Mark 12: 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.
Here is a picture of the kind of coin that Jesus asked to look at and saw:
The inscription says, “Tiberius, Son of the Divine Caesar Augustus,” “divine” because he had gotten the Roman Senate to declare him a god. The other side of the coin calls him “Supreme High Priest.” With those words, the denarius was not only a piece of currency and commerce, it was evangelistic in a way, religious propaganda, as well as political.
Isn’t it ironic that Jesus, the Son of God, and our high priest, was looking upon the profile of a self-proclaimed “Son of the Divine” and “high priest” of the Roman state religion? At roughly the value of a man’s daily labor, say, $100 today, Jesus and his disciples would rarely have coinage of such value in their hands, or not for long, before their daily needs ate it up. But Jesus’ interrogators had no trouble producing one on demand, and in the temple district, nonetheless, where its presence would prove all the more offensive. Isn’t it ironic that the very people who came to him, so huffy and so serious, to put him on the spot with this lose-lose trap of a question, should be the very ones who carried that controversial coin, and who could produce it on demand? More than ironic, I find it funny, even slapstick. I think Jesus said, “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it,” so they might cough it up and prove their hypocrisy.
As he looked at the coin, did Jesus think about the three of the Ten Commandments that it violated? The first, against having other gods, the second against making idols and images of other gods, and the third, about using God’s name in vain? For those reasons alone, many Jews would never accept or even touch the denarius.
And when he thought about the reason why this coin went back to Rome, in effect, a head tax, paid directly to Caesar, did he also think about how his mother Mary, and Joseph, had brought him to the temple when he was only 8 days old, to pay the Jewish redemption price for the first-born child? According to Hebrew law, you paid that with the sacrifice of a lamb if you were wealthy, or two doves if you were poor. And you only paid it once, and only for the first-born. But Caesar demanded a denarius as the redemption price of every slave, citizen or Senator, every year, the same amount, rich or poor, just for being Caesar’s subjects. So the controversy was not just over paying taxes in general, but over paying this particular head tax, with this particular coin, not only because it was so blasphemous, but also because it was so burdensome on the poor.
When Jesus looked at the profile of the self-styled Son of God Tiberius, did also he think about the character and the conduct of the man pictured there, which was surely common knowledge throughout the empire? In Tiberius’ defense, we should note that he started out as an able administrator, a well-intentioned care-taker CEO type of emperor, who wanted to strengthen the peace of the empire after years of civil war. But power and paranoia corroded the man’s soul, so that, by the time of Jesus’ ministry, Tiberius had become legendary for debauchery, corruption and cruelty. He had spies and paid informants all over Rome and beyond, looking and listening for the least hint of disloyalty. If they couldn’t find it, they might invent it, and then collect a bounty if they could make their accusations stick. Tiberius degenerated into a tyrant who put yes-men and unqualified opportunists in office, simply because of their fawning loyalty to him. He gave them the official title, “Friends of Caesar,” like Pontius Pilate. He even required, by law, that he be named as co-heir in the wills of all knights and nobility. Sometimes he invalidated those wills so that he got everything when they died. The longer he lived, the greater the terror and insecurity he inflicted on citizens, subjects and slaves.
When Jesus contemplated that coin, and the image and inscription on it, did he also consider the fact that, While Tiberius made himself people’s joint heir, he had come to make each of us his joint-heirs, joint heirs of his throne, his titles and his virtues? Did he think about the fact that, while Tiberius Caesar declared himself divine, with help from the Senate, Jesus came so that “to all who believe in him, he gave the right to be children of God?” What contrasts between the two men who were called, in the same day and place, “Son of God.”
If those were some of the thoughts and questions going through the mind of Jesus as he contemplated on that coin the image of the self-styled Son of the Gods, then his words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” are not the simple call to a compliant Christian citizenship that we often make them out to be. As though Caesar and God sat down one day at a table, dealt out cards and said, “Roads for you, and cathedrals for me, soldiers for you and pastors for me,” or “Eeny-meeny-miny-moe…government to you shall go.”
Sorry, God. You just get the church.
So if Caesar wants to send us or our sons and daughters off to war, or to round up our Jewish or undocumented neighbors, then, as Jesus said, we must give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But I find Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” powerful, penetrating and challenging, not at all a blank check for any government to do anything. To his interrogators, Jesus is saying, “If you’re really so concerned and conflicted about this imperial head tax, and the idolatrous coin with which you pay it, why would you even have it on your person? Give it back to Caesar, from whom you got it. For if, with Caesar you play, then to Caesar you must pay.”
As for what belongs to God, to a devout Hebrew like Jesus, the operative word would be Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s, the world and all they who dwell within it.” Including Caesar. So everyone, from Caesar to the slaves, are no more than renters, sharecroppers, and tenants of God, the generous landlord of this marvelous planet. Any land, power, wealth and titles in our care are only lent to us by God, for only a while.
Still, when Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” he was not calling for armed revolt. That only substitutes one Caesar for another. I’m thinking that Jesus was less concerned about the Caesar in Rome, or about the Caesar that people carried in their purses and pockets, than with the Caesar we carry in our heads.
