Jesus gets a question on taxes
The religious leaders were desperately trying to rid themselves of Jesus, but the adoring crowds held them in check. In this passage the Jerusalem elite brought their newest argument. That argument addressed hated Roman taxes. It was an energizing topic that might just break the bond that the crowds had to Jesus.
13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:13-14–ESV)
When the Pharisees talk people listen
Jesus would have been about his teaching among the crowds when the civil and religious leaders arrived. The ambiance around those would have granted them an immediate audience with Jesus. The regular people would have drawn back in deference this powerful set of men. The debate platform would have been given to Jesus and the questioning spokesman.
The tenor of their conversation begins with flattery. While they may have wanted to choke on their words they surely were suave and diplomatic in their trap setting. They acknowledge his integrity. Moving beyond integrity they tell of how social standing does not sway him. That was from personal experience. Most defer to these religious and civil police, but not Jesus. They conclude their run up to the trap by saying his teaching is rightly derived from the scripture.
Now for the catch-22
There are two questions in this catch-22. The first aims to place Jesus between the devout Jew and the Roman occupation. It is a religious question. The second is secular aiming to pit Jesus against the Roman authorities.
A reply that it was lawful to pay taxes will anger the crowds. Some of the angry would disconnect with Jesus. If Jesus says it is not lawful he keeps the crowd on his side, but sets the stage for a showdown with the Roman authorities, who also were there that day.
The questions were carefully crafted in an effort to force Jesus toward one of two answers. One answer runs him afoul of the people. The other answer runs him afoul of the Roman authorities. Either of these events would suit the haters. The ruling elite could spin this answer one way or the other, but both with a final outcome of his demise.
Jesus can play their game
15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:15-17–ESV)
The Pharisees did not want an answer on the lawfulness of paying taxes to Rome. Neither did they get that answer. Jesus did not delve into tax matters, but he did delve into the heart. Jesus always teaches and he does not disappoint in his reply. He builds up to his answer by asking for a coin of the realm, and then uses that coin as an object lesson. That object lesson gutted their catch-22 and did a few other things.
The governments of men have authority
When Jesus acknowledged Caesar he validated civic authority. Jesus did not say what is Caesar’s nor what is God’s, but rather acknowledged both. Rome had authority and made rules. The Jews were not to discard this.
Basic human principle: Advantage oneself
The Jews were not interested in what was lawful. They were interested in how they could live life to their own advantage. This was something done both religiously and politically. Think back to Mark 7 when Jesus said that the religious leaders were quick to find a loophole that allowed them to avoid supporting their parents. Jesus said back then that they did many things that set aside responsibility for others in the name of oneself.
The accusers this day lived in a loophole world. They did not want to pay taxes to Caesar, and neither did they want to give God his due. The wanted to say “God is not my boss, and neither is Rome.” Of course it would not be said that way, but Jesus saw that hypocrisy and called them out on it.
Here were see how Jesus taught himself out of traps on taxes.
Basic Christian principle: Do right
The men and women of Jesus’ time knew their civic duties and they knew their religious duties. They were to act upon what they knew. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Time, money, obedience, respect, etc. are things that one should be ready to offer. Too often we know what is right, but we do not do it. Jesus did not elaborate on what was legitimate in regard to taxes or in regard to God. He merely said do right.
Don’t think you can win arguments with God
Those of us who think we are rather capable in crafting arguments and getting our own way should take to heart the events of Jesus and the Jerusalem elite. Great efforts were expended to trap Jesus, but they were always turned aside. They were discarded with as little effort as one swats a gnat. Too, when Jesus turned them aside their own shortcomings were raised to the surface.
Some of us may not figure we are good at arguing with God, but may simply be angry at him for this, that or the other thing. If you are prone to that remember that God has ways of explaining things that go beyond your capacity to understand. Trust that someday you will see clearly and believe now. That is faith. God is good all the time.