“Tiberias Caesar August Son of Divine Augustus”
This inscription with an image of Caesar was on the denarius that the Herodians and Pharisees handed Jesus in Mark 12:13-17. On the reverse side of the coin was a female figure seated on a throne with the inscription “Pontifus Maximus” (High Priest). For Rome, “son of God” and “high priest” had nothing to do with the Jewish story.
These otherwise political/religious enemies (Herodians and Pharisees) band together at the Sanhedrin’s urging to finally trap Jesus. They conspire around one of the most explosive issues for Jews in Jesus’ day: taxes.
After buttering Jesus up with gaggingly sweet words (vs 14), they spring the trap: “Should we loyal Jews pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it right or wrong?”
In AD 6 a Roman census of Judea was used to levy a head tax. To use idolatrous pagan coins was deeply offensive to Jews. Some revolted and minted their own Judean coins. Without mercy, Rome crushed the rebellion and crucified the leaders of the movement. Roman taxes would be paid.
Jesus faces the question. If he says and unequivocal “Yes,” then he could not be considered a loyal Jew and certainly not an authentic claimant as the promised Messiah. Popular interpretation and vision could not tolerate a Messianic leader capitulating to Rome. Messiah would liberate from Rome, not bend to Rome. So, a “yes” gets Jesus in trouble with the deeply-oppressed, overly-taxed Jewish people. On the other hand, if Jesus says “No,” then these Jewish leaders scurry to Pilate, Rome’s agent in Jerusalem, and cry, “We have another dangerous rebel raising up new resistance to Rome. Jesus of Nazareth is a trouble-maker to Jews and to Rome, as well.”
What will Jesus do?
“Bring me a denarius. Whose image and inscription in on it?” Jesus asked.
They respond, “Caesar’s.”
These (allegedly) loyal Jews with a piece of portable idolatry in their possession are in the sacred Temple precincts. The coin is both visually and theologically idolatrous. These Jewish leaders have it. By this brilliant maneuver Jesus exposes these leaders’ willing participation in Rome’s oppressive presence. I wonder if “IN GOD WE TRUST” on our USAmerican currency will come back to bite the USAmerican church and culture.
Hit play. Jesus plainly says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.”
Paraphrase: “You only owe Caesar mere taxes. The idolatrous coin is his so give it back to him. Yet, you owe God your very life as does every human life in the world.”
One will say, ‘I belong to the LORD ‘; another will call himself by the name of Jacob; still another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’
and will take the name Israel.
Jesus answers in a brilliant way so that he can neither be accused of being a disloyal Jew nor a rebel against Rome.
Mark 12:17 ends with “And they were amazed at him.”
Mr. Leader-of-the-People-Astray, Mr. Illegitimate Child, Mr Demon-possessed man, Mr No Name from Nazareth, Mr Ignorant Rabble-Rouser shocks the smart, powerful people. He outwits them…again! Who is this?
It is brilliant Jesus.
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