Is God an Israeli or a Palestinian? A Republican or a Democrat? A Conservative or a Liberal? Management or Labor? A Hawk or a Dove? Depending on who you voted for in last week’s election, God either won or lost. Far too often, we believe that “our side” is the right side, the one which God is for. We want to pigeonhole God into our narrow perspective.
More often than not, however, we ask the wrong question. The question is not, Whose side is God on? but rather, Who is on God’s side?
Mark 12:13-17 is the third of seven controversies (11:27-12:40) where the Jewish religious leaders try to trap Jesus into taking sides. They play a cat and mouse game where they try to trap Jesus in his statements and back him into a corner. In 12:13-17, the game is played over the topic of taxes.
The Pharisees and Herodians sit on opposite sides of the political aisle. The Pharisees are narrow and conservative while the Herodians are liberal and syncretistic. The Pharisees are right-wing while the Herodians are left-wing. The Pharisees resisted Rome while the Herodians accommodated Rome. The Pharisees hated Jesus because he disrupted their religious agenda while the Herodians hated Jesus because he disrupted their political agenda. The only thing the two groups agreed on was their opposition to a common enemy—Jesus. They both wanted him dead.
Under the guise of flattery and insincere questions, they ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Like a hunter catching a wild animal with a trap, the religious leaders tried to catch Jesus in his words.
Taxes referred to the annual poll tax demanded by the Roman emperor from all Jews since A.D. 6, when Judea became a Roman province. The tax was paid with a denarius, which represented one days’ wage. The coin had the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Chief Priest” on the reverse side. The Pharisees objected to the tax on religious grounds because they felt it represented idolatry. They also objected on nationalistic grounds because it represented foreign domination. The Herodians supported foreign rule through the Herods and favored the tax.
The Pharisees reasoned that if Jesus gave a “Yes” answer, it meant he sided with the Herodians, and the Jewish people would reject him. The Herodians reasoned that if Jesus gave a “No” answer, it meant he sided with the Pharisees and would be arrested by Rome. Either way, both groups felt Jesus was trapped.
Jesus saw through their subterfuge and recognized the malicious intent behind the question. He confronted the issue and asked why they were trying to trap him.
Jesus asked them to produce a denarius. While they disliked Roman rule, they used Roman money nonetheless. Jesus asked whose image was on the coin. To their chagrin, the religious leaders probably mumbled, “Caesar.”
Since Caesar’s image was on the coin, it rightfully belonged to him. Therefore, taxes are certainly appropriate. Jesus told them to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
While Caesar’s image was stamped on the coin, every Jewish male knew that God’s image was stamped on each person. Jesus went a step further in saying that we should give to God what belongs to him.
As Christian CITIZENS, we owe our allegiance to the state. We are to obey the laws of the land (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-15), pay taxes (Romans 13:7), pray for the leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2), and perform our duty as citizens by voting.
As CHRISTIAN citizens, we owe our allegiance to God. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). We should practice spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, serving, giving, and sharing our faith.
Give your allegiance to the state. Give your life to God.
This is the synopsis of a sermon preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on November 8, 2015. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.