Time and time again they tried. Time and time again, Jesus outsmarted them. But they were persistent, so they came back, again. Surely at last they’d found an issue that would snare this upstart Rabbi, get him to say something that would discredit or incriminate him, so that one way or another they could be rid of him.
I speak, of course, of the chief priests, the Pharisees and scribes, the Jewish religious authorities in first century Palestine, and their repeated questioning of Jesus over matters of law and custom and practice. Although most of his parables were at least a bit confusing to his closest followers, these scribes knew only too well what they meant. They knew, for example, that when he talked about vine growers who killed vineyard owner’s son, he was talking about them. However, because he was gathering a strong following among the people, they couldn’t just take hold of him. Better to trick him into saying something that would undermine his authority and, hopefully, give them a reason to arrest him.
Finally, they had their question (Mark 12:13-17).
First, the set up. The appointed scribes came to him and said things that seemed to affirm they trusted his judgment. “You teach the way of God truthfully,” they schmoozed.
Then, the hit. “Should we pay taxes to Caesar? Is that the right thing for us Jews to do?” If he said yes, they hoped he’d lose the people and their problem with him would go away. If he said no, then they’d have him – the Romans would not take kindly to someone inciting such revolt.
They couldn’t miss with this one! Or so they thought.
Jesus, however, knew their hypocrisy and let them know he was onto them. “Why are you testing me?” Although the text goes straight onto Jesus asking to see a coin, I imagine that he actually would have paused after this question. At least just long enough for a little bit of panic to creep in as these men, called “spies” by Luke in his gospel, realised he was onto them. Nevertheless, they bring him the coin.
We know how it ends. The scribes and the crowd are amazed when he says, after getting them to affirm that Caesar’s picture is on the coin, “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
A brilliant response! Not only does it defuse the issue and remove the tension they’d hoped it would create for Jesus, but it’s multi-layered and full of profound implications. These implications go beyond the simplistic issue of the separation of Church and State that has probably received most of the words of comment and sermon on the story ever since. It does give grounds for that separation, but we need to understand that Jesus didn’t advocate a separation of equal systems. No, what he does here is to completely subjugate the political, economic and financial world to the kingdom of God.
We need to remember the question that Jesus had asked when they brought the coin to him. “Whose image is this?” When told what he already knew, that it was the head of Caesar, his response is quite scathing. It’s like Jesus is saying, “what’s the big deal here? If the image of Caesar is such an insignificant little thing and he wants it back, then give it to him.” This is a huge put-down of the Roman ‘god-ruler’, though so cleverly expressed that many have missed it – both those who heard it at the time and many commentators since.
When he continues by saying “and to God the things that are God’s” we need to keep in mind that the image of God is far greater than a little head on a coin. The people all around him were the image of God; and in a hugely significant way, he was THE image of God. What do we render to God? What are the ‘things that are God’s’ in his response?
We get a clear word about that a few verses later. When one of the scribes realises that Jesus has answered them well he asks a genuine question. “What’s the greatest commandment?” Jesus answer is, of course, to love God with all that you are and to “love your neighbor as yourself”. (Mark 12:28-31)
The apostle Paul puts it that way in Romans 13, which is his commentary on Jesus’ words about Caesar and God. In brief, he says that rendering to Caesar is doing the right thing by your fellow citizens, including paying taxes, but above everything our obligations as followers of God is to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Romans 13:9).
Rendering to Caesar is about a lot more than just paying tax. It’s about keeping all financial and money matters in their place. We are to operate in the world and its economy with honesty and integrity, giving to others what is rightfully due to them, but as Christians we do this in the context of the prior and higher obligation to honour God.
From that comes the imperative to love our neighbours, which puts rendering to Caesar in the shade!
Warren Bird is Executive Director of Uniting Financial Services