Mark 11:27 Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple… Mark 12:13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14And 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? 15Should 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.’ 16And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ 17Jesus 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 (NRSV).
A few things we notice from this passage.
- Jesus has no money on him. I’m not sure what to really make of this, and I certainly do not suggest this means we shouldn’t carry any money anywhere. However, it is thought-provoking. Why doesn’t Jesus have money? Did he give it all to the Temple already? Did he purposely not bring money to the Temple? Does he have money? Contrary to some contemporary thought, I think ultimately this shows that Jesus didn’t have much money to his name.
- Jesus sees through the question to the intention of the Pharisees and Herodians. Pretty good observation, don’t you think?
- If Jesus answers one of the two ways his “accusers” hope he does, he will either be seen as a “rebel” or a “traitor of the faith.” If he says, “Don’t pay taxes,” Rome comes in (and we all know how they liked to handle things). If he says, “Pay taxes,” the Pharisees will call him a “traitor,” and many of Jesus’ followers will likely leave him because of their experience of Rome’s corruption and oppression. But Jesus doesn’t answer either of these ways, and that’s where he shows true wisdom.
- Jesus doesn’t have a coin, so he asks his “accusers” for one. This may seem meaningless when we simply look at the text, but a deeper look into the cultural context will reveal much more. I would like to turn my attention to this…
In 1st century Palestine, it was unacceptable for a Jew to bring a Roman coin into the Temple. At this time (14-37 CE), a denarius had two blasphemous images on it–the first, a picture and inscription of “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus” (emphasis mine); the second on the back, a goddess with the inscription of “High Priest.” Thus, a God-fearing Jew (or culturally savvy one) would never have such a coin on his/her person while in the Temple.
This is where it gets humorous and exciting…
As soon as the guy grabs this denarius out of his pocket, he loses! The whole team loses! Jesus takes his accusers’ attempt to get him in trouble and turns their attempt on its head! Ha! They try to accuse him, but he gets them! Wow! I can imagine at least one guy in the group smack his own forehead and say, “Doy!” Hahaha!
That’s soooo Jesus, isn’t it?
And so, it’s almost as though Jesus is saying, “Give Caesar that disgusting piece of money! I don’t want it. He can have it. But Give to God what he desires–for you to love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. That’s what I’m all about.” Is that how we feel about money and the things of God? Are money and material items disgusting to us so much so that we have no problem giving them up? Are the things of God desirable to us? It’s something that we must think about.
It seems to me that Jesus often gives only two options to this debate: God or money. You choose. I know which one Jesus would.
(All of the above took place at my most recent class at Biblical Seminary, and such observations are credited to our professor Dr. Derek Cooper).