Mark 12:13-17 (NIV): Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, 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 taxes to Caesar or not? 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.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
The next challenge for Jesus came from an unlikely alliance: the Pharisees, who were focused on righteousness through keeping all of the fine points of the law, and the Herodians, who were focused on loyalty to the king, and thus were generally seen as being in cahoots with the Romans. Their only point of commonality was that they saw Jesus as a threat.
The Herodians were threatened by Jesus’ widespread acclamation as the Messiah, the rightful king of the Jews, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Herodian dynasty. They also worried that if a popular uprising against Herod ever got a foothold, it would bring down on everyone’s head the considerable wrath of the Roman Empire.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were threatened by Jesus’ credibility with the common people. Jesus made no secret of the fact that He had little use for the rituals, rules, and traditions around which every Pharisee built his life. They saw Him as a heretic, as Sabbath breaker, and a rebel against the traditions of the elders (and likely to bring God’s wrath down on all of their heads!).
In what looked like a sincere question on a hot-button issue of the day, they asked Jesus whether or not they, as Jews, should be paying taxes to Rome. But in that question was planted a trap. If Jesus said that they should pay taxes, the people would rise up against Him, considering Him a shill for the hated Romans. At best (for Jesus), they would desert Him en masse, leaving Him with no influence. At worst, they would rush Him out of the temple and stone Him.
If, on the other hand, Jesus said that they should not pay the taxes that Rome demanded, He could be denounced to the governor as trying to undercut the Empire, a charge that carried the death penalty. Either way that Jesus answered, His goose was cooked!
But Jesus saw through their duplicity at once. Roman taxes were paid with Roman coins, the currency of the Empire, which had the image of Caesar on their face. These coins, because of this image, were not allowed to be used to pay the temple tax – they had to be exchanged for Jewish shekels through the money changers in the temple courts. But outside of the temple, these were the coins that everybody, Jew as well as gentile, carried and traded with.
When Jesus requested and was given a denarius, and asked whose image it bore, He was not ignorant of whose face was on the coin; He was simply making His point. Since the coin bore the image of Caesar, it belonged to Caesar, so should be given to him when he demanded it. However, Jesus had an even more significant point that He was making. The thing that bears the image of God, which is us, belongs to God, and so should be given to Him. The Herodians had given themselves to the king. The Pharisees had given themselves to their rituals, and rules, and traditions. Both groups, despite their profession of being God’s chosen people, had not been faithful in giving to God what belonged to God. So in the end, both groups left without their prey, and stinging from the well placed slaps from their intended victim.
Father, how many of us today can say that we have given ourselves unreservedly to You? How many of us even understand that, because we bear Your image and likeness, we are by rights Yours? And even more so since You have redeemed us! But instead we give ourselves to so many other things, so many activities, so many pursuits, so many causes that are not Yours. And in the process, we steal ourselves from You, and end up deserving Your condemnation. Forgive us, Lord, and help us to set things aright, by giving ourselves entirely to You from now on. Amen.