The day after Jesus’ rather anticlimactic entry into Jerusalem on a colt (see Mark 11:1-11 as well as my post on the topic), the religious authorities send the Pharisees and the Herodians to try to trap Jesus with regards to a rather thorny issue.
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? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:14-15a, NRSV)
It is almost comical the way in which Jesus’ opponents try to butter him up with flattery. They don’t think he teaches God’s way. The Pharisees frequently accused Jesus of violating the Torah and Jesus always had a clever comeback to shut them up (see 2:15-17 and 2:23-28). And both the Pharisees and the Herodians, a group of officials or partisans who were loyal to Herod, had been conspiring to kill Jesus long before his arrival in Jerusalem (3:6).
Here the two groups try to trap Jesus on the issue of taxation. Why would this be so controversial? Keep in mind the context in which the Markan author writes. In all likelihood, Mark writes his Gospel sometime before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The First Jewish War began in 66 CE and left the region in turmoil but even during the days of Jesus there was an unrest as many believed that Roman rule would come to an end and that the Messiah would arrive to vanquish Israel’s foes. And if Jesus was the Messiah, this expectation would have been thrust upon him as well.
“Bring Me a Denarius”
Since paying taxes to Rome could have been construed as material support for Roman ambition and Roman religion, endorsing Roman taxation could be considered tantamount to supporting Roman rule. On the other hand, to claim that one should not pay their taxes could be construed as an act of rebellion against Rome for which the punishment was death. How does Jesus handle the issue?
First, Jesus knows what the Pharisees and the Herodians are doing. Their duplicity isn’t hidden to him and so he asks them, “Why are you putting me to the test?” (12:15) Second, Jesus turns the questions back upon them. After they bring him a denarius at his request he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (12:16) Third, when his opponents acknowledge that the answer to his questions is “the emperor’s” (12:16), Jesus tells them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” an answer that amazes them (12:17).
In my mind, Jesus’ answer can cut a couple of different ways. When Jesus asks them whose head is on the coin, the word translated in the NRSV as “head” is eikōn. Eikón is a word that refers to an image or a picture of a person. What is interesting about eikón is that it is also the word that the LXX uses in Genesis 1:26 when God says, “Let us make man according to our own image [eikona].” So Jesus may be saying here, “The image of the emperor is on that which belongs to the emperor. Give it to him. The image of God is on that which belongs to God, namely you. Give it to Him.” In this way Jesus affirms the responsibility to pay taxes but turns it into a lesson about the worship God deserves.
Or there is another possibility.
It All Belongs to God
Jesus doesn’t say in response to the Pharisee’s answer to his questions about whose inscription is on the coin, “You are right. So then give….” His response is that they should give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God that which belongs to God. But doesn’t everything belong to God, including the emperor? And if so, giving to the emperor what belongs to the emperor means giving the emperor nothing. Absolutely nothing belongs to him! Everything belongs to God!
I’m not saying that this is the correct interpretation of the passage. But commentators have noticed that when Jesus says “and to God the things that are God’s” there may be more than pious theological reflection going on.1 And if it is the case then Jesus was being more subversive than we tend to make him.
It is an interesting possibility to say the least.
1 In their commentary on Mark, John Donahue and Daniel Harrington write,
The addition of “and the things of God to God,” however, makes Jesus’ response more ambiguous. The addition can be taken as merely a pious afterthought or homiletic application: Be as serious (and more so) in fulfilling your obligations to God as you are in fulfilling your obligations to the Roman government and their local representatives. But it can also be read as suggesting that one’s obligations to God override one’s obligations to Caesar. This kind of thinking inspired various Jewish revolutionary movements during the first century and became especially prominent in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. Read in this way, Jesus’ pronouncement could be taken as siding with those who refused to pay the emperor’s tax. (John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacred Pagina [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002], 346.
Featured image: By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37054207