April 9, 2017
On December 16, 1773, about 50 members of the Sons of Liberty, a colonial patriot group, boarded three ships anchored in Boston Harbor. Those ships, the Beaver, the Eleanor, and the Dartmouth, were carrying British tea from the East India Company. You should know, the East India Company had been doing that for years. But that night, the Sons of Liberty, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, dumped 342 chests of British tea into the sea. You know it as the Boston Tea Party.
The Boston Tea Party has long been known as the first violent act in what would become the War for Independence or the American Revolution. You say, well, what was the issue – didn’t they like tea? Must have been unsweetened. No, that wasn’t the problem. Again, just a few years before, the colonists had purchased almost a million pounds of tea per year from this same East India Company. But now, they chose instead to smuggle in tea from Holland. Why?
The American colonies had stopped buying British tea in protest of the Tea Act passed in May of that year. Without going into detail, the Tea Act was a perfect example of Taxation without Representation – viewed as British oppression. You could say the fury of the American colonies against British oppression fell on those chests of tea anchored in Boston Harbor. But the real issue was taxes. You might also be interested to know some historians suggest it was the Tea Act of 1773 that transformed this nation, to this day, into a coffee-drinking country instead of a tea-drinking one.
I share that with you by way of introduction so we can understand the anger associated with the Jews of Jesus’ day with what was called the poll tax, or the head tax. It was the same kind of situation. As you may know, the land of Palestine had become a Roman province in 6 BC and was under Roman oppression and domination during New Testament times. Rome exercised their despised control over the Jews in a number of ways – to include Roman soldiers garrisoned right next door to the Temple in the Antonia Fortress, and to include oppressive taxation. Taxes were collected for everything – there were customs taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, property taxes. But none was more despised than the poll tax.
You see, the poll tax was assessed simply because you existed. A census would be taken, and a tax assessed based on the census. In fact, the Greek word for this tax was taken from the Latin, censere, from which we get our word, census. Remember when Jesus was born? Luke 2 says a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the world – why? Did he just want to know how many people were in his empire? No, it was for the purpose of assessing the poll tax. The Jews hated Roman occupation, and the full fury of their hatred fell on this tax. Think English Tea.
In 6 AD, Judas of Galilee led an insurrection specifically against the poll tax. The Roman procurator had taken a census for tax purposes, and it made Judas hoppin’ mad. His rallying cry was that God was their only God and Lord; therefore the poll tax should not be paid to Rome. The rebellion was quashed – Judas was executed. But, it was on this zealous, anti-Roman sentiment that the Zealot movement was built which was behind the later rebellion of 66 AD. That rebellion led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple four years later. When the Roman general Titus took Jerusalem, it’s recorded he killed over a million Jews and threw their bodies over the city wall.
Well, it’s clear, the Jews hated the Romans and they hated the poll tax. Which leads to our text this morning, found in Mark 12:13-17. Read it with me.
Amazing – you’d almost think I’d purposely planned to cover this text on April 9 – the Sunday before April 15. We’ve all heard the text before, right – render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s. So, we look at this text and say, Jesus said pay your taxes, so pay your taxes. And certainly Paul said so in Romans 13:
1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God… [drop down to verse 5]
5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.
6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing.
7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
There you have it – pay your taxes. So this morning, we’ll take our time to go over Form 1040 and Schedules A, C and SE. Not exactly. Does the text teach, pay your taxes? Probably. Is that the primary teaching of the text? Maybe not. We focus on the first part – the Caesar part – but do we even see the second part? What is Jesus teaching in His answer?
I want to remind you Jesus is in the midst of His passion week. It’s still Tuesday. You’ll remember He began the week with three successive, symbolic actions – the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree. As a result, a delegation, likely sent by the Sanhedrin confronted Him. They asked Him, by what authority are You doing these things? Jesus answered their question with a question – one they couldn’t answer. John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men. They were caught – if they said from heaven, then Jesus would say, why didn’t you believe him. If they said, from men, they were afraid of what the people would do since they viewed John as a prophet. So they refused to answer. Now remember, I suggested Jesus actually answered their question with His question – John told you who I was – but you refused to believe him.
He then launch into a parable we looked at last week. He pegged these religious leaders – and they knew it. God sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, and you either beat them or killed them. Now, God has sent His own Son, and you’ll kill Him, too. They were incensed, and looked for ways to seize Him. It was full-scale war, but Jesus kept winning the battles.
So, the religious leaders launch another attack – actually, a three of them. Those attacks come in the form of three questions from three different groups: from the Pharisees and the Herodians, from the Sadducees, and from the scribes. We’ll be looking at each of those attacks over the next few weeks, beginning with the one we just read. It comes from the Pharisees and the Herodians.
Now notice, they try to do to Jesus what He just done to them. Namely, they ask Him a question which would get Him in trouble no matter how He answered. The baptism of John – from God or men? They couldn’t answer. The poll tax – do we pay it, or not? Same kind of dilemma. But Jesus wins again, and in the process, teaches something about ownership. Maybe it’s a little deeper than pay your taxes. Let me give you the outline as we begin:
- We’ll see the Opponents’ Question in verses 13-15.
