13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
(Mark 12:13-17 NIV)
After Jesus cleansed the Temple, members of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious rulers) confronted Jesus about His authority to do what He did. After their unsuccessful attempt to get Jesus to implicate Himself, the Sanhedrin were looking for a way to arrest Jesus. Jesus then told them a story that exposed their wicked ways, which only fueled their hatred for Jesus. They left the confrontation, determined to find a way to entrap Jesus.
In today’s story, the members of the Sanhedrin send another entourage to try to ensnare Jesus in His own words. This time they sent the Pharisees and the Herodians, two polar opposite groups who have come together to find fault in Jesus’ answer to their carefully crafted question.
The Pharisees and Herodians concoct a question that, in their minds, will have only one of two responses. Either answer will implicate Jesus and will be grounds for His arrest.
When the two groups address Jesus, they gush all over Him (v. 14). Their hope is to either flatter Jesus and cause Him to let His guard down and implicate Himself, or to shame Him into telling the truth and not avoid the question as their co-conspirators had done earlier when Jesus questioned them (Mark 11:33a).
The Pharisees and Herodians were hoping to force Jesus into a dilemma – making Him choose between their two answers. The Pharisees were against paying the tax to Rome and paid it only under protest. The Herodians were Roman sympathizers and considered not paying the tax to be unpatriotic and show disloyalty to Rome.
The two groups, even though they were polar opposites, planned to play off each other. If Jesus agreed with the Pharisees that the tax should not be paid, the Herodians would arrest Jesus for trying to start a rebellion against the Roman government. The Herodians knew that the Roman government would not tolerate those who tried to start an insurrection – Judas of Galilee (circa AD 6) was the poster child for what happened to those who tried to start a riot against Rome (Acts 5:37). If Jesus agreed with the Herodians, the Pharisees would arrest Jesus for blasphemy and heresy, as this would be saying that Ceasar is the deity He worshiped, not God.
Jesus sees through their hypocrisy (v. 15) and answers their question with a question in His typical rabbinical fashion. Jesus asks for a Roman coin to use as His illustration. Mark makes a point here, as Jesus did not just dig in his pocket and produce a coin – He likely had no money.
Jesus simply asked whose image was on the coin. The obvious and only answer was “Ceasar’s image”. Jesus then responds with a brilliant answer: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
In Jesus’ response, we see the entire order of the universe laid out. While the Pharisees and others were concerned about whose image was on the Roman coins, Jesus was reminding them of the image stamped on the heart of every human – that of God Himself (Genesis 1:26-27). Thus, every person is under the divine authority of God, even Ceasar.
Also, Jesus is reminding everyone that God has established human authority and rule underneath His Divine rule. Since human authority is within Divine authority, we must comply with human authority as long as it does not overstep its boundaries and go against Divine authority.
In other words, loyalty to God comes first. As long as human authority does not try to take the place of Divine authority, we must also be loyal to those that God has established to rule over us and protect us. As a follower of Christ, our loyalty to God informs and directs our citizenship to human authority and, under normal circumstances, makes us better community members and citizens.
This also begs the question of if there is ever a time or place for disobedience to human authorities. Before Jesus’ time, we see examples of the prophets being treated harshly and unjustly as they remained faithful to delivering God’s message. Jeremiah was a prime example.
After Jesus was resurrected, the disciples were also put to the test. They were told not to say the name of Jesus ever again. What was the response of Peter and the other disciples? “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). Luke records that they paid the price of suffering for staking their claim on Jesus – they were flogged (beaten) and turned loose, “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41).
Even today, we hear of many who remain loyal to Christ and pay the price of suffering – disowned by their families, treated as social outcasts in their communities, facing persecution and even death. But yet they stand firm, knowing that their reward and glory awaits in the life yet to come, and joy comes from following Christ.
May we live with such confidence, hope, and purpose.