Mark 12:13-17

CAESAR AND GOD

Mk. 12:13-17

They sent to Jesus some of the Pharisees and Herodians to try to trap him in his speech. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are genuine, and that you do not allow yourself to be influenced by anyone, for you are no respecter of persons, and you teach the way of God in truth. Is it right to pay tax to Caesar? Or not? Are we to pay? Or, are we not to pay?” Jesus knew well that they were acting a part. “Why are you trying to test me?” he said, “Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” So they brought him one. He said to them, “Whose portrait is this, and whose inscription is on it?” “Caesar’s,” they said to him. Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things which belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God.” And they were completely astonished at him.

There is history behind this shrewd question, and bitter history too. Herod the Great had ruled all Palestine as a Roman tributary king. He had been loyal to the Romans and they had respected him and given him a great deal of freedom. When he died in 4 B.C. he divided his kingdom into three. To Herod Antipas he gave Galilee and Peraea. To Herod Philip he gave the wild district up in the north-east round Trachonitis and Ituraea and Abilene. To Archelaus he gave the south country including Judaea and Samaria.

Antipas and Philip soon settled in and on the whole ruled wisely and well. But Archelaus was a complete failure. The result was that in A.D. 6 the Romans had to step in and introduce direct rule. Things were so unsatisfactory that southern Palestine could no longer be left as a semi-independent tributary kingdom. It had to become a province governed by a procurator.

Roman provinces fell into two classes. Those which were peaceful and required no troops were governed by the senate and ruled by proconsuls. Those which were trouble-centres and required troops were the direct sphere of the Emperor and were governed by procurators. Southern Palestine fell naturally into the second category and tribute was in fact paid direct to the Emperor.

The first act of the governor, Cyrenius, was to take a census of the country, in order that he might make proper provision for fair taxation and general administration. The calmer section of the people accepted this as an inevitable necessity. But one Judas the Gaulonite raised violent opposition. He thundered that “taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery.” He called on the people to rise, and said that God would favour them only if they resorted to all the violence they could muster. He took the high ground that for the Jews God was the only ruler. The Romans dealt with Judas with their customary efficiency, but his battle-cry never died out. “No tribute to the Romans,” became a rallying cry of the more fanatical Jewish patriots.

The actual taxes imposed were three.

(i) A ground tax, which consisted of one-tenth of all the grain and one-fifth of the wine and fruit produced. This was paid partly in kind and partly in money.

(ii) An income tax which amounted to one per cent of a man’s income.

(iii) A poll tax, which was levied on all men from fourteen to sixty-five and on all women from twelve to sixty-five. This poll tax was one denarius, roughly 31 pence per head. It was the tax which everyone had to pay simply for the privilege of existing.

The approach of the Pharisees and Herodians was very subtle. They began with flattery. That flattery was designed to do two things. It was designed to disarm the suspicions that Jesus might have had; and to make it impossible for him to avoid giving an answer without losing his reputation completely.

In view of all the circumstances the question which the Pharisees and Herodians put to Jesus was a masterpiece of cunning. They must have thought that they had him impaled on the horns of a completely inescapable dilemma. If he said that it was lawful to pay tribute, his influence with the populace would be gone forever, and he would be regarded as a traitor and a coward. If he said that it was not lawful to pay tribute, they could report him to the Romans and have him arrested as a revolutionary. They must have been sure that they had Jesus in a trap from which there was no escape.

Jesus said, “Show me a denarius.” We may note in the passing that he himself did not possess even one coin of his own. He asked whose image was on it. The image would be that of Tiberius, the reigning emperor. All the emperors were. called Caesar. Round the coin there would be the title which declared that this was the coin “of Tiberius Caesar, the divine Augustus, son of Augustus,” and on the reverse would be the title “pontifex maximus,” “the high priest of the Roman nation.”

We must understand the ancient view of coinage if this incident is to be intelligible. In regard to coinage the ancient peoples held three consistent principles.

(i) Coinage is the sign of power. When anyone conquered a nation or was a successful rebel, the first thing he did was to issue his own coinage. That and that alone was the final guarantee of kingship and power.

(ii) Where the coin was valid the king’s power,held good. A king’s sway was measurable by the area in which his coins were valid currency.

(iii) Because a coin had the king’s head and inscription on it, it was held, at least in some sense, to be his personal property. Jesus’ answer therefore was, “By using the coinage of Tiberius you in any event recognize his political power in Palestine. Apart altogether from that, the coinage is his own because it has his name on it. By giving it to him you give him what is in any event his own. Give it to him but remember that there is a sphere in life which belongs to God and not to Caesar.”

Never did any man lay down a more influential principle. It conserved at one and the same time the civil and the religious power. Rawlinson reminds us that Lord Acton, the great historian, said of this, “Those words…gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed and bounds it had never acknowledged, and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.” At one and the same time these words asserted the rights of the state and the liberty of conscience.

On the whole the New Testament lays down three great principles with regard to the individual Christian and the state.

(i) The state is ordained by God. Without the laws of the state life would be chaos. Men cannot live together unless they agree to obey the laws of living together. Without the state there is many a valuable service no man could enjoy. No individual man could have his own water supply, his own sewage system, his own transport system, his own social security organization. The state is the origin of many of the things which make life livable.

(ii) No man can accept all the benefits which the state gives him and then opt out of all the responsibilities. It is beyond question that the Roman government brought to the ancient world a sense of security it never had before. For the most part, except in certain notorious areas, the seas were cleared of pirates and the roads of brigands, civil wars were changed for peace and capricious tyranny for Roman impartial justice. As E. J. Goodspeed wrote, “It was the glory of the Roman Empire that it brought peace to a troubled world. Under its sway the regions of Asia Minor and the East enjoyed tranquillity and security to an extent and for a length of time unknown before and probably since. This was the pax Romana. The provincial, under Roman sway, found himself in a position to conduct his business, provide for his family, send his letters, and make his journeys in security, thanks to the strong hand of Rome.” It is still true that no man can honourably receive all the benefits which living in a state confers upon him and then opt out of all the responsibilities of citizenship.

(iii) But there is a limit. E. A. Abbott has a suggestive thought. The coin had Caesar’s image upon it, and therefore belonged to Caesar. Man has God’s image upon him–God created man in his own image (Gen.1:26-27)–and therefore belongs to God. The inevitable conclusion is that, if the state remains within its proper boundaries and makes its proper demands, the individual must give it his loyalty and his service; but in the last analysis both state and man belong to God, and therefore, should their claims conflict, loyalty to God comes first. But it remains true, that, in all ordinary circumstances, a man’s Christianity should make him a better citizen than any other man.

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Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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