We know that the chief priests, scribes and elders–the Sanhedrin–want to kill Jesus. We also know that they cannot simply kill him because the crowd will revolt and riot. Jesus has endeared Himself to them by His teaching, preaching, and cleansing of the Temple. By arresting Jesus without pretense, the Sanhedrin risk losing their power and prestige, not only in the eyes of the Jews but also in the eyes of the Roman occupiers. Therefore, the Sanhedrin need to somehow discredit Jesus. They need to make Him lose favor with the crowds. They need to somehow paint Him either as a false teacher, a blasphemer, or an enemy of Rome. If they can manage any of these things, then they can have Him arrested without fear. And so, they cook up a series of questions that they hope to use to trap Jesus. The first one we will deal with today, and it concerns taxes.
Now, Mark begins this segment with a line that would have made many of the ancient Jews scratch their heads. Mark tells us that the Sanhedrin sent some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap Jesus. You see, Pharisees and Herodians were at the exact opposite of the religious spectrum. The Pharisees believed that God would come and free the Jewish people IF the Jewish people purified themselves and followed the Torah–the Law. This meant, the Pharisees tried to be uber-Jews. They tried to follow all the rituals and all the rules for purity. This meant that they even tried to avoid anything Gentile–anything Roman. The Herodians, on the other hand, had tied themselves to the Romans. They were nowhere near as religious as the Pharisees. In fact, they were pretty lax when it came to following the Torah–preferring to adapt to Gentile ways and practices to make themselves liked by Rome. Pharisees and Herodians did not normally work together. In fact, they generally disliked each other greatly.
So, it would cause no shortage of eyebrows being raised to see these two groups coming together to confront Jesus. The average Jew would know that something unholy was indeed afoot. In fact, seeing Pharisees and Herodians together gives some credence to the saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." The Pharisees and Herodians certainly look that part as they come to Jesus.
And they confront Jesus in a most interesting manner. They first address Jesus with these words, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth." Now, we know that these words are absolutely true. Indeed, Jesus is a Rabbi or teacher. We know that Jesus is sincere and that He shows no deference to anyone. Jesus does not regard anyone with partiality because Jesus is not swayed by human conceptions of the truth. Jesus is wholly and totally consumed with the Word and Truth of God. Nothing else will sway Him. We know this. We believe this, but the Pharisees and Herodians don’t believe this. They don’t believe the words that are coming out of their mouths. They are simply using flattery and trying to build Jesus up so that He will not try to weasel out of the question they are going to ask.
You may wonder how I know the Pharisees and Herodians don’t believe a word they are saying. Remember just a few verses before this exchange? Remember when the contingent from the Sanhedrin confronted Jesus? Remember when they asked, "By what authority or by whose authority are you doing these things?" Remember when they confronted Jesus with this question? Remember that they didn’t want to admit that Jesus’ authority came from God? They were not going to admit such a thing because they knew it would damage them. Yet, here they are saying almost the exact opposite. Why? Because it is expedient for them to do so. They believe that by painting this portrait of Jesus not only to Him but before the crowds that are gathered, that Jesus will be forced into their trap.
And what is their trap? The question they then pose, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" The Pharisees and Herodians already believed they knew how Jesus would answer. They believed they had walked Him straight into a snare. You see, no good Jew would say that it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Every good Jew, deep within their hearts knew that they were to give their allegiance to God and to God alone. Every good Jew believed that by paying taxes to Caesar, they were being forced to submit to someone that was not God. And they hated this. In just a moment, we will understand why. The crowds resented Roman authority, and if Jesus were truly the Messiah, they believed He would throw off the Roman oppression. Jesus had to say no. There was no other option for Him if He were to continue to command the respect of the crowds. However, if He said no, then the Herodians–who were in league with Rome–would immediately tell the soldiers that Jesus was seditious; Jesus was preaching treason. They would arrest Him, and then Jesus would once again lose all respect of the crowd. The Messiah was not supposed to be arrested. He was supposed to triumph. It looked like no matter what Jesus said, His words would make Him lose all support from the crowds.
But, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and the Herodians underestimate Jesus. They clearly do not realize they are dealing with a Master of debate. First off, Jesus knows their insincerity. He knows their words of flattery are just that. Those words were meaningless, and Jesus lets them know that He knows. "Why are you putting me to the test?" Jesus asks. I am sure that raised a few eyebrows. I am sure the Pharisees and Herodians thought to themselves, "Uh oh. He knows something is up. Now what is He going to do?"
Strangely enough, Jesus asks for a denarius. This was the coin that was used to pay the taxes to Rome. It was a coin that was very, very offensive to the Jews. Why? Let me read to you N.T. Wright’s description of this coin:
But the coin itself went further. Jews were forbidden to make carved images. They debated whether this included images of plants and flowers, but images of human beings were out of the question; and here is Tiberius, staring coldly out at the world from every small Roman coin. And the writing! Around the head the words say in Latin: ‘Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus’. On the other side, it says: ‘High Priest’‘ (the Emperors were routinely high priests of the main Roman cult). ‘Son of a god’; ‘high priest’–if the Romans had gone out of their way to be offensive to Jews, they could hardly have done it better.
So, let’s put this in perspective. The Roman tax was given to an emperor who thought himself divine. The coins used to pay the tax were considered idolatrous to the Jews not only because they contained an image of the emperor but because they called the emperor the son of a god and a high priest. No good Jew would accept such a thing. No good Jew would approve of such a thing, and it is extremely ironic, to say the least, that when Jesus asks to see such a coin, that someone nearby–probably there in the temple itself, actually has this idolatrous coin. Jesus wouldn’t carry one, but one of the Herodians probably did. Jesus is slowly turning the tables on His accusers.
Looking at the coin, Jesus then utters these words. "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s."
This statement is so fascinating because if Jesus were a politician, He had just won every vote in the debate. He won over the Roman faction. He won over the Jewish faction. He won over the independent faction. The only faction He didn’t win was His rivals who were seeking to discredit Him.
For you see, the answer is an acceptable answer to just about every party. No matter what party you are a part of, you will hear the answer you want to hear. If you believe you should pay taxes to Rome and that the emperor is a god, you will hear Jesus saying, "Give to Caesar who is god, what belongs to him."
If you are a Jew who believes you should pay taxes to Rome but not honor Caesar as god, you will hear, "Give to Rome the Roman tax but do not worship Caesar. Worship the true God."
If you are a Jew that believes that you should not pay taxes to Rome, you will hear, "Caesar doesn’t deserve to be given anything, give everything to God." It is a masterful answer that leaves everyone convinced Jesus is on their side and agrees with them!
And so often, this is what most of us do with Jesus anyway. So often we think Jesus blesses our particular perspective. So often we see Jesus as a politician who is trying to get our vote, and so when we read through Scripture or listen to preaching, we find the Bible verses or the Sunday morning preachers who agree with our particular perspectives. We hear what we want to hear and leave convinced that we are fine just the way we are.
But the real Jesus doesn’t let you get away with that. The real Jesus is actually going to confront you because, as I have said for several weeks now–Jesus isn’t interested in ruling over the nation of Israel, and He doesn’t want to govern the building called the temple: He is interested in ruling over the temple called your heart. He wants to be Lord of your life, and He is making no bones about this in His answer to the Pharisees and Herodians.
Let me again quote N.T. Wright, "First, ‘give Caesar what belongs to Caesar’ can be taken, of course, as a way of saying ‘yes, pay the tax’, but without the sting of ‘yes, submit to the Romans as your masters.’ The fact that Jesus has drawn attention to the blasphemous image and writing gives his command the flavor of ‘send this filthy stuff back where it came from!" So, if N.T. Wright is correct, and I think he is, Jesus is looking at that coin, seeing the image of Caesar, seeing the writing, and having nothing but contempt for it–nothing but contempt for the idolatrous message that is on it. For Jesus hates idolatry!
