Mark 12:13-17. Should we pay taxes?

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 marvelled at him.

Mark began this section with the entry into Jerusalem. Jesus came in on a colt, the foal of a donkey- in deliberate fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah. The king was come. The salvation which people longed for will take place here in Jerusalem, now. But it will not be like they expect. It will not take place through war and force of arms to establish an earthly throne for Messiah. It will take place through meek obedience, submission, and sacrificial death.

And Mark has gone on to show Jesus as the rightful king- as the Son of God. Jesus has gone to inspect the temple- his Father’s house. And when he has found it disorderly, he has cleared it out, castigating those who had made the house of prayer for all nations into a den of thieves.

When questioned about his authority, he has refused to submit to the authority of the questioners, instead assuming authority himself and asking them a question. He has told a pointed parable against the chief priests, saying that they are evil tenants of God’s vineyard- they have not cared for Israel as faithful servants would have done, and that God will come in vengeance upon them for rejecting him, the Son and heir.

 1. Who are “they” in the first line? Why do they send other men instead of coming to Jesus themselves?

 2. What are the Pharisees and Herodians trying to achieve by coming to Jesus, and why?

 3. The Pharisees and Herodians pose a question to Jesus. Why do they think it’s a tough problem to answer?

 4. How do the Pharisees and Herodians frame their question to make it harder?

 5. What does Jesus mean by his first response, and why does he give it, instead of simply answering the question?

 6. Why does Jesus bother to answer the question at all, once he’s given his first response?

 7. What is the answer to the question?

 8. What does Jesus add to his answer, and why?

 

1. Who are “they” in the first line? Why do they send other men instead of coming to Jesus themselves?

“They” are the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law from 11:27. We looked at them last time- who each group was and what their interest was in the Temple. They are the official Jews, the ostensible rulers of the Temple. Jesus has come to Jerusalem and started acting like the Temple belongs to him- he’s turned over tables, and driven out traders. He’s taught the crowds that the Temple has been turned into a robber’s hideout. These rulers have already tried to exert their authority over Jesus, and have failed miserably. They came to Jesus in person, asking him where he thought he got the authority to do the things he’d been doing. As an attempt at intimidation, it was a miserable failure. Jesus wasn’t intimidated at all, and the rulers ended up looking rather foolish.

But they’re not foolish enough to have another go. They can see how that would end. They didn’t get to be rulers without possessing a modicum of cunning and foresight. So they send some other men in to bat for them. They have influence, and can pull strings, and make other people think it would be a good idea to go and harass Jesus.

Their stooges in this instance are the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians are supporters of Herod, a client-king for the Romans. In point of fact, Herod is not a legitimate king for Israel. Real kings ought to be of David’s line, and Herod is not even a proper Israelite- he has Edomite blood in him. The Pharisees are members of a lay Jewish holiness movement, concerned with rigorous law-keeping. These two groups are not natural bedfellows to say the least. Herod himself is a butterfly with hedonistic tendencies. He will almost certainly dislike the Pharisees and they will despise him. Herod’s followers are pragmatists, interested in wielding authority, and willing to sacrifice principle for it. The Pharisees are principled (about some things) to the point of pig-headedness. The Herodians see Herod as their passport to power. The Pharisees see Herod as an illegitimate disgrace.

But Mark shows us that these two groups work together, and work on behalf of the chief priests et al., because all of them hate Jesus so much. They consider that any enemy of Jesus, no matter how repulsive to them, is an ally. This is Psalm 2 in action- the nations rage and the kings of the earth “conspire together against the Lord and his anointed”. They forget their own quarrels, because they recognise (accurately) that the really big quarrel is with Jesus. God’s anointed has come, and whatever hatred his enemies have for each other is swallowed up by their hatred of him.

 

2. What are the Pharisees and Herodians trying to achieve by coming to Jesus, and why?

“Conspire together” is about right. This bears all the marks of a conspiracy. The Pharisees and Herodians already hate Jesus. They have already allied against Jesus, and have been looking for ways to kill him even as early as chapter 3. Now, in Jerusalem, they continue that line of behaviour, in cahoots with the chief priests and rulers and scribes. They meet together and discuss what they ought to do about Jesus.

