus’ day) sending a group of Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus with his own words. Now what is really happening here can be best summed up in the saying “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You see the Pharisees and Herodians weren’t on the same page with most things, except they both didn’t like Jesus. The Pharisees, which means “separated ones”, were the group of people who were extremely accurate and legalistic about the law of Moses. And importantly in this story, the Pharisees weren’t 100 percent in favor of the Roman rule. In fact, they were divided when it came to the question of Roman rule. On the other end of the spectrum were the Herodians. The Herodians favored submitting to the Herods and therefore Roman rule. Support of the Herods compromised Jewish independence in the minds and eyes of the Pharisees. So as you see these two parties were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to a lot of social, religious and political issues. But what they agreed on was that this Jesus character needed to be dealt with.
So they get together and go to Jesus hoping to trap him. To put him between a rock and a hard place. So the first thing they do is butter him up, they seek to flatter him by what they say. Before they get to the question that they are hoping to trap him with, they flatter him by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” Now I don’t believe that they even truly believed what they were saying. First they called him Teacher or in their world it would be Rabbi, but he wasn’t either of the groups Rabbi, or in other words they weren’t his disciples. Secondly, their theology if you will didn’t agree with Jesus’ theology. The Pharisees especially didn’t believe that Jesus was teaching the way of God in accordance with the truth. They believed they had the truth and anyone who disagreed with them was not following God, and that included Jesus.
So after they butter him up, they then drop what they believe was the bombshell question. The question that would seal his fate either with the people or with the Romans. The question that would trap Jesus was, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” This was a huge question in Jesus day. Do you pay taxes or not. You see the Peasants (like Jesus’ family) were forced to pay upwards of 50% of their income to various taxes. Various taxes like Ground tax (10% of all grain and 20% of all wine and fruit), Income tax (1% of man’s income), Poll tax (paid by men 12-65 and women 14-65- 1 denarius a year). But they also were forced to pay other taxes like a local tax, a temple tax, and taxes to Herod. But it wasn’t just about the tax, as bad as that was, it was also about what the taxes stood for. It meant that Israel wasn’t free, wasn’t independent. That they were now under the rule and thumb of the Roman empire. And what Rome ruled they taxed and taxed heavily.
The Pharisees and Herodians believed that they were forcing him into an either/or. Either he would say to support the paying of the tax therefore alienating the crowd who hated Roman rule and by nature the taxes that came with it or denounce paying the taxes and then the group would go to the governor and accuse Jesus of treason and revolt. Either way he would lose something. Or so they thought. They thought they had him right where they wanted him. They were wrong. Jesus, the master at always finding a way out of these either/or dilemma’s and finding a third way.
Jesus knowing what they were up to, not being blinded by their flattery, asks them why they are trying to trap him. He then says, “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. It’s interesting to note as an aside that he didn’t have a denarius on him.
So now this isn’t just a political or social question, this was also a religious question. You see there is a lot at play in relation to the coins. Jews were forbidden to make carved images. There were debates whether that included images like plants and flowers, but it definitely meant images of people. In fact, some of the devout Jews wouldn’t even touch or use the coins. And so they began making their own coins with the image of a palm leaf on them. And so Jesus is asking them, many in the Pharisee camp who probably wouldn’t hold or touch one, to go and find one.
They find one and he asks them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” And they reply Caesar’s. You see at the time the coins in use, the denarius, had an image of Tiberius on one side with the words “Augustus Tiberius. son of the divine Augustus.” above the image. And on the other side High priest, son of God, high priest” To a devout Jew this was no doubt totally offensive. I mean if the Romans wanted to be offensive to the Jews, they did a pretty good job of it with their coinage. Once they have established whose image is imprinted on the coin, Jesus says these brilliant, and possibly misunderstood words, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” There are a number of ways to read his response to their question. First we could see him meaning, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar- pay the taxes but without the sting of submitting to Rome as your master. Or connected with that, since it’s Caesar’s blasphemous image on the coin, then send this filthy stuff back to where it came from. Secondly it could be taken that it echoes a Maccabean slogan from 200 years earlier during a revolt against Syrian rule, which said “pay back the Gentiles what they deserve and obey the commands of the law.” Jesus could be drawing their minds back to that revolt, and saying it as a revolutionary slogan for a different kind of Kingdom. The Kingdom of God where the one true God became King of the world. And lastly, Give to God what belongs to God. If the image stamped on the coin is Caesar, then give back to him what belongs to him. But Human beings bear the stamp, the image of God. Therefore all humans owe themselves, and their very lives to God. Caesar could have his image on coins, crowns, and robes. But life and creation have God’s stamp on them. Caesar could have his coins, but life is God’s. Caesar had no right to take what is God’s. God’s image is stamped on us like Caesar’s stamp and image on coins. God made us all including Caesar and he wants our lives. And I believe that if you give yourself wholly to God you would discover, like his followers then, that using violence to fight violence, and evil to fight evil, simply wouldn’t and won’t do.
But probably one of the most subversive things that Jesus meant when he said Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s , and give to God what is God’s, is in the fact that he refers to them as separate entities. He is saying that God is god and Caesar is not. The question then becomes who is truly King. One of the most subversive, radical, and treasonous things that Christians said in the face of the Roman empire is that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.
So when we boil it all down, the question really that we are wrestling with comes down to loyalty. Where does your loyalty lie? If you believe that everything is God’s, then there really is nothing left for Caesar. Once we have given God what is his, there really isn’t much or anything left for Caesar. Sure, pay taxes, Jesus would say but Jesus is the Lord. Our allegiance needs to be to him. Not to a country, a philosophy, a doctrine, a denomination, etc.. Total allegiance should be pledged to Jesus and to him alone.
So the question for us this morning is what is our Caesar? To whom have we given allegiance to in place of God? Where do our loyalties truly lie? And what is God saying to each of us about what is Caesar’s in our life, and what is truly God’s. That is where we’ll turn right now in our discussion time.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. To whom have we given allegiance to in place of God? Where do our loyalties truly lie? And what is God saying to each of us about what is Caesar’s in our life, and what is truly God’s.
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?