Taxes for Caesar
13 Later the leaders sent some Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested. 14 "Teacher," they said, "we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don't play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us - is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay them, or shouldn't we?"
Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, "Why are you trying to trap me? Show me a Roman coin, and I'll tell you." 16 When they handed it to him, he asked, "Whose picture and title are stamped on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
17 "Well, then," Jesus said, "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God."
His reply completely amazed them.
Jesus is approached by "some Pharisees and supporters of Herod" seeking to trap him. These traditional enemies have joined forces in an effort to ensnare their mutual enemy, Jesus. They raise the topic of paying taxes to the Roman government. Jesus first assures them that they are fooling no one but themselves, and then he asks for a denarius. He reminds them that the coin belongs to Caesar and thus should be given to him. God, however, deserves and must be given what belongs to him.
Pharisees and supporters of Herod (Mark 12:13)
As we have seen, the Pharisees were "a religious and political party in Palestine in New Testament times. The Pharisees were known for insisting that the law of God be observed as the scribes interpreted it and for their special commitment to keeping the laws of tithing and ritual purity."1243 Jesus' most scathing rebukes were directed at this group (see Matthew 23). And the "supporters of Herod" (= Herodians) were "Jews of influence and standing who were favorable toward Greek customs and Roman law in New Testament times."1244 They regarded the Herodian dynasty "as the safeguard against direct pagan rule which the Jews loathed, and also as the best compromise between the ancient faith and pagan civilization."1245 To them, the Herodian family represented "'the last hope of retaining for the Jews a fragment of national government, as distinguished from absolute dependence upon Rome as a province of the empire.' Supporters of the family of Herod, who held their dominions by the grant of the Roman emperor, would be in favor of paying tribute to the supreme power."1246 The one thing the (conservative) Pharisees and the (liberal) Herodians agreed on was the need to get rid of (independent) Jesus.
Taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:14)
The Pharisees opposed paying taxes (which at least some saw as a form of idolatry1247), while the Herodians supported it.1248 As one source explains the taxation system: "There were three basic types: (1) a land or produce tax took one-tenth of all grain and one-fifth of all fruit (or wine), (2) everyone aged fourteen to sixty-five paid a head or poll tax collected when a census was taken - one day's wages, and (3) a custom tax was collected at ports and city gates as tolls for goods transported - rates were 2 to 5 percent of the value of the goods."1249 Most commentators identify the "taxes" Jesus was asked about as "the annual poll tax (head tax) ... [which] went directly into the emperor's treasury. This tax was unpopular because it typified the Jews' subjugation to Rome (cf. Acts 5:37)."1250
Roman taxation was seen as "a recognition of Rome's right to rule over Israel" and as a way of honoring Caesar over God.1251 Any Israelite who said taxes should be paid would immediately be branded by the religious leaders as a traitor who thought more of serving Rome than of serving God. Open denunciation of the tax, however, especially by a popular leader, could easily be interpreted by the Roman government as an act of insurrection. Add to this the delegates' public acknowledgement of Jesus' reputation for scrupulous honesty - which doubtless they proffered in an effort to cut off any possible escape1252 - and we see why Jesus' enemies felt certain they had him this time. (Victims of flattery usually come in one of two sizes: extra-large ego or extra-small self-esteem.1253) At the very least, they hoped to discredit Jesus among his supporters,1254 while at most they hoped "to provide a basis on which He might be accused of treason to the Roman government.1255
A Roman coin ... picture and title (Mark 12:15, 16)
Jesus asked them for a denarius - a small, silver Roman coin "worth approximately one day's wage for a laborer."1256 The front of the coin was inscribed with an image of the emperor and the words ""Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus." The back of the coin pictured the emperor "seated on a throne wearing a diadem and ... clothed as a highpriest"1257 and read "High/Chief Priest (of the Roman Nation)."1258 "This inscription originated in the imperial cult of emperor worship and was a claim to divinity, which was particularly repulsive to Jews"1259 because the emperor proclaimed himself the "supreme authority not only in political but even in spiritual affairs."1260
The denarius, "the only coin acceptable for imperial tax payments,"1261 was different from the copper coins that were circulated throughout Jewish Palestine.1262 In carrying and using the Roman coin, Jesus' opponents were submitting to Rome's authority, including indirectly acknowledging "the benefits of the civil government ... and consequently the obligation to pay taxes."1263
Give to Caesar ... give to God (Mark 12:17)
While we, no less than Jesus' original audience, may (and should) feel chafed when we think of government abuse and corruption,1264 we should be quick to recall that the government's authority is God-given. For that reason alone, Christians are to submit to the government, including paying taxes.1265 What's more, the government uses our tax dollars to provide us with innumerable benefits, including public defense, public roadways, public sanitation services, etc., etc. In that respect, to pay taxes is simply to pay a debt we owe. Which, not coincidentally, is the precise meaning behind Jesus' "Render to Caesar ..." (Mark 12:17, NASB): "In their question, the religious leaders used the word didomi, meaning 'to give.' Jesus responded with the word apodidomi, meaning 'to pay a debt.'"1266
As one source brings out, submission to God includes submission to the governing authorities:
[W]e misunderstand Jesus when we have him say that the obligation to God has nothing to do with the obligation to our government. Even the Pharisees and their disciples were not that shallow as their question shows. The 'and' of Jesus intends to cancel the 'or' of his questioners (in both v. 14 and 15). These are not alternatives, they harmonize, yea, more: in giving to God what is God's we will for his sake give also to the ruler what is his. Our obligation to God covers everything in our life, its citizenship as well as our religion.1267
Jesus' somewhat ambiguous response was intended to challenge "one's loyalties and motives."1268 When Jesus spoke of giving God his due, he "probably meant it as a protest against the emperor's claim to deity. Indeed the emperor must receive his due, but not more than that; he must not receive the divine honor and worship he claimed. Those are due only to God. People are 'God's coinage' because they bear His image (cf. Genesis 1:27) and they owe Him what belongs to Him, their allegiance. This, not the poll tax, was the crucial issue to Jesus."1269
As one source puts it:
Jesus avoided the trick question by showing that believers have dual citizenship (1 Peter 2:7). Our citizenship in the nation requires that we pay money for the services and benefits we receive. Our citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven requires that we pledge to God our primary obedience and commitment. (See Acts 4:18-19 and Acts 5:29 for discussions on obeying God rather than people.) As God's followers, we have legitimate obligations to both God and the government. But it is important to keep our priorities straight. When the two authorities conflict, our duty to God always must come before our duty to the government. The coin bearing the emperor's image should be given to the emperor; our lives, bearing God's image, belong to God.1270
Warren Wiersbe tells a story of the time he carried on a brief correspondence (via snail mail) with a man who objected to his interpretation of Romans 13 (regarding submitting to governmental authority). The man said all government was of the devil and that Christians must resist it. Wiersbe pointed out that through his use of the U.S. Postal Service, the man was actually accepting governmental authority. The money he used was printed and guaranteed by the federal government. And, for that matter, the very freedom that the man employed in voicing his opinion was a right guaranteed by the government.1271
??? Read Acts 5:26-29 and Romans 13:1-7. How do these Scripture passages compare with Christ's command in Mark 12:17?