Mark 12:13–17 ESV
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 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?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 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.
From the first century to the twenty-first century, the saying holds true: the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Jesus’ detractors brought these two verities together in this confrontational question.
This tax evoked great resentment among the Jews. It was a constant reminder of their subjection to Rome. If Jesus says it’s right to pay the tax, he comes off as a sell-out to Rome, which would have diminished the authority of his word in the eyes of the Sanhedrin. Had he said it’s wrong to pay the tax, he would have drawn the fierce ire of Rome for an act of rebellion. The question was political in nature, but it was also theological.
But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.”
The kicker comes with the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus” and, on the other, “Pontifex Maximus.” Translation: Caesar was divine. The big question was whether paying the tax constituted an act of worship to Caesar, a recognition of his divinity. This is where the Pharisees wanted to trap him. If he said pay the tax, he implied bowing to Caesar. Jesus response was pure brilliance.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The denarius, which bore Caesar’s image, did indeed belong to Caesar. The denarius was the coin of the realm. Jesus acknowledged that to live under the governance of a state brought certain responsibilities with it, paying taxes being one of them. It’s part of the cost of living. Jesus drew a major line in the sand with the rest of his statement. Give to God what is God’s meant that paying a tax to Caesar with a coin bearing Caesar’s image did not imply agreement with the coin’s inscription that Caesar was God. The God of Israel was to Caesar as Jesus was to Caiphas.
Living under the governance of a sovereign state and observing its appropriate authority in no way constituted worship of the state’s sovereign ruler. This was reserved for God alone. Caesar gets the tax. The coins belong to Caesar. The worship belongs to God. Caesar’s claim to divinity is another way of trying to bar God from the politics of the state. It can’t be done and, to the extent a people attempt it, they issue a death warrant for the state.
It’s a long step from the first century to the twenty-first century. While our form of government isn’t analogous to Caesar’s, the words of Jesus hold true. Paying taxes is the cost of living in a civilized state. Patriotism can be an expression of healthy loyalty and support for national sovereignty. But we must be clear. Only the true and living God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of our worship. The minute the state infringes on the freedom of its people to worship God, it makes the people of God an enemy of the state. It’s another conversation, but this gets us close to the context for Jesus command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
It’s one thing to separate church and state, but quite another to separate faith from politics. In fact, it’s the separation of church and state that enables the healthy and much-needed exercise of faith in the mix of politics and governance. Jerusalem fell because it put its religious establishment in the place of its God. Rome fell because it put its corrupted leaders in the place of the true God. America . . .
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
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