Mark 12:13-17

Jesus confronts Pharisees and Herodians – God is Sovereign

Mark next proceeded to orchestrate three significant encounters with the other major stakeholders in the social/religious system: the Pharisees, the Herodians, the Sadducees, and the scribes.

Mark 12:13-17 – Taxes to the Emperor

The first engagement was with the unlikely combination of a group of Pharisees and Herodians, normally opposed to each other though pointedly together now for the sake of the trap. Earlier in Jesus’ public life, some Pharisees in Galilee had aligned themselves with Herodians to seek ways of removing Jesus (3:6). 

Possibly the chief priests and elders who had so far been in conflict with Jesus were the ones responsible for sending the questioners and also, no doubt, devising the trap.

13 They sent some Pharisees and supporters of Herod to him
in order to trap him in what he said.
14 So they came up and said to him,
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere
and that you are not worried about anyone,
for you do not look for acceptance by people,
but teach the way of God with honesty.  
Is it lawful to pay the poll tax to Caesar?
15 Do we give it or do we not?”

The point of the trap was clear. If Jesus had said the tax should be paid to Rome, he would effectively have aligned himself with the accommodating aristocracy, accepted the subjugation of God’s people to gentiles, and lost the popular support of the crowd. The Pharisees were there to note his response and make use of it.

If he had said that the tax should not have been paid, then he would have publicly flouted the imperial regime. The Herodians, the civil servants of Herod (Rome’s local puppet king), were there to note his response and to arraign him before the political/military power – which would deal with him as with all political dissidents.

Recognising their hypocrisy, he said to them,
“Why do you test me out?
Bring me a denarius so that I can see it.”
16 They brought him one. 

The denarius was Roman coinage. To carry one in the pocket was effectively to have accommodated oneself, however reluctantly, to the economic regime of Rome. Jesus did not carry one. But they brought him one. If they had been Pharisees, they would have already incriminated themselves.

He said to them,
“Whose image and inscription is this?”
They told him, “Caesar’s.”

The denarius at that time bore the image of Tiberius Caesar. The inscription proclaimed: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” – a reference to Octavian, whom Rome had deified after his death.

To the monotheistic Jew, the image and the inscription were an idolatrous abomination. That such a coin should be carried by anyone, particularly into the temple of Yahweh, was an affront to the unique holiness of God.

17 So Jesus said to them,
“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s –

The literal translation “give back” is accurate. Jesus’ reaction was vigorously dismissive: give it back to the emperor! Get rid of it! Such idolatry was totally abhorrent to any true believer. In rejecting the coin and its inscription, Jesus condemned everything else that Rome stood for. Its economic position had been built on violence, injustice, economic oppression and the slavery of human persons. Its whole tenor was contrary to what was precious to Jesus – and indeed to what faithful Israel also held dear.

Jesus had already come across the “ethos” of Rome when he and the disciples had crossed the lake near Gerasa in Gentile territory and encountered the demoniac, the man possessed by the legion of unclean spirits (5:1-20). On that occasion Jesus had shown himself the stronger one.

 ... and to God what belongs to God.”

As would be clearly emphasised soon afterwards in the narrative, what was due to God was "all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength" (12:29-30). God and God’s values permeated every stratum of life, whether personal or social, and required complete and undivided allegiance. Jesus was not referring to any separation of the religious and the secular. He was demanding something much more momentous. 

Whatever about the deficiencies of Israel and its socio/religious culture, those embodied in imperial Rome were worse. Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom challenged the very heart of the military, political and religious system espoused by Rome.

They were amazed at him.

Mark did not clarify the reason for the amazement. It may simply have been at Jesus’ astuteness in avoiding the trap. It may also have come from some blossoming insight into the concerns and message of Jesus. It may even have been at his courage (or foolishness) in effectively, even if not quite openly, challenging Rome and its pretensions.

Next >> Mark 12:18-27