The priests, scribes, and elders fail to catch Jesus in his words, so they send their partners in crime to do their dirty work in Mark 12:13-17.
In Jesus’ day, the Romans instituted what was called a poll tax. If you remember the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, there was a census being taken. The census was to determine the population, so that it could be taxed accordingly. This poll tax was imposed upon the people of Palestine, just like everywhere else, yet there, it became a reason for rebellion and there were several rebellions as a result of it. There were a few occasions where the rebels gained freedom for a brief period of time, yet every time there was a rebellion, the Romans stopped it decisively. The Zealots were a revolutionary group that grew up in partial response to the poll tax. One of the 12 disciples, Simon the Zealot, belonged to that group. They launched a rebellion in 66 called the Great Revolt or the First Jewish-Roman war. The result was the Temple being destroyed and a double tax imposed on Jews throughout the Roman Empire. So from before Jesus’ time until decades after Jesus’ time, this tax was a thorn in the side of the Jewish people.
On this particular day, Jesus is asked about this poll tax in an attempt to catch Jesus in his words. If he said the tax shouldn’t be paid then he could be accused of rebellion and arrested by the Romans. If he said the tax should be paid, then he could be accused of blaspheme and arrested by the Jewish leaders. Saying the tax should be paid would also cause the crowds of people who were following him to potential become angry with him. But verse 15 shows Jesus’ wisdom. He knows it’s a trap. And, in verse 17 we hear Jesus’ famous answer, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Jesus answer goes against the idea that his followers should serve God by denying Caesar, which is what led to the Zealot rebellion of 66. People won’t enter God’s Kingdom by destroying Caesar’s Kingdom. Jesus’ answer also acknowledges the existence of two Kingdoms – one of man, and one of God. Volumes have been written about this verse and these ideas, and there will be no attempt to summarize them at all here. Much more can be said, and we could spend our lives debating the implications of Jesus answer for our current context. However, there are rightful claims that government makes and there are rightful claims that God makes. Both government and God have authority over us, like it or not. God ordains government as a way to facilitate justice as seen in Romans 13:1 among other places. Each must determine if he or she is rightly submitting to both authorities.
There were lots of people in Jesus’ day that rebelled against paying the Roman tax, but Jesus does not give them a reason to do this. In fact, Jesus says, not only do you obey Caesar, but you answer to an even higher authority, you answer to God himself. Our government deserves certain things of us, but God deserves our complete and total devotion. Our government and our laws deserve our respect and obedience, but God deserves our love and worship. Our government has been established for our freedom and for Justice, but God is the one who brings about freedom and justice through the sacrifice of his son. If we fail to follow him and love him above all other loves, we have committed treason and sedition. Our hearts and our lives belong to God. Withholding taxes might get you into trouble, but refusing to love and follow God has eternal consequences. In Jesus we have forgiveness of sins and are made right with God. If we reject him, there is no forgiveness for us and we are at odds with God. There remains the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation to God to all who would come to Jesus, hearing his call that says, “Follow me”.