There is a great moment in the gospel narrative when Jesus is asked a question that many of his fellow Jews wrestled with. Israel was in a strange situation, being in Jerusalem yet in many ways still feeling the pains of exile because of Rome’s oppressive rule. Israel enjoyed few freedoms beyond their Temple practices, often being forced to contribute to a system that revered other gods, goddesses, and idols belonging to Rome and their fellow conquered nations. Though Rome relented and allowed Israel to abstain from offering a “pinch of incense” as they entered each city gate (a way to honor the gods of that city), they were still expected to pay a tribute tax to Caesar. This tax was complicated for Israel; Rome—and Caesar himself—proclaimed Caesar’s role as a deity.
The religious leaders of Jesus’s day debated the virtues or evils that were inherent in the very giving of the tribute tax. On one hand it kept things peaceful (Jeremiah 29:4-7), but on the other, it was counter to their sensibilities of the shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) and the Ten Commands (especially Exodus 20:3). These new exiles were left to debate, wrestle with, and find a way forward in paying a tribute to Caesar.
This is the setting for the scene in Mark 12:13-16. It is interesting to note that the two groups sent to trap Jesus were Herodians (who had every reason to keep Rome happy) and the Pharisees (who were most likely against paying a pagan leader tribute). They assumed their trap to be foolproof because Jesus would ultimately have to choose a side.
Enter, stage right, the brilliance of Jesus. He responds to their question by employing the cleverness of a truly great rabbi—a better set of questions! This is where things get interesting and take an unexpected twist for the original questioners, because they responded to Jesus’s two questions, “Whose image?” and “Whose inscription?” with one answer, “Caesar’s.” Jesus corrects their answer by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”
The passage ends with everyone being “utterly amazed,” yet we typically aren’t that impressed with this story. Why should we be? When we look at a denarius we find that throughout the time of Jesus there were several different versions struck for each Caesar. Each of these contained the image of the current Caesar and then a title that made the declaration of divinity of said Caesar. Jesus counters the trap by saying that theimage is indeed of Caesar but the inscription belongs only to God.
This is the picture drawn for us, one that still comes with great difficulty as we wrestle with the theology of our bank accounts. What things, people, and places do we elevate above God? It is not a problem to spend money, to enjoy money, to save money—but we must always know whose inscription is on our finances.
First Published here.