Here’s what I mean: Tiberius Caesar has been dead for twenty-one centuries. But Caesar is alive and well as a principle, if not always a person. Caesar still shows up as dictators and demagogues, and this week as terrorists. But Caesar can also show up as attitudes, idols and ideologies, like our reliance on wealth, war and weapons for security and identity.
In the church, we often use the name “Caesar” as shorthand for all government, from the city dog-catcher to the president. But that’s not fair to people like the county commissioner I knew in Kansas. He took that role out of care and concern for the community, and I’m pretty sure that’s how he carried it out. But he also resisted all calls and invitations to run for higher office in state government, because that would take him away from the local level, from a face-to-face kind of civil service, where neighbors could feel free to call him up and say, “Hey, you might wanna take a look at that bridge over Turkey Creek,” or “When are you gonna do somethin’ about the potholes on my road?” Greater too were the temptations to abuse and misuse power at those higher, more distant levels of government, and the harder it got to do practical things to help people. When I think then of school teachers, peace officers, highway maintenance workers, the chemists and engineers who keep our drinking water and our rivers clean, and who do their jobs because they love people and their community, I will not and cannot call them all, indiscriminately, “Caesar.” I have no qualms or question at all about paying taxes for their salaries and their services.
It’s wherever we find idolatry, self-aggrandizement and hero worship, whenever we encounter exploitation, abuse of power and of people, wherever leaders lead by encouraging fear and greed in us, and exploit problems in order to divide us rather than uniting us to fix them, to win power over people rather than to empower them, to score points rather than to discern truth, like the people who were trying to trick and to trap Jesus with the question about the coin, wherever the love of power overcomes the power of love, there you find Caesar, at least as a principle
That doesn’t just happen in government. I’ve run across Caesar’s tracks in business, like when I asked the owner of a bookstore why it was that blatant pornography was visible and available right in the front row of the magazine stand. She told me it was because of the contract she had to sign with the magazine distribution company. If she didn’t display those magazines there, they’d pull everything else they brought off the shelves, from Sports Afield to Better Homes and Gardens. Her store would be black-listed, and her business would go down the tubes.
You can even find Caesar in church sometimes. When people tell me that they are unbelievers not because God is so unbelievable, but because the church is, I think they must have met Caesar, especially if there was abuse or misconduct by some clergy. Or if pastors or other leaders ruled over people and effectively told them, “It’s my way or the highway,” about even some of the most picayune, non-essential stuff.
Caesar, as a principle, or a mindset, gets into our heads with words and thoughts like, “Be very, very afraid of you-know-who; be very, very afraid of scarcity, dishonor or death,” and “only I can keep you safe, only I can give you dignity and meaning in life, but only if you trust me, fear me, worship me, obey me and imitate me, and make sacrifices to me, of money, yes, but also of your young people in war, or of dissidents and undesirables.”
The funny thing is, we don’t have to worship Caesar, nor be cheerleaders and chaplains for Caesar’s kingdom, for Caesar to have gotten into our heads. There in ancient Palestine, the Jewish rebels who took up the sword to kill Romans and their collaborators had Caesar in their heads, you could tell, because of their non-stop resentment and reactivity against him. Their negative, fearful, resentful fixation against Caesar turned them into killers as cold and brutal as Caesar and his henchmen, just as much as if they had been Caesar’s collaborators and acolytes. They let Caesar into their heads to become just as much the driving force in their lives as if they were Caesar’s friends and fans.
But when Jesus looked at that coin and at the profile of Tiberius Caesar, I can assure us that he saw neither a god nor a demon, but just a human being, like any other, man or woman, made in God’s image like anyone else, equally in need of God’s grace, equally as loved by God. If Jesus looked upon that profile the way he looked upon the rich young man who asked him, “What must I do to be saved,” if he looked upon Tiberius as he looked upon his own disciples when he said, “Come, follow me,” and “Little children, it is my Father’s pleasure to bestow upon you a kingdom,” then Jesus did not look upon the man’s image with either fawning, worshipful admiration, nor with fear, contempt nor hatred. I would bet the farm that Jesus looked upon Caesar’s profile with love, in spite of the hair-raisingly blasphemous words surrounding it. Though he did not let Caesar into his head, as either an object of worship, nor of resentment, Jesus surely let the man into his heart as someone who needs love, to love and to be loved.
So do we all. And the good news this morning is that the true Son of God, who carried the weight of the world’s sins and sorrows on Tiberius Caesar’s cross, carries all of us in his heart, including Tiberius Caesar and the men who made his crosses and nailed people to them. And we were all on his mind when he carried our sins as a cross. That Jesus could do because only one God was in his head and heart. His eyes were fixed only on his heavenly Father, about whom he said, “What I see my Father do, that I do.” Instead of praying to Caesar, like so many citizens and subjects of his day, Jesus prayed for him, especially when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And so Jesus demonstrated what it means to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. To everyone, king or commoner, slave or Caesar, we owe only love, and our prayers on their behalf. Jesus also demonstrated what it means to give to God what is God’s. To God we give head and heart, body, soul and spirit, for it is all his to begin with. “We are not our own; we have been bought with a price.” On the throne of our hearts and in our heads may there reign only the rightful Son of God, the High Priest who looked at the coin, not the one who was portrayed on it.