Summary: We owe the One who owns us.
Many years ago, when Ronald Reagan was President, a little boy wanted $50 very badly and prayed for a whole week. When nothing happened he decided to write God a letter. When the Post Office received the letter addressed to God they forwarded it to the White House. President Reagan was both impressed and amused, so he instructed his aide to send the boy $5, thinking that would be a lot to him. The boy was thrilled with five bucks and so he sat down and wrote a thank you note: “Dear God, thank you very much for sending the money. However I noticed for some reason you sent it through Washington and as usual, they kept most of it.”
Today we’re going to address one of the most-well known questions of Jesus, one in which He tells us what we owe God and what we owe the government. It’s the last week of Jesus’ life and He has just finished telling a powerful parable with an explosive application to the religious leaders. As Jesus focused on God’s goodness, His grace and His glory, He let the leaders know that judgment was coming.
As you can imagine these guys didn’t appreciate being called out by Christ. Look at Mark 12:12: “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.” Because they couldn’t arrest Him, they regrouped and came up with another plan according to Mark 12:13: “And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk.” They were no doubt selected for their shrewdness. The word “trap” means to ensnare and was used of catching a bird or a wild beast with a net. Instead of a frontal attack they resort to a stealthy ambush. In a parallel account, Matthew 22:15 mentions that they “plotted how to entangle him in his words.”
I heard that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary released more than 250 new words and redefinitions last week. One word they redefined was “troll.” Originally used as a noun to describe a character in Scandinavian folklore, it’s now a verb that means, “to antagonize others online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.” If the Pharisees and Herodians had Facebook or Twitter, they would be trolling Jesus for sure. But since they didn’t, they’re seeking to trap him face-to-face with his own words.
With that as background let’s read our passage in Mark 12:13-17: “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 marveled at him.”
Luke 20:21 refers to this select group of Pharisees and Herodians as “spies.” The Pharisees and the Herodians represented the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Just as our country is filled with polarizing vitriol between political parties, competing news channels, and now professional sports, the political climate at that time was also a powder keg.
Let’s see if I can explain this by separating the congregation right down the middle. Those of you on my right are the Herodians. Say it with me: “We are…Herodians!” Those of you on my left are the Pharisees. Say it with me: “We are…Pharisees!” Now let’s say it all together. Remember that you don’t like each other so go ahead and glare at those across the aisle (looks like some of you already were).
This chart helps explain the differences between these two groups.
Hated Jesus Hated Jesus
While they had opposite agendas and political platforms, the bottom line is that the Herodians feared that Jesus would undermine the rule of Herod and the Pharisees worried that He would upstage their religion. The Pharisees are ready to accuse Him of heresy and the Herodians can’t wait to charge him with treason.
But now, these two disparate groups come together to take out a common enemy. They’re living out the ancient saying: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We see that even today when people who despise each other’s beliefs will come together to defy Jesus Christ.