- Then we’ll see Jesus’ Answer in verses 15-17.
- And then we need to answer the question, What Did He Say? Pay your taxes? Is that it? Or is there more?
Let’s start with their loaded question. As we’ve seen, the delegation sent from the Sanhedrin was out for the count. It was obvious Jesus was a formidable foe and would not be easily trapped. So this time, they send the Pharisees and Herodians together to approach Jesus with another question. Their plan was to trap Him in what He said. Ask Him some trick questions, get Him to stumble, discredit Himself. Luke 20 says, they “sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor.” This was a political attack – that’s why the Herodians were there. Let’s look at these attackers.
First, there were the Pharisees, we’ve seen them before in Mark, always opposing Jesus. In fact, these two groups had teamed up before in Mark 3 to try to destroy Jesus. The Pharisees were the legalists of the day. We’re not sure exactly where they came from, but many think they were descendents of the Hasidim, whose name means pious ones, and came about in the second century BC. By this time, the Pharisees were very much in the mainstream of Jewish life. They made a point of being noticed and admired. The word Pharisee means separated one, and that’s exactly what they were – separated from, and superior to common people. Not just dirty Gentiles, but from even from common Jewish people, on whom they looked with disdain. After leaving the market or any public gathering, they’d perform ceremonial washings as soon as possible to purify themselves of any contamination from accidentally touching unclean people.
Admission to the group was strictly controlled – application was made followed by a probationary period in which the applicant had to prove his ability to follow the ritual law. You see, that was what was important to them – man-made, rituals that made them feel superior. This set of rules had been written over the centuries as commentaries on the law of Moses, and were known collectively as the tradition of the elders. These teachings were largely external, meaningless observances. They were a self-righteous community; legalistic isolationists who had no regard or respect for anyone outside their group. They thought themselves super-spiritual, and that God looked upon them very approvingly because of their made-up brand of holiness. When Jesus showed up, He opposed their man-made religion, and it infuriated them.
Next, we meet the Herodians. History doesn’t tell us much about this group – in fact, they’re not mentioned outside the New Testament. We derive much of what we know simply from their name. Just as Christians were followers of Christ, Herodians were followers of Herod. This wasn’t a religious group – they were a political group sympathetic to the Herods. The Herods, remember, were descendents of Herod the Great. They were Edomites – meaning, they weren’t Jews. They were placed in power by Rome. That means they were loyal to Roman occupation, because their positions depended on it. Understandably, they were hated by the Jews.
So that’s the picture – Pharisee, who hated the Romans, and Herodians, who supported the Romans. Talk about an unholy alliance. These guys wouldn’t normally have lunch together – they hated each other. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum spiritually, politically, philosophically. And yet here, we see them coming as one group – partners in crime. It would be like Democrats and Republicans crossing the aisle because of their opposition to a common enemy. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The one thing these two groups could agree on was their opposition to Jesus. He was espousing a different kind of kingdom which would mean the end of their own.
So, the Pharisees and Herodians, who hated each other, banded to fight a common foe – Jesus. And the very question they asked would have been the basis of fierce debate between the two groups. One group, obviously, would have been okay with the tax, the other would have deeply resented it. So they asked Jesus the question – what about the poll tax? It’s a no-win situation – it would either be blasphemy, or treason. That was their hope – it’s why they came together. If He said no taxes to Rome, He would be seen as an insurrectionist which would anger the Heordians, who would then march over and tell the Roman garrison about His treason. Or, if He said yes to taxes, He would be seen as sympathetic to Rome and alienate the crowds and the Pharisees. He could not possibly answer without irritating somebody. But He did.
Jesus, is it lawful to give a poll tax to Caesar, or not? But that’s not actually how they started, is it? Teacher, they said, we know You’re truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You’re not partial – is it lawful to pay the poll tax, or not? This was just a set-up. Approaching Him with flattery, saying things they didn’t believe, hoping to disarm Him – get Him to lower His defenses so they could trap Him.
It didn’t work. In fact, they found out that what was intended for lying flattery was actually true. Everything they said about Him was true. He was a teacher, a rabbi – one whose teaching should be accepted and respected. He was truthful – more literally, He was true – everything about Him was true – He was a man of integrity. In His very nature, He was true. And He also taught the way of God in truth – contrary to their abuse of religion. And it was also true, He deferred to no one – He was not partial to any – literally, He did not regard the face of anyone – He spoke truth, no matter who you were – which means He wouldn’t make a good politician. It’s not that He didn’t care about people – He did – He came to give His life for them. He also cared about truth, knowing that truth alone is good for people.
Which leads us to the second point, Jesus’ Answer in verses 15-17. In a masterful way, Jesus answered this no-win question in a way that caused all who heard Him – including these Pharisees and Herodians, to be amazed, and leave Him alone. We’re well familiar with what Jesus said, we’ve heard it quoted many times. I’m just not sure we fully grasp what He said.
