As though you could forget, here’s a friendly reminder that tomorrow is tax day. Yep, just a couple weeks after Easter, and I’m mindful that we haven’t been liberated from everything we want to be free from. Neither were the Jews in Jesus’ day.
You might be aware that during Jesus’ three-year earthly ministry He made some enemies among the religious establishment. The detesting of Him was warranted, for Jesus said some harsh things to the religious leaders. Sometimes He was blunt, as when He called them a brood of vipers, and other times He was subtle.
A Vineyard Owner
In Mark 12, Jesus tells the story of a man who leased his vineyard to some tenants while he went abroad. At the time of harvest, the vineyard owner sent a servant to collect some of the fruit. The tenants promptly beat the servant and sent him back. So the vineyard owner sent another servant with the same result. This continued on until he decided to send his son, whom he was sure they would respect. Far from esteeming him, they decided not just to beat him but to kill him. Jesus said the vineyard owner would kill them and give the vineyard to others.
Not all of Jesus’ parables are found in children’s story Bibles. This particular parable irked the religious leaders, since they’d inferred it was about them. They surmised correctly that the vineyard owner was God and the servants who were beaten were the prophets. And, of course, the son was Jesus. They rightly assumed they were the tenants, for they’d been wanting to kill Jesus for some time.
One of the reasons the religious leaders hadn’t yet tried to kill Jesus was because they feared the people who at this time were in awe of His teaching. So they conspired to entrap Jesus into saying something that would either alert the Romans that He was a revolutionary intent on treason or incite the common people against Him.
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. —Mark 12:13-17
The Pharisees and Herodians mentioned in Mark 12:13 are strange bedfellows. Their name, Herodians, refers to their loyalty to Herod, whom the Pharisees despised for his allegiance to Rome. The Pharisees were intensely religious, while the Herodians were more interested in political alliances, having little patience for religion.
After feigning admiration, these allies draw attention to a contentious situation in Roman-occupied Jerusalem: taxes. They ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
The 16th Amendment
Taxes. O America, great land of the free, how have you come to burden your people so heavily with what you initially sought freedom from? Didn’t you decry in earnest “taxes without representation”? I suppose we have representation now, so taxes are tolerable. But aren’t many of our representatives more influenced by lobbyists than their constituents? If the lobbyists are paying our politicians’ bills, shouldn’t they alone pay the taxes, since they’re the ones being represented?
Well, the fateful 16th Amendment was passed in 1913 and it reads:
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
As in the U.S. today, so the Jews were 2,000 years ago, enduring heavy taxation. Of course, we, like them, benefit from the funds our government raises. Certainly, some benefit more than others. For one, we all drive the same well-maintained roads, in much the same manner the Jews utilized the Roman interstates, upon which the apostles would carry the gospel to the world. We can drive our roads in relative peace, something alien to many in the world for whom violence is commonplace and fear is normal. We benefit from our national defense, whether or not we agree with the armed conflicts we find ourselves in. As a part of the Roman Empire, the Jews were “protected” from invading armies. Though, most people would defend their slaves and profitability. (Isn’t that what the southern states tried to do?)
Getting back to the question posed to Jesus. (By the way, there is a record in Matthew 17 that Jesus paid the temple tax—with a coin found in the mouth of a fish pulled out of the Galilean Sea by Peter.) If Jesus were to say it was unlawful to pay Roman taxes, He assuredly would have drawn the ire of the Romans, who really had nothing against Him. In allowing for taxes, Jesus would have angered the Jews who were looking for a financial savior.
In His great wisdom and sensing their hypocrisy, Jesus requests the coin with which they would pay their tax: a denarius, equal to about a day’s wage. Instead of answering their question and presumably sidestepping the dilemma, He asks, “Whose image and inscription is on this coin?”
On this particular silver coin would have been the image of Tiberius Caesar with the Latin inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” around the coin’s perimeter. On the opposite side was a picture of the Roman goddess of peace, Pax, with the Latin inscription “High Priest.”
Jesus’ audience, which included the two strangely linked groups as well as His followers, would have been well aware of the Second Commandment, which forbids the making of graven images. This coin with its image of Tiberius and Pax would have repulsed the Jews.
To their reply—”Caesar’s”—He responds, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” You could imagine their silence as His words reverberated. Mark says they marveled at Him, were amazed by Him. I love The Message here: “Their mouths hung open, speechless.”
Because Caesar’s image was on the coin, Jesus was saying that it belonged to him. “Looks like his coin, give it to him.” However, there is one thing not owed to Caesar but to God alone: our worship.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. —Genesis 1:27 esv
Because we bear God’s image we belong to Him. We don’t give ourselves to Caesar or anyone else but to God.
Perhaps recalling when he fished their tax money out of the Galilee, Peter exhorted Christians everywhere to submit to authority of all kinds: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor supreme …” (1 Peter 2:13). And then he says,
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. —1 Peter 2:16-17 esv
Peter couldn’t be speaking of political freedom but instead spiritual freedom. The charter of our United States was that all people are afforded life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the freedoms we as believers in Jesus have are:
- Freedom from the ruling power of sin in our lives
- Freedom from guilt because our sins have been forgiven by God
- Freedom from the impossible obligation of attempting to earn favor from God through perfect obedience
We may not agree with the way all of our tax money is used and we can express ourselves with our voice and our vote—sort of—but we must accept the fact that God has established human government for our good. Honor the emperor but fear God. Give respect to the king but give worship to God. We bear the image of God, so we belong to Him. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
And if, like Peter, you’re having trouble coming up with money for your taxes, try fishing the Galilee.