Mark 12:13-17Yesterday we saw Jesus provoking the Jewish leaders by telling a parable against them. Today we see some of those same leaders answering that provocation. They try to trap Jesus by making him choose between loyalty to the Jewish people or loyalty to Caesar. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? If Jesus says "no" then the Jewish leaders can report this to the Roman leadership in Jerusalem and thus get Jesus in some very serious trouble. If Jesus says "yes it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar" then the Jewish leaders can expose Jesus before the people and say, "Look, this teacher you so highly value does not care about your independence!"
Then they sent to Jesus some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, "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. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?" But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it." And they brought one. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Jesus said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were utterly amazed at him.
Jesus not only gives a masterful response to this question, he does so on the spot, one of the hardest things for any person to do. He asks for a denarius. Tom Wright explains the significance of this:
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: 'Augusts 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 the Jews, they could hardly have done it better. And when Jesus, who Mark's readers now know to be the true king, the son of God, is standing there in the Temple ruled by the Jewish chief priest, the irony could hardly be sharper.Pointing to Caesar's image on a coin, Jesus says, "Render unto Caesar what belongs to him and render unto God what belongs to God."
One implication of this statement is that every human being bears God's image, not on the face of a coin, but in his or her own person. Therefore, every person belongs to God. Another implication of this statement is that people are more valuable than money. It is far more important what we do with ourselves than it is what we do with our money. God is not interested in having our money; God wants us.
I have this paraphrase of a statement by C. S. Lewis hanging in my library: "God doesn't want something from us. He simply wants us."
Now here is the amazing thing: God has given us free will. We can actually withhold from God the most valuable thing that is his, the thing that actually bears his image. We can withhold ourselves from God if we choose. Or we can give ourselves to God. Why has God given us this choice? Because God knows that without such freedom, love is meaningless.
So, in response to this story, I believe we must seriously consider: will we give ourselves in love to God or not? And if we do give ourselves to God, how are we going to go about doing that?