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 marveled at him. – Mark 12:13-17 ESV
Jesus’ ransacking of the temple courtyard had caused quite a stir. And, as a result, His already strained relationship with the Jewish religious leaders took a dramatic turn for the worse. These men questioned His authority as well as His sanity, having earlier claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon and in league with Satan. But when they met Him face to face, they found that He was anything but crazy. Jesus proved to be a formidable debater who, although an educated Rabbi from Nazareth, could stand toe-to-toe with the best and brightest members of the highly trained Sanhedrin. These professional religious scholars and experts in the Mosaic law found Jesus to be no pushover. And in today’s passage, we find the Sanhedrin taking a tag-team approach, sending wave after wave of their best thinkers to do mental battle with Jesus.
In chapter 11, Mark records the first onslaught. He described the chief priests, scribes, and elders confronting Jesus in the Courtyard of the Gentiles. But their attempt to trap Jesus didn’t turn out so well. Which led the Sanhedrin to send another team made up of Pharisees and Herodians. Now, this was a particularly strange alliance because these two groups were normally diametrically opposed. The Pharisees were a highly conservative religious sect, while the Herodians were essentially a political party that, as their name suggests, supported Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Israel. To the Pharisees, the Herodians were sell-outs, whose support of Herod and willing tolerance of Roman rule greatly compromised Jewish independence.
Yet, these two opposing groups found unity in their shared hatred for Jesus. So, they made an unholy alliance, joining forces in an effort to trap Jesus. And Luke adds that these “spies” were driven by a desire to find condemning evidence that would result in Jesus’ arrest.
The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. – Luke 20:19-20 ESV
As soon as the Pharisees and Herodians begin their questioning of Jesus, it becomes clear why the Sanhedrin had decided to pair these two groups together. The entire scene is a set-up that begins with false flattery. They try to lower Jesus’ defenses by attempting to stroke His ego.
“Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn’t we?” – Mark 12:14-15 NLT
Their reputation as enemies was well known, and that was part of their scheme. They led Jesus to believe that they had come to Him for help in settling a dispute. The issue was the Roman poll tax. This was an annual tax imposed upon the Jews by the Romans that the Pharisees found in violation of their own laws concerning the sabbatical year. This was a head-tax that every Jew was required to pay every year, with no break during the seventh or sabbatical year. To the religiously-minded Pharisees, this tax was unacceptable. But to the Herodians, who supported the Roman government, it was a cost they were willing to pay because it helped maintain the peace.
But this entire “debate” was a ploy. The Pharisees must have assumed that Jesus was conservatively minded, just as they were, and would side with them. If He did, this would provide the Herodians with more than enough evidence to accuse Him of fomenting revolution against the Roman government. Their ultimate goal was to get Him in trouble with the civil authorities.
But “Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’” (Mark 12:15 NLT). He was not fooled for a second. Their motives were painfully transparent, and Jesus refused to step into their poorly conceived trap. Instead, He was that they show Him a denarius, which was a Roman-minted coin. Jesus was about to turn their question regarding taxation into a lesson on veneration.
When they presented Him with the coin, Jesus asked a simple question: “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” (Mark 12:16 NLT). And they quickly responded, “Caesar.” And what Jesus said next would leave them in a state of amazement.
“Well, then,” Jesus said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” – Mark 12:17 NLT
This had not been what they expected to hear. With His response, Jesus neither favored nor opposed the poll tax. Instead, He turned the whole debate into a lesson on loyalty and spiritual faithfulness. The Herodians placed a high priority on keeping the law of the Romans. The Pharisees countered that the laws of God had greater precedence than those of men. But Jesus was driving home the point that both groups were guilty of worshiping the wrong thing.
“The denarius of Tiberius portrayed the emperor as the semi-divine son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia and bore the (abbreviated) inscription ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus’ on the obverse and ‘Pontifex Maximus’ on the reverse. Both the representations and the inscriptions were rooted in the imperial cult and constituted a claim to divine honors.” – Lane, William L. The Gospel According to Mark. New International Commentary on the New Testament
For Jesus, this had nothing to do with taxation or Roman occupation. It had to do with the focus of the heart. Both of these groups were guilty of false worship. In a sense, the Herodians worshiped Caesar because they believed he provided them with protection and allowed them to enjoy their relative power and freedom. On the other hand, the Pharisees worshiped their oral and written laws, treating them with greater veneration than the One who had originally given them to Moses.
In a sense, Caesar required coins that bore his image as payment for services rendered. His troops kept the peace. His government provided social order and stability. And those who benefited from these amenities were expected to pay for them.
Jesus had no problem with rendering unto Caesar what belonged to him. The coins bore his image, so they were rightfully his. But mankind bears the image of God and, therefore, rightfully belongs to Him. That is why Jesus said, “give to God what belongs to God.”
God doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t even need our feeble attempts at religious rule-keeping and pharisaical posturing. Jesus knew that the Pharisees were guilty of going through the motions and only pretending to revere and worship God.
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-8 NLT
In a sense, Jesus is taking the conversation back to the issue of authority. Because of his position and power, Caesar had every right to demand a tax from the people over whom he ruled. But God also had the authority to demand worship from those whom He had made. Every man and woman on the planet bore the Imago Dei (the image of God) and were expected to give God what rightfully belonged to Him: Their lives and their worship.
Yet, as the apostle Paul discloses, even since the fall, mankind has repeatedly refused to render unto God what is rightfully His.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT
And for Jesus, the issue was the failure of the religious leaders to honor Him for who He was – the Son of God and the Savior of the world. To the Herodians, Caesar was like a god, worthy of their veneration and willing subjugation. And the Pharisees had made their religion their god, placing all their hope in the rules and regulations that governed daily life, and provided any hope they had of salvation. But both had failed to recognize that God was in their midst. He had come to dwell with them. And all He asked was that they give Him what was due Him: Their lives and allegiance.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.