And then Jesus makes the rubber hit the road. "Give to God the things that are God’s!" Let me start getting at this one by telling you a quick story and then asking you a couple of questions.
When I was talking about this snippet in staff meeting this week, Janice told me that one day her mom tested her brother. Her mom gave her brother some money to put into the offering plate. After worship, Janice’s mom asked her brother whether or not he had put it into the offering. The answer was no. "Why didn’t you put it in the offering plate?" The response was priceless, "If the streets of heaven are paved in gold, then God doesn’t need this dollar!"
You know what, Janice’s brother was right. He was absolutely right. I mean–now here are the questions–given that God holds this world in the palm of His hand, do you really think that God needs your money? No. He doesn’t. Given that God lives in eternity, beyond space and time, do you think that God needs your time or your worship? No. Again, God doesn’t need it at all. So, why give to the church? Why give to charity? Why worship at all?
Here is why. Perhaps you have gone into a restaurant or business and noticed hanging on the wall the very first dollar earned in that restaurant. Maybe you have even seen the very first check written to that business or restaurant proudly displayed. Why keep such a thing? Why put it on the wall? You know the answer. You know the reason. That check; that dollar represents the purpose and desire of the restaurant or business. That check or dollar represents the first fruit of the work put into that business, and it is something to be treasured. Why is it treasured so? Because it is the thing most coveted by the business owners. It is an idol.
Compare that with what God asks us to do with the first fruits of our labor. For God is very clear in the Jewish Law what He wants. In Exodus 23:19 and in other places, God commands this, "The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God." The first fruits are not to be kept for ourselves. They are not to be displayed on the wall, they are to be brought to God. Why? To show where our allegiance lies. To show that these things don’t capture our hearts. To show that we are not making an idol out of them.
Oh, but here is the difficulty. Our hearts do not naturally do this. In fact our hearts resist this to no end. Our hearts cling to our idols desperately, and it is nearly impossible for us to overcome those idols. Don’t believe me? I guarantee you that even most of us here this morning can’t walk away from our idols. Here’s a challenge for you that I am sure you will fail, and then I will offer up a challenge for myself that I know I will fail.
For those of you who do not tithe, here’s the challenge. Begin immediately to give 10% of your income to the church. If you know in your head that this is the right thing to do, that God commands it, and that it is keeping you from making your money an idol, try and do it. I would almost bet you that you can’t bring yourself to write that check. It’s too hard.
For those of you that time is a precious commodity and are governed by your calendars, I challenge you to make it a point to be at every worship service during the season of Lent. Even though you know that God wants you to worship Him; even though you know this time prevents you from turning something else into an idol, I would be that you cannot and will not be able to do this.
For myself, the challenge is to stop spending time and money to improve my property out in Rocksprings. Even though I know I can make better use of my time and resources; even though I can find other places to retreat to that would cost me less; even though I know I should think about how I can use that time and money to more wisely serve God, I know I won’t be able to do it.
You see, our hearts are not fully captured by God. Our hearts are not fully captured by the Gospel. And no amount of trying on our parts are going to change that. We will not be able to write that check. We will not be able to rearrange our calendars. I will not give up my property.
And Jesus still says, "Give to God the things of God."
If we are honest, we dejectedly will say, "I want to, but I cannot. My heart cannot let go."
And Jesus replies, "I know. I know the status of your heart. I know you cannot let go of your idols. They have a hold on you, but I can change that. I can lessen their grips on your heart, and I am not going to beat them off of you. I am not going to punish you. I am going to capture your heart and your life. I am going to do this by stretching out my arms and dying for you. I will pour out my love for you and pour myself into you so that your heart will begin to change."
This is the Gospel. That God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. He did this because you belong to Him. He does not want your money. He does not want your time. He wants you. And He is willing to die so that He can have you. Amen.