Taxes! Oh how we hate them! A few months ago, we were all finishing up preparing our taxes. Now we understand the need for taxes and we enjoy the benefits we receive from paying taxes but we still don’t really like paying them. And of course there is always great debate on how much and if we should pay them. If you want to stir up a discussion, talk about taxes! So let’s talk about taxes this morning!
The Pharisees understood the political volatility of talking about taxes. In fact, they used a question about taxes to try to trap Jesus. But Jesus turns their question back on them to teach them a valuable lesson. Jesus’ teaching also should give us clarification on the role we have in our nation as well as how we are to use the material things God has given us.
I. The setting and the intended trap are seen in verses 13-15a.
Verse 13 says that this discussion is with the Herodians and the Pharisees. The Herodians were a political group who supported the Roman rule since it would keep the peace in very troubled and stressful times. They had likely been sent by the Pharisees and the other Jewish leaders. They were not popular with the people who didn’t want Roman rule and shared little with the religious views of the Pharisees but they didn’t like Jesus either. Jesus was a threat to the Pharisees’ religious authority and also to the Herodians political power. Their question was carefully designed to discredit or even put Jesus in danger. Already in Mark 3:6, we know that they had been trying to get rid of Jesus. And so now these men were eager to entangle Jesus “in his word.”
The opening question was designed to force Jesus to answer a difficult question. They reminded Jesus that he was a man of integrity. They knew that Jesus paid no attention to the opinions of people but taught absolute commitment to the way of life commanded by God. By saying this, his enemies intended to force Jesus to face squarely the issue they hoped would get Jesus into trouble with the Roman authorities.
It is important to understand the emotional trauma that taxes had on the people. Tribute money had been imposed on the Jews by the Romans in AD 6. The people believed that taxation was an introduction to their being enslaved and an offense to the sovereignty of God. The Zealots firmly refused to pay the tax because it acknowledged Caesar’s rule over them. In fact, they would not even touch a coin with Caesar’s image on it. The Pharisees resented the humiliation represented in that tax but justified paying it for the sake of peace. And of course the Herodians supported paying the tax.
They each had a different angle in asking this question of Jesus. Most likely, the Pharisees were concerned primarily with the moral and religious implications of the question. The Herodians were concerned about the nationalistic or political ramifications. The form of the question, “Shall we give it or shall we not give it?” was designed to entangle Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. A positive answer would discredit him in the eyes of the people for whom the tax was an odious symbol of subjection to Rome. A negative reply would invite reprisals from the Roman authorities. They thought they had Jesus trapped but Jesus’ answer deftly avoids the trap.
II. Let’s look at how Jesus does this in his answer in verses 15b-17.
Jesus recognized that the question was not sincere and there is an understandable note of clear exasperation in the pointed question, “Why are you trying to trap me?” Evidently neither Jesus nor his enemies had a denarius since Jesus asks for one to brought to him. The only coin that was accepted for payment in Judea, as throughout the imperial territory, was the Roman denarius.
The denarius was a small silver coin that was worth about 18 cents. The denarius of Tiberius portrayed the emperor who was the semi-divine son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia. The inscription on the coin also made it clear that the emperor was considered to be divine and should received divine honors and worship. The answer to Jesus’ questions in verse 16, that the image and inscription were Caesar’s, indicates that the coin was well known to the questioners.
In his reply in verse 17, Jesus uses this answer in a powerful way. The fact that the coin had Caesar’s image on it acknowledged Caesar’s authority and therefore endorsed the obligation to pay the tax. It was the emperor’s right to demand tax from the citizens who lived in his empire. There was a common understanding that the emperor owned the coins which bore his image.
Jesus is teaching that there are obligations to the state which are still grounded in and part of God’s plan. Romans 13:1 says, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2 says “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Titus 3:1 says, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good...” 1 Peter 2:13-14 says, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Jesus here is also recognizing the authority of civil rulers.
The second part of the response shows that the duties toward God and Caesar, though distinct, are not completely separate. In fact, governments are ruled by the higher principle of God’s sovereignty. Jesus said that the denarius belonged to Caesar because it had his imagine on it. Yet that coin and all things belong to God, including the rulers of the earth. Moreover, because people bear the image of God we owe our total allegiance to him. Think about that for a moment. We bear God’s image and to take Jesus’ words to heart here means that we must give ourselves to him fully because we belong to him fully.
Mark closes by saying that Jesus’ adversaries were amazed at Jesus. It is appropriate that the men who had come to ensnare Jesus leave marveling. They could not help but see Jesus’ great authority displayed in his word.
What about paying taxes? We should pay taxes because God requires that we submit to the authorities and Jesus said that we must give to the government what is the government’s. That’s not a popular sentiment today largely because of how the money is used. There is waste in government; there is no doubt in that and we should do what we can to reduce wasteful spending. And so let’s fight against waste but think carefully about what waste is for what is wasteful for you may be something another person needs. Russell B. Long, who was a senator from Louisiana in the 1960's, wrote, [S-32] “A tax loophole is something that benefits the other guy. If it benefits you, it is tax reform.”
Moreover, we are to give ourselves to our Lord in every way. We are to give of our time in serving God and his church. We are to give ourselves completely to him in all that we say and do.
But we like to think of giving as something that is extra in our lives. At the end of November we will observe yet another newly formed holiday tradition: “Giving Tuesday.” After all the spending on “Black Friday,” Cyber Monday, now we have “Giving Tuesday.” It seems like the order is reversed. We should be giving to God and other needs first and then spend on other things after that because isn’t every day supposed to be giving?
And not just giving to sexy causes but giving to share in the cost of doing the kingdom. Our giving to God should be everyday in our actions, in our giving, in our attitudes and in our service. What will you be giving to God during this coming week, knowing that it all, including each on or us, belongs to him?