And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch him in talk.
And when they were come, they say unto him, “Teacher, we know that thou art true, and carest not for any one; for thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?”
But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, “Why make ye trial of me? Bring me a denarius, that I may see it.”
And they brought it.
And he saith unto them, “Whose is this image and superscription?”
And they said unto him, “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus said unto them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
And they marvelled greatly at him (Mark 12:13-17).
It was not every day that you saw the Pharisees and the Herodians coming together to visit someone. It is a downright strange event when the Pharisees and Herodians are being sent by the chief priests, scribes, and elders (cf. Mark 11:27)! Yet this was the power of Jesus– all the various sects of the Jews may disagree with each other, but they agree that Jesus is a threat!
In fact, Jesus was becoming intolerable. He had cleansed the Temple, striking at the heart of the power of the chief priests (Mark 11:15-18). He would not reveal the source of His authority (Mark 11:27-33), and incited the people with His parable of the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-11). They needed to dispose of Jesus– and yet they feared the crowds (Mark 12:12). They had to do something to get Jesus in trouble.
And so they hatched the perfect plan– the question that would lead to His demise. The tax question was ideal. If Jesus said that the Jews should pay the tax, then the Pharisees were right there to proclaim to the people how Jesus was a compromiser and an appeaser of the hated oppressor. If Jesus declared that the Jews did not need to pay taxes, the Herodians were there to hear it and to inform Pilate and the Roman authorities that Jesus was stirring up sedition. It was the perfect plan– or so it seemed.
Yet Jesus’ answer entirely flummoxes them. He does not align with one of the two “main” positions. Instead, He advocates a transcendental, middle-of-the-road approach.
Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. For years this has been the foundational principle of the Christian attitude toward government. Though many may seek a political message in what Jesus is saying, in reality, Jesus remains above that particular fray. Jesus’ quarrel, after all, is not with Caesar (cf. Ephesians 6:12). Earthly government has its reason for existence and such should be respected. Taxes should be paid; authorities deserve the honor due them (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-17).
Yet Jesus’ real point is much deeper than this. It has less to do with Caesar and much more to do with God.
The denarius that Jesus held in His hand belonged to Caesar because upon it was struck the image and inscription of Caesar. But where do we find the image and inscription of God? Jesus knew that it was written:
And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”
And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them (Genesis 1:26a, 27).
We humans have been made in God’s own image, after His likeness. Yes, we must render to Caesar his money– but to God we must give ourselves (cf. Romans 12:1)! All of our energy and existence must be expended toward the advancement of God’s righteousness and Kingdom (cf. Matthew 6:33).
To the earthly authorities we owe proper respect and taxes so that they may accomplish their necessary functions. Yet we do not owe ourselves to Caesar or his purposes. Instead, we owe ourselves to God, and it is right for us to render to God what is His. Let us serve God fully, truly reflecting His image!
Ethan R. Longhenry