The ruling coterie has a problem, doesn’t it? They would like to arrest Jesus openly, give him a show trial, and put him to death. But they fear the crowds. Jesus is too popular to be done away with in public. And Jesus is always in the Temple and surrounded by crowds. So they meet together and have a think about how to deal with Jesus. They decide that the reason they can’t just kill him, is because the crowds love to listen to him and they can’t get at him without the crowds seeing it. So they come up with a cunning strategy: they’ll try to make the crowds go off Jesus a bit. If they can make Jesus look foolish in front of the crowds, if they can show that he isn’t so wise after all, then the crowds will dwindle. People will become interested in something else- people are fickle like that. And when the public eye has turned elsewhere, they can arrest Jesus and have him put to death.

So they think about how to make Jesus look like a fool. And they decide to engage him in debate, to ask him questions he can’t answer. The chief priests, scribes, and elders, have already failed, so they need to send others to do their dirty work and discredit Jesus in the eyes of the crowds. The Pharisees and Herodians take first turn, coming to Jesus with a question which had caused much debate among themselves.

 

3. The Pharisees and Herodians pose a question to Jesus. Why do they think it’s a tough problem to answer?

This question is the result of long meetings and discussions. They’ve talked about how to stump Jesus, and some bright spark has piped up, “I know! Let’s ask him about taxes!”

Their thinking ran like this, “If we ask him whether we should pay Roman taxes or not, then what will he say? If he says that we shouldn’t- well then we can tell the Romans, and let the Romans deal with him. They’ve permanently and violently silenced dissidents before. And if he says that we should, then that isn’t going to go down well with the crowds. Nobody likes having to pay money to the conquering Gentiles” And everyone in the meeting agrees, “Brilliant! That’s got him.”

Why do they think that this question is so unanswerable? Because they themselves can’t answer it. The Herodians like the Romans. Herod is propped up by Roman authority. He is a puppet king, controlled by the Emperor. So the Herod-party supports the influence of Rome, and willingly pays taxes. They’re pragmatists, and the Romans currently give them what they want- so they’ll be quietly pro-Rome.

But the Pharisees hate the Romans. For them, the very presence of Gentiles in the land is an outrage, and these Gentiles who actually rule over them and demand money from them… Every time they pay taxes to Rome, it is a reminder to them of how low Israel has fallen. They are not actually freedom fighters, like the Zealots. They are not agitating for violent revolution. But the Roman occupation is still an insult to their religion- they must see it as a sign of God’s displeasure on the nation, that God has allowed the Gentiles to rule over them. This is almost like the exile- except that they’re still living in the land. They can’t have their own king, can’t set their own laws. They risk brushing up against unclean foreigners in the marketplace daily. The Romans are a Bad Thing. And apart from that, they dislike giving money to Gentiles anyway. They do pay taxes, but they do so grudgingly, and find it a difficult pill to swallow.

So this group have got cheek- give them that. They come to Jesus and ask him a question to which they have very different answers. They turn their internal differences into a weapon. Whichever way Jesus answers, some of them can accuse him.

The people generally are in agreement with the Pharisees. That is why the tax-collectors were so hated in Israel. They were collaborators with the enemy, traitors to God’s people. The word “taxes” is actually “census”- it denotes a particular tax levied on all people and paid directly to Rome. There were riots in Israel when it was introduced (Acts 5:37). The Romans suppressed the riots, but the tax is still very unpopular. Josephus sees it as one of the main causes of Zealotry (Antiq. 17.1.1&6). So if Jesus says to pay this tax, he will alienate the crowd, and that is exactly what the Pharisees and Herodians want. If Jesus loses the crowd, then maybe they can move in and arrest him.

But on the other hand, if Jesus says not to pay taxes, he will get himself into trouble with the Romans. After all, he is a popular leader. He has influence over the people. The Romans have already had to crush tax riots, and they don’t want to have to do it again. Judea has a bad reputation in Rome as a rebellious ungoverneable province. If Jesus starts spouting sentiments that could be perceived as anti-Roman, then the Jewish leaders will be quick to ensure that the Romans hear about it. And the Romans will be quick to act against any perceived threat to their authority, any potential flashpoint for a rebellion. If they see Jesus as a threat to their attempt to keep the lid on Jewish discontent, then they will have no qualms about making him disappear. And that too is exactly what the Pharisees and Herodians want. They’d be quite happy for the Romans to do their dirty work for them.

 

4. How do the Pharisees and Herodians frame their question to make it harder?

These men have seen Jesus deal with questions before. Only in the last segment, Jesus left the professional politicians reeling. They want to make sure that Jesus gives a straight yes-or-no answer to their question, but they know he’s smarter than a carpenter’s son has any right to be. So they try to make doubly sure that he answers according to their script. “We can’t let him wriggle out of it, or change the subject”, they’ll have said.

