“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. 18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third.22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” 24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

Mark 12:13-27

Last summer, on August 13th to be precise, I married my beautiful fiancee, Claire, at Ballynafeigh Methodist Church in Belfast.  It was the happiest day of my life.  Not only was I marrying the woman of my dreams, but all my family and friends were gathered around me, and, to cap it all off, the weather was stunning, which was certainly not a given in Northern Ireland!  Since we got married in a Methodist Church, after we signed the documentation, it had to be taken to the Belfast Records Office within three days for the wedding to be legalised.  Whilst our wedding was binding in the eyes of God and the Church, the state needed to put their stamp on it before they recognised it.  For us, the most important aspect of our marriage was that the ceremony was solemnised before God, but we recognised the necessity of the state making it “official.”

In our current reading, we see both the issue of marriage and the state being raised in an attempt to trick Jesus.  Two questions are posed that are intended to catch Jesus out in the hope that he would say something that would leave him open to arrest, or show him up in front of the many people who were following him.  As we might expect, both questions failed in their intent.

The first question is concerned with the payment of taxes to Caesar.  The unlikely pairing of the Pharisees with the Herodians was without doubt aiming to cause trouble for Jesus.  They approached him in a very crafty manner, calling him “Teacher,” telling him that they knew he was an honest and trustworthy person, and seeming to ask him to settle a dispute that the two groups had.  Whilst the Pharisees, as devout Jews, would have been dubious about paying taxes to their Roman overlords, the Herodians, who were little more than puppets for the Roman control of Judea, would have advocated coughing up.  Behind this question, however, we can see their true purpose; they were trying to catch Jesus out.  If he said that the people should pay their taxes to Caesar, he would lose face with those who followed him, many of whom were strongly opposed to giving anything to the Romans.  If, on the other hand, he said that people should withhold their taxes, he risked certain arrest for treason.  It seemed to them like they had presented Jesus with a question that would implicate him in one way or another.

Jesus surprised both groups with his answer.  He probably did not have a coin to his name, but he asked them to give him one.  They did just that, and Jesus pointed to the face on the coin.  Whose face was this, he asked?  It was plain for them all to see that it was Caesar’s face.  Well, then, Jesus said, give to Caesar what belongs to him.  To God, though, they must give what belongs to God.  By drawing attention to the image on the coin, Jesus also rather neatly drew attention to our own image; if taxes have to be paid to Caesar because coins are created in his image, what should we give to God?  The answer implicit in Jesus’ statement is that we should give to God what is in God’s image.  Genesis 1:26-27 states:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

We are created in God’s image.  We need to give ourselves to God.  All around him, people were coming to the temple to offer sacrifices to God, but things were changing, that was not what God was interested in any more.  He wanted people to turn to him, obey him, and give their lives to him.  Paul outlines this idea in Romans 12:1 when he states, “therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true act of worship.”

What Jesus is not telling those listening was that they must slavishly obey those who are governing them.  It is true that Paul said:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.  The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves.  (Romans 13:1-2).

It is clear from Peter and John’s example in Acts, however, that there are limits to this.  When the Sanhedrin warns the apostles not to speak any more of Jesus, they reply:

“Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him?  You be the judges!  As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20).

They know that the Sanhedrin has been established by God, but they also recognise that when it is running contrary to God’s will, they need to resort to the higher authority; God himself.  It’s a bit like a department manager at work telling you to do something that runs contrary to the wishes of the CEO – the CEO’s word is final.

So, just as when Claire and I had to follow the law of the land and register our marriage at the registry office, even though we were already married in God’s eyes, since the law did not run contrary to Biblical teaching, we had to obey.

Marriage is the topic of the next question that Jesus was posed, this time by the Sadducees.  The Sadducees had some interesting beliefs.  They based their whole religion on the pentateuch, or the five books of Moses.  Luke records in Acts that, “the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things” (Acts 23:8).  By asking Jesus about the resurrection, the Sadducees were testing Jesus to see which side of the argument he came down on, and, specifically, to see if he sided with their arch rivals, the Pharisees.  The question they asked relates to a levirate marriage, which obliges a brother to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, as per the instructions of Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Genesis 38:8.  Surely, the Sadducees imply, if this is an instruction that God has laid down for his people, there can’t be a resurrection?  Otherwise who would the woman be married to?

Once again, though, Jesus manages to confound his audience with the response he gives.  He turns the question right back on the Sadducees and tells them that they are completely wrong and that they have a weak understanding of the power of God, and a poor knowledge of Scripture.  This last accusation would have hurt, since it was Scripture that they believed they had based their beliefs on.  Jesus refers them to the time when Moses encountered the burning bush, and God told him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6).  God didn’t say that he was but that he is. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were clearly long dead, but in God’s eyes they were still in some sense alive, otherwise how could he be their God now?  God is not the God of the dead Jesus said, but the God of the living.

The idea of resurrection that the Sadducees present to Jesus is, Jesus explains, totally false.  They’re viewing heaven in a particular way, but that way is inaccurate.  There won’t be any marriage in heaven.  When the dead rise, they will be like angels.  Jesus does not fully elaborate here what this means, but there is no doubt that this statement would have further infuriated the Sadducees who, as we have seen, not only did not believe in resurrection, but did not believe in angels either!

In this one passage, we see Jesus tackling two questions that were designed to catch him out, but he does not fall into either trap.  In answering the first question, he tells us that we have to give to God what is God’s.  Since he identified the coin as belonging to Caesar since it bore his likeness, he implies that, since we are created in the image of God, we have to give ourselves to God.  Our first loyalty is to him.  When there is no contradiction between God’s commands and the commands of those in authority over us in this life, we also have an obligation to be good citizens, and to respect our rulers.  In the second, Jesus demonstrates the danger of bringing our own, earthly understanding to the ways of God.  If we rely on our own understanding rather than trusting in God, we will generally come to the wrong conclusion.  If we trust in God, we accept that there are things that we do not understand, but, since he wants what is best for all of us, he will not let us down.  I find that rather reassuring; I love my wife, and the thought of not being married to her in the resurrection is a little disappointing.  Ultimately, though, I know that God has great things in store for us, and that heaven will be even better than being married!

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