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Jesus on Paying Taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17)

Analysis and Commentary

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Jesus Teaches

Jesus Teaches

    13 And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. 14 And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? 12:15 Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it.
    16 And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar's. 17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. And they marvelled at him.
    Compare: Matthew 22:15-22; Luke 20:20-26

Jesus & Roman Authority

In the previous chapter Jesus bested his opponents by forcing them to pick one of two unacceptable options; here they attempt to return the favor by asking Jesus to take sides on a controversy over whether to pay taxes to Rome. Whatever his answer, he would get in trouble with someone.

This time, though, the “priests, scribes, and elders” do not appear themselves — they send Pharisees (villains from earlier in Mark) and Herodians to trip Jesus up. The presence of the Herodians in Jerusalem is curious, but this may be an allusion to chapter three where the Pharisees and Herodians are described as plotting to kill Jesus.

During this time many Jews were locked in conflict with Roman authorities. Many wanted to establish a theocracy as an ideal Jewish state and for them any Gentile ruler over Israel was an abomination before God. Paying taxes to such a ruler effectively denied God’s sovereignty over the nation. Jesus couldn’t afford to reject this position.

Resentment by the Jews against the Roman poll tax and Roman interference in Jewish life led to one revolt in 6 CE under the leadership of Judas the Galilean. This, in turn, led to the creation of radical Jewish groups which launched another rebellion from 66 through 70 CE, a rebellion which ended with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the beginnings of a diaspora of the Jews out of their ancestral lands.

On the other hand, the Roman leaders were very touchy about anything that looked like resistance to their rule. They could be very tolerant of various religions and cultures, but only so long as they accepted Roman authority. If Jesus denied the validity of paying taxes, then he could be turned over to the Romans as someone encouraging rebellion (the Herodians were servants of Rome).

Jesus avoids the trap by pointing out that the money is part of the Gentile state and as such can lawfully be given over to them — but this only qualifies for those things which belong to the Gentiles. When something belongs to God, it should be given to God. Who “marvelled” at his answer? It might have been those asking the question or those watching, amazed that he was able to avoid the trap while also finding a way to teach a religious lesson.

This has at times been used to support the idea of separating church and state because Jesus is seen as making a distinction between secular and religious authority. At the same time, though, Jesus gives no indication as to how one should tell the difference between the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s. Not everything comes with a handy inscription, after all, so while an interesting principle is established, it’s not very clear how that principle can be applied.

A traditional Christian interpretation, though, has it that Jesus’ message is for people to be as diligent in fulfilling their obligations to God as they are in fulfilling their secular obligations to the state. People work hard to pay their taxes in full and on time because they know what will happen to them if they don’t. Fewer think as hard about the even worse consequences they derive from not doing what God wants, so they need to be reminded that God is every bit as demanding as Caesar and should not be ignored. This is not a flattering depiction of God.

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