Commentary on Mark 12:13-17
Possibly in response to the parable of the wicked tenants which we read yesterday, a delegation comes to confront Jesus. Their composition is rather unusual but proves the saying that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It would be hard to find two groups more ideologically opposed than the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees set the highest standards in their observance of the Law. They were highly patriotic and strongly anti-Roman. The Herodians, on the other hand, were seen as rather lax and not particularly devout. And they had the reputation of being a little too cosy with the Roman colonial powers. In normal circumstances these two groups would never be seen in each other’s company. But now they had a common opponent in Jesus. For Jesus was seen, depending on how he was interpreted, as challenging the Law on the one hand and as a potential rallying point for anti-Roman sentiment.
The confrontation is carried out with a good deal of subtlety. It begins with shameless flattery. “We know you are an honest man, that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you, and that you teach the way of God in all honesty.” In fact, every word of this is absolutely true and would that it could be said of every one of us! In their book, however, it means that Jesus is a very dangerous person and, indeed, people like Jesus have run into trouble all through history, not least in our own days.
Having, as they imagined, totally disarmed Jesus by their positive approach, they smoothly slip in the knife. One can almost hear the blandness and feigned innocence with which they ask their question: “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It sounds to us a very straightforward question but it was, in fact, one of the most politically sensitive issues of the day. And, of course, it was a trick question of the “Have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife?” kind.
If Jesus said it was permissible, then he incurred the wrath of every Jewish patriot, most of all the powerful Pharisees, who deeply resented the presence of the Roman power on their land. If he said it was not permissible, then he could immediately be denounced by people like the Herodians to the Roman authorities for subversion. In either case, he would lose.
Jesus, of course, immediately sees through their deceit. He asks to be shown a denarius, a coin roughly equal to a day’s wage. It was a Roman coin and it carried the head of the emperor, Caesar Augustus. Pointing to the image, Jesus asks whose head it is and he is told it is that of the emperor. “In that case,” replied Jesus, “give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God.”
His enemies were reduced to speechlessness and they had no comeback. It was an answer that said everything and said nothing. It said everything because no one could quarrel with it; it said nothing because it did not decide in any way what belonged to God and what to the emperor.
The whole scene, of course, reflects a serious problem besetting the early Church. How much allegiance did they owe, as Christians, to the temporal power, especially one where the emperor was seen as having divine prerogatives or was openly persecuting Christians? There were clearly limits to the allegiance they could give. This resulted in waves of persecutions and large numbers dying martyrs’ deaths rather than compromise their faith.
It is still a live issue for us today. It concerns the question of separation of Church and state and how that is to be interpreted. It concerns the way we – both electors and elected – vote when sensitive moral issues are at stake.
In one sense, God has a total claim on our allegiance. There is nothing which does not belong to him. Nevertheless, society, through its legitimate authorities, also has a claim on our allegiance. It can make demands on us in asking us to contribute e.g. through taxation, to promoting the overall well-being of our whole community, especially of those who are in need.
As Christians, we cannot simply isolate ourselves from the political arena, that is, the area in which the interests of the citizenry is discussed and managed. The political arena is inseparable from issues of truth and justice and there is no way that Christians, who are committed to building the Kingdom, cannot be concerned about the welfare of their fellow citizens. “The Church should not dabble in politics,” say some. No, it should not dabble; it should be deeply involved in every important moral and social issue.
Nevertheless, the words of Jesus remain our guiding principle: We give to God what belongs to him; we give to society what it has a right to ask of us, our cooperation in making it a place guided by the principles and values of the Kingdom. To do anything less is to fail to give everything to God.