First, He exposes the questioners for what they were – fakes – “Why are you testing Me?” – cut with the flattery – I can see right through your hypocrisy. Then He said, show me the coin used for the poll-tax. Stop right there. Let me tell you a little more about this despised poll tax. It was an annual tax that amounted to one day’s pay – a denarius, one day’s wages for the common laborer. In fact, that was how the tax was required to be paid. While there were several kinds of coins minted during this time – some by Rome, and some even by the Temple, you were required to pay this tax with the Roman denarius.
The Roman denarius was a silver coin that had the image of the current Caesar engraved on each side with an inscription. That’s important. In this case, the Caesar would have been Tiberius. On the front, with his picture, the inscription read, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.” The inscription on the back, with the emperor seated on his throne, designated him as the high priest. You have to understand – as far as the Jews were concerned, by paying the poll tax with this coin, you were participating in an act of idolatry. Are you starting to get a feel for how much most of the Jews hated this tax?
Please notice – Jesus doesn’t have a denarius. They did. The tax they so abhorred was paid by a coin they so abhorred – but of course, they had one. It was necessary for commerce. The issue, you see, was they didn’t want to part with a day’s wages. They hated the tax – but they’d use the idolatrous coin. They truly were hypocrites. Show me the coin, Jesus said. Someone flipped Him a denarius. He held it up and asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Whose likeness, the word is eikon – icon, whose image is on this coin? They rightly answered, Caesar’s.
To which Jesus responded with those well-known words you’ve heard, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” And you can almost see Him flipping the coin back. Question answered. Case closed – in fact, they went away amazed. Isn’t this guy something – we can’t catch Him in His words. He answered in a way that satisfied the Herodians and shut the mouths of the Pharisees. What could they say to that? It was brilliant.
And there you go. For all your life, you’ve heard this passage used to teach something like this: pay your taxes. Or maybe even a little more than that: pay your taxes to Caesar, and your tithes to God. The government gets what theirs, God gets what His, and I get to keep the rest. Which us brings us to our third point. What did Jesus say here, anyway?
I want to remind you this was His last week – His passion week. Jesus never said anything that wasn’t full of meaning – and He certainly didn’t do so now. Pay your taxes and your tithes? Obey the government and obey God? Is that it? Could this passage be used to teach things like pay your taxes, obey the government? Sure, those truths are contained there. Again, Paul and Peter will later teach us to do just that. So, as Christians, we should pay our taxes and obey the government. So mail your checks on April 15. But is that all Jesus said? I don’t think so.
Look at it with me. He held up a coin and said, whose image is this? They said, Caesar’s. Right. He said, then give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, that which bears his image. Not only that: they had asked about paying taxes, Jesus changed the word and said render, which literally means give back or pay back. You see, the denarius bore Caesar’s image – it’s his, Jesus says, give it back to him. Give to Caesar that which bears his image. Oh, and by the way, while you’re at it, give back to God that which is His – that which bears His image. What might that be? Let’s start with Romans 1. There, we read, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
All of creation – the earth and all that is in it, the stars, the planets, the galaxies, the entire universe – all display God’s existence, His presence, His divine attributes, power and nature. There is a sense in which creation itself displays His glory – You only have to look at creation to see there is a God – it declares Him and puts His glory on display. Psalm 19:1 says it this way, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” And since He created it and it bears His glory, it causes the Psalmist to declare further in Psalm 89:11, “The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; The world and all it contains, You have founded them.”
Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s – that which bears his image – here you go, Caesar – here’s a coin, go buy yourself a cup of coffee. Render to God that which bears His glory – the very universe displays His being – He owns it all, which means, by the way, that He owns all the puny Caesars, all the governments, and the coins they might collect.
All of a sudden, it isn’t, taxes belong to the government, the tithe belongs to God, and I get everything else. Now, we realize, it all belongs to God – it’s all His. I’m just a steward, a manager – and I will give an account of how I managed God’s resources. Everything He’s allowed to pass through these fingers. It’s all His. I don’t own any of it. And so, if I render to God that which is His – He gets it all.
He owns everything – so we render everything to Him. Okay, you say, He owns it all. That sounds so big, so ethereal, so out there. So, let me ask you again – can you think of anything specifically that bears His image that God wants back? Genesis 1:26-27 says:
26 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Men and women were created in the image of God. You bear His image. When Jesus finished with the denarius, the coin, and flipped it back, He could well have pointed to them, He could well have pointed to us, and said, “And render to God the things that are God’s.”
God owns you, and His mark of ownership is seen in His image within us, marred though it may be. In our sin, we rebelled against our Maker and our Owner, and He wants us back. So, He became our Redeemer – He did what was necessary to buy us back, and to recreate in us His image – the image of God.
Paul understood that truth. In I Corinthians 6, he says this, “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God [in whose image you were created and recreated, glorify God] in your body.”
And the questioners went away amazed – they left Him alone, and I’m convinced they didn’t get what He said. If they did, it would have infuriated them all the more. Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s. Pay your taxes? Pay your tithes? Obey the government? Obey God? Okay, do that. But, it’s so much more than that. Jesus says, give to God everything, because He owns it anyway, and give Him your very lives. He demands nothing less than total surrender.