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Mark 12:1317, 2834comment (0)

February 4, 2010

By Cecil Taylor

Related Scripture: Mark 12:1317, 2834

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Dean, School of Christian Studies, University of Mobile

Mark 12:13–17, 28–34

Question About Taxes (13–17)

The Sanhedrin, the supreme court for Israel, launched a clever attack on Jesus. It sent “some of the Pharisees and Herodians” to ask Him a question. Just like today, politics made “strange bedfellows.” Pharisees disliked Roman rule; Herodians supported the Herods as rulers and thus supported the Romans who kept the Herod family in power. These two groups despised each other but hated Jesus more. Bitter enemies, they joined hands to destroy Jesus. They came with a question intended to “trap” Jesus. The word was used of a hunter stalking prey.

The tax in question was an annual poll tax levied on every person in Samaria, Judea and Idumea since A.D. 6 just for the privilege of living in the Roman Empire. It was a “head tax.” Facetiously speaking, if a person paid it, then he got to keep his head. This tax was immensely unpopular for several reasons. First it was a constant reminder that the Romans ruled the land. Second the Romans demanded that the tax be paid with silver coins stamped with the emperor’s image. The Jews thought human images idolatrous (Ex. 20:4–6). Common Jewish currency bore inoffensive symbols such as an olive branch or palms. Third the coins also bore an inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.” To call Augustus divine (after his death, the Senate voted to elevate the former emperor to godhood) was extremely repulsive to Jews.

The question was hypocritical because the sole purpose of the group who raised it was to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the Jewish people or, better, to secure His arrest by Roman authorities. If He said, “Pay the tax,” then the intensely nationalistic Pharisees would accuse Him of disloyalty to Israel. Paying taxes to Rome was considered treason by some. It would cost Him popularity. On the other hand, if He said, “Do not pay the tax,” then the Rome-loving Herodians would report Him to the government as a dangerous revolutionary. It would cost Him His life. Calling for a denarius, the coin required to pay this tax, Jesus asked, “Whose image is this and whose title?” There was only one answer: “Caesar’s.”

The ancient idea was that all a king’s coins actually belonged to the king. “Render” has the sense of giving back to someone what belongs to him. If the Pharisees and Herodians used Caesar’s coins, then they could hardly object to giving some of them back to him in the form of taxes.

Jesus avoided the trap, saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s!” Both God and government have rights. Loyalty to God is not necessarily incompatible with obedience to the state. Followers of Christ must give each its due. Should those claims clash, God’s claim comes first. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Question About the Great Commandment (28–34)
Next came a scribe to test Jesus’ skill in dealing with the Law. Copying the Scriptures gave scribes such great expertise in the Law that people called them “lawyers.” “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” he asked.

The first and greatest commandment Jesus drew from Deuteronomy 6:4–5. That text stressed the unity of God and insisted that a man worship the one true God with everything within him. Repeating “all” four times stressed that the whole personality must be involved in the worship. The second commandment Jesus drew from Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The questioner commended Jesus for His answer, noting that love for God and neighbor was more important than sacrifices. In turn, Jesus offered a commendation of His own: This scribe answered wisely and was “not far from the kingdom of God.” Near it … but not yet in it. To enter that Kingdom, the scribe would have to confess he had not loved God and his neighbor as he should and then throw himself on God’s loving grace for forgiveness. After this episode, no one dared ask Jesus any more questions. He was too sharp for them.

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