You can see, from the way they ask the question, that they are trying to manoeuvre Jesus into giving an immediate and simple answer. They first flatter Jesus, and tell him that he has a great reputation for being straight with people, that they are quite sure he wouldn’t try to dodge a difficult issue, because they know that he doesn’t care what people think of him, but only cares for God. Now all those things are true, but they are not saying it because it is true, they are saying it because they want to make sure that Jesus answers the question they are about to ask. It would be very embarrassing for a man to give a politician’s answer to a question, when he’s just been praised for his straightness- “O great teacher, we know that we can trust you to give us honest answers and not to be afraid of what the crowds think. We know that you fear only God, and so you are always plainly spoken. Now answer us this simple question…” So they give their preamble- and then they come in with the question, and they put it forcefully, asking it twice, as if to demand a forceful direct answer. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn’t we?” How can you respond to that with anything other than “Pay taxes” or “Don’t pay taxes”? You can almost see the smirks on the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ faces as they ask it. They’re thinking “Now we’ve got him”.

 

5. What does Jesus mean by his first response, and why does he give it, instead of simply answering the question?

Jesus first says, “Why put me to the test?” He knows very well that this isn’t really a proper question. The Pharisees and Herodians aren’t interested in Jesus’ answer or his reasoning; they just want to put him on the spot. They won’t take any notice of his opinion- this is just a test. So Jesus says that out loud. He points out that this is just a low politician’s tactic and not a genuine question. Now who looks stupid? It isn’t Jesus. He looks like the mature adult, and the Pharisees and Herodians look like the petty and spiteful childish men they are.

That would be true however Jesus has expressed the thought. But the words he chooses- “Why put me to the test?”- are significant. Those words will ring bells in the heads of some of the listeners. Jesus is using the language of the law and the prophets. Israel “put God to the test” when they failed to trust him in the wilderness, demanding that Moses give them water at Massah and Meribah. Moses asked the people “Why do you test the LORD?” (Exodus 17, see also Deuteronomy 6:16; 33:8; Psalm 95:9). Jesus subtly casts himself in the role of God, and his questioners in the role of faithless Israel. The Israelites demanded water because they didn’t trust God to bring them safely through the wilderness, and their hearts were drawn back to Egypt and idolatry. God wanted to give them a great deliverance, out of the house of bondage to the promised land. Israel thought they rather preferred the house of bondage. Centuries later, the Herodians and Pharisees are like them; an unbelieving generation, asking Jesus trick questions because they don’t want him to be their Messiah. Israel didn’t want God to be their saviour. The Pharisees and Herodians don’t want Jesus to be their saviour.

 

6. Why does Jesus bother to answer the question at all, once he’s given his first response?

Jesus recognises that the question is not a real question. It is not asked because the questioners actually want to know the answer. Given that fact, he doesn’t really need to respond at all. He’d be quite justified if he were to ignore the question and press the accusation that they were testing him. But at the same time, taxation is a real question for some Israelites. People really do have this dilemma. It is a tough issue for God’s people living in an anti-God state. Should faithful Jews pay taxes to Caesar? After all, Caesar has conquered their nation violently, and is only in a position to demand taxes by virtue of his superior force. Is his government a legitimate one? And furthermore, the taxes he gathers will go to fund the Roman Empire, which is a greedy monster, treading the nations underfoot with iron feet. Can any good Jew, with a clear conscience, support an evil empire with tax money? And on top of that, there are the concerns (examined under question 3 above) particular to Israel, with her status as God’s nation.

Ordinary Jews will be perplexed over the issue, and will want guidance, leadership. So Jesus deals with the Pharisees while giving a straight answer to a bent question. We can give thanks that we have such an answer, as it answers many of the concerns we too may have. We live under a government which freely spends tax money on things of dubious legitimacy.

 

7. What is the answer to the question?

Jesus asks for a coin. They bring him one. And on it, he points out the image. Whose image is it? Jesus knew what sort of coin he’d be brought- it’s the coin everyone in Israel uses, the Roman denarius. And everyone knows whose image is on the coin, as well as we know the Queen’s image on our coins. Caesar’s head is stamped on the coins, and everyone knows it because it was the common currency. Israelites used the Roman coins every day, carried them around in their purses. The answer comes back immediately- “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”… “Caesar’s.”

