Digging in Deeper: Mark 12:15-17

“But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.’ They brought a coin. ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ he asked them. ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Jesus told them, ‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

During it’s seven-season run, I loved the show West Wing. Now, I know its cultural and political positions are pretty decidedly different from those I personally hold now, but the writing and acting were both terrific. When Aaron Sorkin wasn’t trying to be preachy (which wasn’t much, but still…), he was a master of witty dialogue and developing solid relationships among a whole cast of characters. All the same, the show was designed to highlight a certain political and cultural worldview (which, interestingly, would find no quarter in today’s political scene with its ever-shrinking center), and Sorkin’s preferred method of doing so was to have one character deliver a perfectly-timed monologue in such a way to make the other side look absolutely silly and defeated and to render all counterarguments moot. Well, I’m not sure how much time Sorkin has spent reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, but if he has, he must have been pretty impressed as Jesus did the same kind of thing with a remarkable frequency. Let’s take a look this morning at one of the more well-known of Jesus’ “Sorkin moments.”

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, this moment came when Jesus had been asked a wildly duplicitous question about taxes by a group of Pharisees and Herodians. This political and religious and cultural odd couple had come to Him when the religious leaders of the Jews had changed up their strategy to discredit and do away with Jesus. Instead of confronting Him directly, they sought to trick Him into saying something incriminating. They really didn’t care whether it was the crowds or the state who wound up unhappy with Him. If the crowds turned on Him they could arrest Him without worrying about a riot among His supporters. If the state branded Him an insurrectionist, all the better.

So, after slathering down a thick layer of insincere flattery, they set the challenge before Him: Should we pay taxes or not? Now, as was their intention, there was no way Jesus could have answered this correctly. And they knew that. That was exactly their goal. This was the question that was finally going to take Him down. He was going to lose the crowds or the state. Either way, He was toast. There was just one problem; one fly in the ointment: This was Jesus. He was smarter than they were. A lot smarter. He knew from the moment they walked up to Him what they were doing, and He wasn’t about to step in their trap.

With a sigh and possibly a roll or two of His eyes (did the Son of God ever roll His eyes?), Jesus responded as you just heard. “Why are you testing me?” In other words, “Come on, guys, we both know what you’re doing. You’ve tried this kind of thing before and it didn’t work then. Why do you think it’s going to work now? Haven’t you started picking up on the fact that I’m not the same as everybody else?”

I remember a KU basketball game from years ago when Jacques Vaughn was on the team. He was my favorite player by a mile. He wasn’t just a tremendous player, He had class. He is one of the select group of players whose jerseys hang in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse. One time when he was going up for a layup, he picked up his dribble just before the goal, palmed the ball, and moved his hand with the ball around behind his back. In addition to being a prolific scorer, he was also an assist machine. Knowing this, his defender figured he was doing a quick pass behind his back to an open teammate and backed off. Then, Vaughn brought the ball back around to the front and perfectly laid it in for an easy two points. After Jesus rhetorically rolled His eyes at the Pharisees and Herodians, He made a similar move on them and juked them out of their shorts.

“Bring me a denarius to look at.”

This was not the response they were expecting. They were like a temp customer service agent who is entirely reliant on the prompt screen on his computer for responses to any question. When Jesus went off script, they started frantically scrolling through possible responses and couldn’t find a single one that fit the context. So, they did the only thing they could think of: they gave Him the coin.

When they did, Jesus held it up for everyone to see and asked a simple question: “Whose image and inscription is this.” At this point, they were all so caught off guard by His response they couldn’t do anything other than to answer His question. Caesar’s. It was Caesar’s image. Rome had minted the coin and so Caesar’s image was on it just the same as coins minted in whatever country you happen to be reading from this morning (or this afternoon or this evening) have the image of one national leader or another on them. The country that mints the coins gets to put their brand on them. It’s a way to make the coins official, but also to say, “You have these coins at our pleasure. You are free to use them as long as you are here, but we’re going to ask for some of them back at some point, and we get to do that because they are ours as the brand on them indicates.”

With all eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, He said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Then He handed the coin back and dropped His mic. I made up that last part. But He might as well have done that because the crowd and the Pharisees and the Herodians were completely blown away by His response. They didn’t even know how to feel they were so amazed. Here they had put all of this thought and energy into coming up with the perfect trap, and Jesus had disarmed it without even trying. They forced Him to sail His ship through the narrow passage between the Charybdis and Scylla, and instead of simply doing His best to avoid as much damage as possible, Jesus had just pushed a button on the helm, turned His ship into an airplane, and flew over the top of the whole thing while they gaped up at Him with open mouths.

Jesus’ response here was brilliant (because Jesus was brilliant). It has been analyzed endlessly and from every possible angle, but here are a couple of thoughts on it for you to ponder this morning.

First, Jesus was not somehow assuming there are some things that belong to the state and not to God. It would be easy for a critic to try and make that case. After all, Jesus told them to give to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar. That would seem to suggest that some things belong to Caesar (i.e., the State) and not to God. He didn’t believe that, though. Rather, He was shrewdly responding to the delusion that is common to all states eventually and which the question of the Pharisees and Herodians assumed on, namely, that there are some things that do indeed belong to them by right. Jesus was saying, “If Caesar wants to put his face on some coins, give them to you, and then demand you give some of them back to him, that’s fine. He can do that. And if he does, do what he says.” The state has that power and prerogative. Nothing about that somehow threatens God’s sovereignty. Christians can and should pay their taxes without undue complaint. That is one of our duties as citizens of whatever earthly kingdom God has made us a part.

Second, and on the other side of this, Jesus was not assuming that God is only sovereign over some things such that we only need to give those things to Him. This is an implication of the first possible misunderstanding of Jesus’ response. If some things belong to Caesar and some things belong to God, then we only need to give God those things which are His and the rest is ours to enjoy as we please. Right? Wrong. Jesus knew the Scriptures perfectly well. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world and all who live there. No, what Jesus was saying in the context of the question was something entirely more subversive than that.

I said a moment ago that all states eventually succumb to the delusion that some things really belong to them. And, the bigger and more entrenched that state becomes, the more things they try and claim for themselves. Totalitarian states like modern China claim just about every aspect of life within their borders belongs to them. Rome certainly bought into that delusion. Before His followers began proclaiming “Jesus is Lord,” it was common in the empire for citizens to proclaim “Caesar is lord.” There was no part of life over which the state didn’t claim control then. And when Jesus announced the people should give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar, He was playing on that assumption on their part. That was the line the Herodians (and any other agents of Rome in the crowd) wanted to hear. But then He went one step further. For Jesus to say we should give to God what belongs to God implies there are some things that don’t belong to the state. This flew right in the face of Caesar’s claim to be lord of all. It still does.

Here’s what this means for us. As followers of Jesus we can and should be respectful of our governments. We should be the very best citizens we can be. We should be submissive where such submission does not conflict with our larger and higher submission to God. But we must never forget where our primary loyalty lies. Living that loyalty will at times bring us into conflict with the demands of the state and there will be consequences for that when those times come. But we live it all the same because our king is greater. His kingdom is larger. His power is unstoppable. When we stand with Him, we cannot be overcome. So, let us stand with our Lord and keep moving forward. Because when we do, nothing will stand in our way.

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