Giving God His Due

coin-flipping

Jesus was what we would call “a trouble maker.” He was respectful of people but wasn’t afraid to confront them and frequently called a spade a spade. In Mark 12, our Lord was at it again, confronting some religious leaders. He told a parable that cut them to the quick and He drove home the point of story this way:

The Jewish leaders wanted to arrest him then and there for using this illustration, for they knew he was pointing at them—they were the wicked farmers in his story. But they were afraid to touch him for fear of a mob. So they left him and went away. (Mark 12:12 TLB)

It surely galled these religious leaders that this popular and charismatic rabbi was calling them “wicked,” but they were afraid of the crowd that had gathered to listen to Jesus’ teaching. It was close to the time of the great feast in Jerusalem – that’s why Jesus was there – and there were many visitors from Galilee in town and many of them probably knew Jesus personally or they knew His family or His reputation. Not wanting to make a bad situation even worse, these religious leaders decided it was wiser just to leave Jesus alone for now.

They weren’t finished with Him, though. A little later on – we’re not told how much later; perhaps it was the next day – these religious leaders sent some hand-picked men to try it again.

But they sent other religious and political leaders to talk with him and try to trap him into saying something he could be arrested for. (Mark 12:13 TLB)

Strange bedfellows

The Living Bible tells us that “religious and political leaders” came to try to catch Jesus off guard and twist His words around so as to get Him in trouble. These men were Pharisees and Herodians. We know who the Pharisees were, but just who were the Herodians? During this time in Israel, there were a number powerful groups at work in Jewish society. You are familiar with the Pharisees, a group of wealthy, religious leaders who were trying desperately to keep the faith pure. Then there were the Saducees, another highly religious group that denied the resurrection. There were the Scribes, experts in the Law. The Herodians, though, had nothing to do with religion but everything to do with politics. They were followers of Herod, hence their name. The Herodians were a political party that wanted to restore a Herod to the throne in Judea as well as other areas ruled by Herod the Great. Politically, this put them at odds with the Pharisees who wanted more than anything to restore the kingdom of David. These two groups, the Pharisees and the Herodians, hated each other and had nothing in common except their hatred for Jesus Christ. They hated each other but they hated Jesus even more. So these two disparate groups united to silence Him and to ultimately destroy Him.

Flattery…

The attack began like this:

“Teacher,” these spies said, “we know you tell the truth no matter what! You aren’t influenced by the opinions and desires of men, but sincerely teach the ways of God.” (Mark 12:14a TLB)

You can tell that a political group is involved here. Had it been just the Pharisees, they would have hit Jesus hard and fast. But these politicians were a little smoother, a little more polished. They may not have known it, but in their obvious flattery they were actually being truthful!

Jesus’ character. They were spot-on with their assessment of our Lord’s character: “You tell the truth no matter what.” The New Century Version translates their words like this:

we know that you are an honest man. (NCV)

Jesus’ words were true. His heart was true. He was the truth. They were right about that.

Jesus’ courage. They were also correct when they spoke about Jesus’ courage: “You aren’t influenced by the opinions and desires of men…” Think about that statement for a moment. Jesus was a man who was His own. He didn’t care about the so-called powerful opinions of powerful men. He spoke the truth no matter who was listening to it and no matter what they thought. Jesus didn’t mince His words. He loved people and was concerned about lost souls, but He always spoke the truth. He spoke with a holy boldness missing in so much preaching today.

Jesus’ mission. And whether they realized the full extent and truthfulness of their flattery, they got Jesus’ mission right: “[You] sincerely teach the ways of God.” We have the New Testament and we can read Jesus’ words any time we feel like it and we frequently take His teachings for granted, but back in His day crowds of hundreds and thousands followed Jesus around, hanging on His every word because nobody – nobody – was saying the things He was saying. His teachings were so different and so powerful, people knew He was teaching God’s Word. The Pharisees knew this:

After dark one night a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, a member of the sect of the Pharisees, came for an interview with Jesus. “Sir,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miracles are proof enough of this.” (John 3:1 TLB)

Nicodemus said it: “we ALL know…” He and his Pharisee pals ALL knew the truth about Jesus. But in spite of what they knew, the Pharisees (most, but not all) still hated Him. They hated Him because He threatened the status quo. He threatened their perceived power. So, joining forces with the Herodians, they posed a question hoping to trap Jesus in His words.

A loaded question

Their question was disingenuous. They didn’t care about taxes. They wanted Jesus to say something that would get Him in trouble. They, the Pharisees, tried the religious way and failed. Now with the Herodians, they figured on nailing Him.

