Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And 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? 15 Should 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.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus 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.
The trap is set with lavish words of honor. The double use of “truth” in their statement - sincere in verse 14 could also be translated as true - heightens Mark’s accusation of hypocrisy in verse 15. The trap set by these leader’s is meant to make Jesus state his allegiance. Will he be truthful to God? Or will he uphold the law of the land?
In the political turmoil of being an oppressed nation, Israel’s loyalties to God are compromised by the imperial state. They have been forced to pay taxes to the empire in exchange for limited sovereignty as a religious group. The tax, paid with a denarius, is blasphemous because it contains heresy against God. “As Mark’s audience would have been well aware, the coin bore the head of the current Cesar, extolling him as ‘August and Divine Son.’ Such an ‘image’ itself would have settled the matter for patriotic Jews, who regarded the mere circulation of Roman currency as an issue of idolatry (Myers, 311).”
The question of allegiance is thrust into the spotlight. Jesus, the leader of a movement, is asked where his loyalties lie, with the state or with God.
Jesus sees the trap and asks them to produce the coin in question. The ironic twist in the narrative is that these leaders of the Jewish people are able to produce the blasphemous coin in question. By carrying the coin, they betray their own allegiance to the status-quo, the empire, who allows them to maintain positions of power. The truth is that they are merely puppets of the state, allowed to lead on a short leash for the sake of pseudo-peace. These religious leaders have compromised their allegiances to God.
“Jesus’ opponents began the discussion with reference to the way of ‘God’ and the tax of ‘Caesar;’ Jesus ends it by considering these two claims. The imperative commonly translated ‘render’ (apodote) is widely used in the New Testament to speak of payment of debt or recompense, but occurs only here and Mark, and his best read as ‘repay.’ The sense of the dictum is: ‘repay the one to whom you are indebted’ (Myers, 311).”
The religious leaders are indebted to Rome. Their allegiance, to their own power, has been bought and paid for. Their attempt to trap Jesus has revealed their leanings. But this cannot be taken out of context of the previous stories.
The question about Jesus’ authority from the Sanhedrin, the parable of the vineyard tenants, and the question about paying taxes all flow together. The political overtones of this story cannot be dismissed. Mark is reflecting on the tension of political captivity and how to navigate the tricky waters of bringing about the new social reality called the kingdom of God.
Though not mentioned here, the political ramifications of Jesus’ teachings about a new social order built on equality and sharing is in opposition to the political, economic, and social underpinnings of the current world order - Rome. Jesus’ teachings also do not conform to the call to revolt. Jesus does not take up the revolutionary call to overthrow Rome through force.
These three stories together demonstrate Jesus’ commitment to this new social order as a political, economic, and social reality in the present. The religious leaders, their power consolidated in Jerusalem, have maintained their authority through heavy taxation of the poor and by consolidating land and resources for their benefit. They have been poor tenants of the land, owned not by Rome, but by God, as the parable states. The issue of paying taxes demonstrates the leader’s allegiance to Rome, to the oppressors, and opens up the door to questioning their commitment to the Jewish struggle for liberation.
“In terms of the narrative world, their strategy of pursuing the tax question is shrewd. Whichever side Jesus takes will facilitate his downfall: if he refuses to endorse tribute payment, the colonial government can move against him; if he cooperates, he stands to lose the very popular support that is protecting him from the Jewish leaders (Myers, 314).”
Jesus avoids declaring allegiance to the state and to the active liberation movement. He does not answer the question directly. He simply raises the issue of allegiance to the leaders who, while not answering directly, seem to betray their answer by carrying the coin in the first place.
At it’s heart, this story is no mere allegory about church and state, its about commitment to the new social reality called the kingdom of God. This new social reality is not aligned with the ideologies of worldly powers. When allegiance to worldly systems of power supersedes the following of Jesus, the question of "rendering" becomes potent.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- Where have we placed our allegiances?
- Where are we beholden to worldly systems of power?
- How does Jesus liberate us from these systems for the sake of the Gospel?
- When does our "rendering" to worldly powers get in the way of our spreading of the Gospel?