Summary: This sermon sets out to examine Mk 12:13-17 not in terms on Church-State relationships but rather by illucidating its socio-religious context and its application for God’s image bearers today.
EMPIRES IN COLLISION: CHRIST AND CAESAR
13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 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?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 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. (ESV)
In order to hopefully illustrate all this passage means for us, let me begin by showing how it may have impacted two very different people living in two completely different worlds.
Scene 1: There was Eliezar, he was 35 years old. He was a peasant from Galilee who came down for Passover. His brother had been sold into slavery because he couldn’t pay the land tax. His parents had been reduced to begging and he himself at the best of times was only a day away from complete destitution. Eliezar had followed Jesus for a while now. He was there for the triumphal entry and he thought to himself, ‘Could this be the one, the Messiah’. He had heard what Jesus had said in the Temple. He stood there amazed, astounded by his power to intellectually outwit and outgun the national leadership. He returned to his lodgings confident that Jesus was obviously no friend of Caesar’s and surely after such a provocative statement Jesus would, within the next few days, lead an armed rebellion against the occupying Roman forces. He returned to the Temple over the next few days to hear Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God. But he didn’t hear secret plans for a coup; instead he heard parables of a kingdom that grew like seeds, the salt of the earth, Gentiles participating in the messianic banquet, sinners preceding the righteous. Was this the kingdom? He had to think about it.
Scene 2: Rachel was 19 years old. She grew up in a Christian home. But lately her walk with good was more like a stumble. She had made great friends at University and at her part-time job at Coles. Her friends wanted her to come out and do things she know that a good Christian girl just shouldn’t do. She loved her family and her Church but the call from her friends was strong and she had to decide which group she belonged to the most.
What does this passage mean to those two people: hopefully we will see.
Nevertheless, I think it is important to initially qualify what is not being said in this passage. This is not about Church and State relationships. Sadly I think many preachers and scholars read Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 into this passage. In some tangential way it is related to the question of the existence of the State with the kingdom of God, but elucidating their precise relationship is not the point. Jesus is not condemning the inter-mingling of politics and religion. In virtually all cultures, including the Bible, politics, religion, family and economics are all closely intertwined. Neither is it about whether Christians should pay taxes or not. This is really about Jesus’ conflict with the national Jewish leaders and the politics of his day, not ours. With that caveat we may proceed to look at the text by viewing it through two distinct horizons or grids. The setting of Jesus’ ministry, and then, our own setting.
Horizon 1 – historical Jesus
We meet in the first instance two groups, the Herodians and the Pharisees. Who are they and what is their angle? The Herodians were the circle of supporters and beneficiaries of the Herodian dynasty. They didn’t mind the taxes at all as they gained from the Roman occupation, personally and financially. Now anyone cruising around the Palestinian countryside and talking about a ‘kingdom of God’ was sabre-rattling in their mind and had to be stopped. And it is here that they think that they have a chance to trap Jesus and to neutralize him.
Then there are the Pharisees. They were a group of associates, of relative popularity with the masses, who thought Israel would be restored if we just go ourselves religiously pure enough and committed ourselves to the Torah. But the Pharisees had a militant wing; they weren’t just interested in piety and debating fine points of the Torah. Oh no, access to real, political power was their agenda. At one time 6000 Pharisees refused to take an oath of allegiance to Caesar and King Herod, so Herod had the key leaders killed [Jos. Ant. 17.41-42]. Judas the Galilean started a revolt in Galilee when a census was taken for the purpose of taxation, his allies were the Pharisees on that occasion, and they had a distinct motto – No king but God. Paying taxes requires that you recognize Caesar’s kingship but only God is king. So in their view, paying taxes to anyone but God amounts to idolatry – you’re recognizing a king other than God [Jos. War 2.118; Ant. 18.23].