Now tell us, is it right to pay taxes to Rome, or not? (Mark 12:14b TLB)

So, following their obnoxious flattery, they ask this insincere question hoping to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. The tax being referred to here was a capitation tax, or a kind of poll tax. It was collected from every adult male in Judea. To freedom loving Jews, this kind of intrusive taxation was burdensome and, in their way of reckoning, very inconvenient. So hated was this tax that one Judas of Galilee (not that Judas) once wrote of it:

Taxation is no better than downright slavery.

I’m writing this message on April 17, just a couple of days after the due date for Americans to file and top up their taxes, if necessary, so I am sure any sane person reading this would agree with Judas of Galilee! The Roman tax code wasn’t 74,000 pages in length as ours is, but it was nonetheless highly offensive (as ours is), especially to Jews. To them, it wasn’t just the confiscation of their hard-earned money, but the fact that the coinage at the time bore the image of the Emperor. This was galling because divinity was ascribed to him – he was viewed as a god – and the inscription on the coins said so. It was this fact that caused Judas of Galilee, as well as many other Jews of the time, to believe paying this particular was nothing less than high treason against God Himself!

So this question was truly a loaded one. As a popular spiritual leader, Jesus would be expected to have very strong views on the subject of Roman taxation and especially this hated poll tax. Some Jews, mainly the Zealots, flatly refused to pay this tax, because as far as they were concerned paying it was giving far too much authority to the government in Rome. The Pharisees held their noses and paid it. The Herodians, as you might expect, thought this tax was a great idea. How would Jesus answer their question? Would He side with the outlaw Zealots? Or would He come down on the side of the Herodians? No matter how Jesus answered this question, He would be in hot water with somebody. If He sided with the Herodians, Jesus would alienate most of the population of Israel. If He sided with the Zealots, He would bring down the wrath of Rome, not only on Himself, but likely on Judea as well.

The best answer

Jesus saw their trick and said, “Show me a coin and I’ll tell you.” (Mark 12:15 TLB)

How dumb did Jesus’ opponents think He was? Of course our Lord could see through their pedestrian plot and He turned the tables on them. What the Living Bible refers to as “their trick” is really “their hypocrisy” in the Greek. Jesus asked for “a denarius,” a coin worth about 20 cents basically, to drive home His point. He could have asked for any coin, but He asked for the coin that bore the image of the Emperor and this inscription:

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus (one side)

Highest Priest (flip side)

Apparently the men had some of these coins readily available. They didn’t know it yet, but they were carrying the answer to their question in their very pockets! They themselves were paying this poll tax with this very coin, proving Jesus’ answer!

“All right,” he said, “if it is his, give it to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God!” And they scratched their heads in bafflement at his reply. (Mark 12:17 TLB)

The men surely squirmed when Jesus inquired as to whose picture was stamped on the coin. I suspect before they answered Him, they knew where this conversation was headed.

They replied, “The emperor’s.” (Mark 12:16b TLB)

The tension behind verse 17 must have been palpable. We might translate Jesus’ answer in verse 17 like this:

The tax isn’t that much in the first place, and the coin belongs to Caesar, anyway. Just give it back to him and be on your way.

But then Jesus adds a statement they didn’t get but is really the whole point of the story. The obvious point – just shut up and pay the tax – isn’t the main point, at all.

But everything that belongs to God must be given to God.

This sentence is Jesus’ whole point. First of all, honoring God does not mean dishonoring the Emperor by refusing to pay the tax. In truth, the Jews did receive what we would call “services” from Rome and those services cost money. Israel received the full protection of the mighty Roman army. That was surely worth 20 cents a male!

To put it another way, this tax wasn’t voluntary, it was their obligation. That denarius belonged to Caesar because it had his picture on it. That image proved it belonged to him.

By adding “everything that belongs to God must be given to God,” our Lord is making sure we understand there is no conflict between civic duty and religious duty. One scholar put it this way:

Duty to God and duty to State are not incompatible; we owe a debt to both, and it is clearly possible to be a good Christian and a loyal citizen.

Just so. We do have a responsibility to our government. Personally I think I have too much responsibility, and it hurts to pay all that tax, especially when I see all the corruption and villainy in all levels of government. But I also have a responsibility to God and to His Church. And this is the whole point of this teaching of Jesus. The image of Caesar on the coin was evidence it belonged to him. Likeness proves relationship. Those who bear the image of the world – anybody who doesn’t belong to Jesus – belong to the world and they are serving the world for the privilege of being a part of it. But if you belong to Jesus, then His image has been stamped onto your soul. You belong to Him. That being the case, as the KJV puts it:

Render to God the things that are God’s.

Or as Paul would later put it to his Roman friends:

And so, dear brothers, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living sacrifice, holy—the kind he can accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask? (Romans 12:1 TLB)

We, as Christians, belong to Jesus and we owe Him more than we could ever repay. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try!

Sadly, the fact that the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t get what Jesus said proved that they didn’t belong to Him. If you get what Jesus said, it’s time to ante up and give to God what you owe Him.

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