The emperor of the time was Tiberius (AD 14-37), and his denarius bore his image. Interestingly, the most common coin represented him as the semi-divine son of Augustus, who had been made a god. The inscription read, “Ti Caesar divi Aug f Augustus”, or “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus”. The reverse read, “Pontifex maximus” Both inscriptions were rooted in emperor worship, and are claims to divine honours.

We don’t know precisely which coin Jesus was brought, but Jesus can be confident that it will be a coin bearing Caesar’s image. Everyone knows that it is Caesar’s head on the coin, and so Jesus says ‘Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” If the Jews are going to use Caesar’s money, then they can’t complain about paying Caesar for the privilege. They want to take part in trade with the rest of the Roman Empire. They want to benefit from the stability of the Roman currency. So they should pay their dues to Rome.

Why does the denarius have value? How can people be sure that it is worthwhile working for a day to be given this piece of metal? How can they be sure that the bread merchant and animal seller will accept this piece of metal as payment? Because Rome backs the whole system up. The same is true of our money. Look at a £10 note. It says on it “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds”, and it is signed by the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England- when the note in my hand was issued, a man called Andrew Bailey- and he has signed it on behalf of the Governor and Company of the Bank of England. In itself, this note is only a piece of paper. It’s not made of gold or silver or anything intrinsically valuable. But I can go into any shop in England, and swap this piece of paper for clothes, or food, or anything else I want to buy with it, up to the value of ten pounds. Now, I have lots of paper in my house. I could take a piece, and write on it “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds” and sign it myself. But imagine what would happen if I tried to take that piece of paper into the shops and spend it. Both pieces of paper are just I.O.U.s. But one is an I.O.U from me, and the other one is an I.O.U from the Bank of England. The shopkeepers can trust the Bank of England in a way they can’t trust an individual British subject. Currency has to be trusted to be worth anything.

Roman currency could be trusted, because it was produced by the richest and most powerful nation that existed. And the Jews used that currency. They benefited from it in countless ways. It brought them economic stability and prosperity. They couldn’t expect to get all that for free. It was right that they should pay something back to Rome. If Rome demands taxes, then they should pay up. Morally, unless they were opting out of the Roman system completely- which they were not- they ought to pay.

Just like us. I use the hospitals, the electricity, the train system, the roads, the telephone lines- all the infrastructure of the country. And that infrastructure is possible because we have a stable government working to keep it all ticking over. So I ought to pay taxes. If I don’t want to pay, then I should not use the roads, or the pavements, or the streetlights. If I don’t want to be part of the system run by Her Majesty’s Government, then I certainly shouldn’t use the money with Her Majesty’s picture on it. I might disapprove of a great deal of what our government does, and I might be wholly justified in my disapproval (and I do, and I am); but that doesn’t give me the right to withhold taxes. That man is a hypocrite who rails against the system, and gives the injustices and evil perpetrated by the system as his reason for not paying his tax bill; but who simultaneously uses the benefits of that system.

Jesus gives the unpopular answer- but does it in such a way that his case is so obviously right.

 

8. What does Jesus add to his answer, and why?

But. But but but. “Render unto Caesar” is only half Jesus’ answer. He has said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”, and he then goes on to say “and to God the things that are God’s.” Now, extending the argument about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s- what should we give to God?

Where do we find God’s image? Answer: Everywhere. Life without the government would be tough. But life without God wouldn’t have happened. We owe the government for all sorts of things. I couldn’t imagine how much harder life would be if I tried to do without cash, or roads, or a police force. But life without money, without roads, and without a police force, would still be life. Hard life, but life nonetheless. Without God, we would have nothing. There wouldn’t even be a “we” to have nothing. Who made the planet we live on? God did. Who made the air we breathe? God did. Who makes his sun to shine on the just and the unjust? God does. Who made us? God did.

The council built the pavement we walk on, and we pay council tax for the privilege. But God made my feet and my legs. Can I live as though I owe God nothing? It would be a monstrous injustice. We owe God everything. Everything we’ve ever seen bears his stamp. The council made the pavement, but they’ve only reshaped raw materials provided by God. There was nothing until God called matter into being.

Civil government gives wealth and economic stability- and we who buy into the system, accepting wages in coinage from the Royal Mint, owe our rulers something in return. But there are things we have that Caesar hasn’t given us. Life. The world. We owe God. Ultimate allegiance is owed not to Caesar, but to God.

And where is God’s image found especially? Man especially is made in God’s image. Man bears God’s likeness. All creation owes God praise, but Man should praise the loudest.

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