“The Tribute Penny”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribute_penny
13Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (Mark 12.13-17 NRSV)
The Pharisees and Herodians came to Jesus with a loaded question.
It was a trick. There wasn’t a good answer. No matter how Jesus responded, the question would trap him.
I bet you’ve heard or even been asked one of these questions.
Maybe something like, “Hey Kenny, do you still enjoy reading vampire-romance-novels?”
It is a trap!
There is no good answer.
“No” just won’t do it. It implies something. It is incriminating. The “still” part is the trick. Answering “no” suggests I have read vampire-romance-novels, and, even more, that I have actually enjoyed them.
I have never read one, so I don’t know if I would enjoy them or not … maybe I would … I don’t know.
To keep from incriminating myself I need something more than a simple “yes” or “no” – Maybe I need to respond with another question, “I have never read one, so I guess I don’t know if I would enjoy it or not … could I borrow your copy?”
From the last part of Mark chapter 11 through chapter 12, there is a long line of people asking Jesus loaded questions hoping to bait him into saying something they could use against him. As Jesus walks through the temple with his disciples, the questions come in waves. The chief priests, the scribes, and elders were the first to ask one of these questions (Mk. 11.27). Then the Pharisees and the Herodians (Mk. 12.13). Later it would be the Sadducees (Mk. 12.18) and after them, another scribe (Mk. 12.28). They all hoped Jesus would say something that would turn the crowds against him, or make him look like a renegade and a threat to the Roman Empire.
It looks like there was something about Jesus that caused all these groups with their different agendas and motives to be uncomfortable. There was something about Jesus, his ministry and his message, that threatened each of these groups.
Jesus was an equal-opportunity annoyance!
The Pharisees and the Herodians were an unlikely alliance.
They had different agendas.
The Pharisees were a powerful group concerned with maintaining Israel’s identity as the people of God through diligently keeping God’s law and observing ceremonies and rigidly interpreting Scripture. Herodians believed the kings from Herod’s family had a legitimate right to rule Israel. Talk about an uphill battle. The Herod family kings weren’t necessarily examples of faithfulness and Pharisee convictions. It’s hard to imagine Pharisees being excited about the Herodians’ cause. Maybe the Pharisees and Herodians teaming up was an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of deal.
The Pharisees and Herodians’ challenges to Jesus had been coming for a long time.
Way back, in chapter 3 of Mark, after Jesus healed a guy’s hand on the sabbath, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy [Jesus]” (Mk. 3.6). They had been planning to get rid of Jesus for a while.
They must have thought their question was perfect.
“Yes” or “No” – either one would be incriminating.
Either one was bound to push someone’s buttons.
The poll tax, the tax they were probably alluding to, was another reminder Israel wasn’t their own country. It was a reminder they weren’t free. They were supposed to be God’s free people, but they weren’t free and hadn’t been free for a long time. Rome occupied Israel, like so many empires before occupied Israel. Even Herod, their “king” only had limited bits of power Rome granted him. It must have added insult to injury to have to pay Caesar for the privilege of letting Rome hold their freedom.
The tax involved political and theological dilemmas – in the history of Israel politics and theology are very connected. From their start, God was supposed to be Israel’s king … they went through seasons of remembering this and forgetting this, but it had to have crossed their minds when they paid this tax.
Caesar’s money was another problem. His coins were stamped with his image – God’s people weren’t supposed to use images of people in their art. The message written on the coins was a problem too. On one side Caesar’s coins were stamped with the words, “Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus” and on the other, “High Priest.” I heard someone say, “If the Romans had gone out of their way to be offensive to Jews, they couldn’t have done better [than this coin]” (Wright, 162).
Some people wouldn’t touch the coins. Some people wouldn’t even look at them. The tax was complicated. Paying meant accommodating the Empire and not paying amounted to rebellion in the empire’s eyes.
The crowds would have loved it if Jesus said, “No.” “Don’t pay Rome’s tax.” But from Rome’s perspective that would have made Jesus look like a dangerous threat calling for a revolution. If Jesus answered “Yes,” Rome would be happy, but the crowds would probably turn against him, seeing him as a spineless collaborator.
Either way, someone would be mad at him.
It must have seemed like a sure-fire no-win deal.
They won before Jesus could even open his mouth, right?
Jesus saw through their questions and asked more questions.
“Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.”
That big mess of politics and theology comes together in Jesus’ question too.
You remember Jesus, the Pharisees, the Herodians are all in the temple? You remember the stories about money changers in the temple? The money changers traded people “temple appropriate” money (no graven images, no blasphemous inscriptions) for Caesar’s money.
Jesus doesn’t have a denarius. They brought one.
Douglas Hare writes,
“This coin bore the image of Tiberius, the reigning emperor, and an inscription that identified him as ‘the son of divine Augustus’ and as “Pontifex Maximus,” that is, chief priest of the Roman civic religion. Although images were strictly forbidden by the Second Commandment (Ex. 20.4), Jesus’ enemies have no difficulty producing a denarius bearing the image of a pagan priest, even here in the temple, the most holy sanctuary of the Lord God! Because the questioners do not hesitate to use Caesar’s coins in daily business and even bring them into the temple, they have no right to raise a question about whether or not paying taxes to Caesar accords with the law of Moses” (Hare, 154).
Bringing Jesus one of Caesar’s coins reveals their accommodation to Rome. It is a sign that they are playing some sort of game … maybe that’s why Jesus calls them hypocrites – people who know truth, but whose behavior isn’t shaped by truth.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asked.
“The emperor’s.” They answered.
Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
They were utterly amazed at him.
Jesus didn’t fall into their trap. He might have even turned the trap around on them.
So, the coins bear Caesar’s image, that means they are Caesar’s.
Give to God the things that are God’s. What things are God’s?
Maybe since we have images on our minds there is a connection to the creation story and the conviction that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gn. 1.27). In this case, since humans are created in the image of God, with the image of God stamped on us, we are to give our very selves over to God.
Still, what does this look like?
This is something Christians have wrestled with throughout our history.
What is faithfulness?
What is accommodation?
I am curious if Jesus’s response is supposed to push us into tension.
Maybe we are expected to wrestle with what faithfulness means and what it looks like in our lives, in our place, and in our time?
This tension … this wrestling leads us into relationship with God. This tension pushes us into an active and engaged faith where we continue to grow in our understanding of Jesus and the claim Jesus places on us. This tension pushes us to ask, what does giving ourselves to God look like in this situation. It challenges us to become more aware of the claims our world, our government, our culture place on us … it calls us to discern what fidelity, accommodating, and compromising look like in our place and time.
Our lives aren’t divided into different sections … parts that God are more important or less important to God, God cares about every part of our lives … Christ is Lord of all … Lord over all … Give to God the things that are God’s.