Render to Caesar
Sunday, January 7th, 2024
Christ Covenant Church – Centralia, WA
13 And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. 14 And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. 16 And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. 17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.
O Father, we praise You for impressing upon our soul the image of the Holy Trinity. We thank you for creating us in your image and likeness, and for writing upon our foreheads the Name that is above all names. We thank you also for ordaining the governing powers that be, and we ask that you would establish them in righteousness so that instead of groaning your people might rejoice. Teach us to render to each man what is their due, but most of all to give back to you our very selves, whole and entire. We ask for Your Spirit now in Jesus’ name, Amen.
It is Tuesday of Passion week in Mark’s gospel, andJesus is continuing to faceoff against the Jewish authorities in the temple. And it is these interactions that will provoke and bring about Jesus’ crucifixion a few days later.
Recall that Jesus has just cleansed the court of the Gentiles, which was to be a place of prayer for all nations. He then masterfully refuted their questioning of where his authority comes from (from God or from man) by standing in solidarity with John the Baptist. Where John’s authority came from, so also Christ’s. And then last week we saw that Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Jewish leaders/husbandmen in the parable of the vineyard.
What was the sin of these husbandmen/tenants in the vineyard? It was twofold, first they were stealing God’s stuff, not giving to God the tribute or fruit He deserved. And second, they were killing the prophets and messengers that God had sent to them. They refused John the Baptist, and now they are refusing God himself in Jesus Christ.
Malachi 3:1-3 prophesies of both John and Jesus’ ministry in these terms: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: And the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, Even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: Behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: And he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, That they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.”
What is Jesus doing in these arguments with the Jews? He is purifying the sons of Levi (the priests, the scribes, the elders). He is coming like a refiner’s fire so that only gold and silver will remain. And the purpose of all this cleansing is so that God’s people “may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.”
Israel is God’s vineyard, God still wants the fruit of love and good works and justice from them, and He is going to get that fruit one way or another. So God prunes us to make us more fruitful. God purges us with fire to make us more glorious. What destroys the evil in us, makes us more like God.
Now all of this is important context for understanding the hypocrisy of the question the Pharisees and Herodians pose for Jesus, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?” Do you see the hypocrisy?
Here are the husbandman from Jesus’ parable who refuse to give God His tribute, they refuse to give God the fruit that He deserves, and yet here they are now pretending in front of Jesus to be torn on this question of whether it is really lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not, as if there is some tension between paying taxes to Rome and giving God His due.
This is kind of like someone who refuses to pay their tithes to God, but then wants to object to paying their income taxes on religious grounds. They claim “no king but Christ” when it comes to paying their taxes, but then they don’t give to God as king what actually belongs to Him. So this the hypocrisy Jesus is going to expose.
So we’ll consider this text at two levels.
First, we’ll try to understand what Jesus is teaching and how it would apply in the 1st century. And that is going to require a lot of historical background.
And then next week we’ll attempt the more difficult work of applying this to us living in the 21st century, where I’ll give a kind of State of the Church 2024 message.
So this sermon might leave you with some practical questions, and we’ll try to handle those next week.
13 And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.
Who are the they that are sending the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus?
These are the same “chief priests, scribes, and elders” he started talking to back in Mark 11:27. They are the highest Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, and together they composed the Sanhedrin, which is kind of like the Jewish Supreme Court. They are also the “husbandmen/tenants” that Jesus just described in his parable of the vineyard.
So the chief priest, scribes, and elders send the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus.
Why send these two groups to Jesus to ask this specific question about paying tribute to Caesar? The Sanhedrin are clearly setting a trap for Jesus, but what trap are they setting, why send the Pharisees and Herodians?
The reason is because the Pharisees and Herodians were theological enemies on some issues (like who the Messiah was), but they were united in that Jesus was threat to both of their power.
Who were the Herodians?
The Herodians likely believed that Herod and his sons were the rightful heirs of the Davidic monarchy. For them, the Herodian line was the coming of the Messiah, and in proof of this they could point to various exploits and actions of Herod the Great, chief of which was that he rebuilt the temple at Jerusalem.
In 20 BC, Herod leveled the temple that was built by Zerubbabel in Ezra and Nehemiah’s day (Ezra 5), and he expanded and beatified the structure into one of the greatest wonders of the world at that time.
It’s also interesting, especially in the light of Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, that one of the additions Herod made to the temple was the construction of an enormous gold and jeweled grape vine that hung above the entrance to the sanctuary. Ancient writers speak of how beautiful this golden grape vine was and so Herod was in many respects, the one responsible for making Jerusalem and the temple externally glorious again. Jerusalem was a real tourist destination because of the beauty of its temple.
Furthermore, during Herod the Great’s reign there was a time of severe famine in Judea, and Herod generously fed the nation and kept them from starving. He was perhaps in some minds like a new Joseph in this respect. And so despite being born from an Edomite father, Herod had a Jewish mother and claimed to be a Jew, and that was enough for some people to accept his rule.
At the same time, this was the same Herod the Great who tried to kill Jesus as a child. He ordered the slaughter of all the male infants born in Bethlehem, because such a child born according to the Scriptures threatened his claim to be the king of the Jews.
So that was Herod the Great he died around 4/1 BC, and at his death the kingdom was divided amongst three of his sons. Herod Archelaus was made ruler of Judea/Jerusalem but was removed after 9 years by Rome for his incompetence, and from then on Judea/Jerusalem became a Roman province and subject to paying tribute to Caesar (6 AD).
One of Herod the Great’s other sons, Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee in the North and Perea (to the East), and he is the one we met earlier who killed John the Baptist, and he is the Herod that these Herodians represent.
So the Herodians had a complicated relationship with Rome, and the Jews had a complicated relationship with Herod. Herod was a kind of buffer between the Jews and Caesar, and while far from ideal, many Jews preferred to be ruled by an impious quasi-Jew like Herod, instead of being ruled directly by pagan Romans.
This is not unlike our situation today in that most Christians would prefer to have as President or Governor, someone who is a professing Christian even if they are immoral and hypocritical, rather than an avowed atheist or anti-Christian in power. Herod was the lesser of two evils as far as many Jews were concerned.
So the Herodians were pro-Roman in that they derived their power and actual authority from Rome. Herod Antipas could be deposed by Caesar if he got out of line. At the same time, Herod was interested in expanding his power to include Judea/Jerusalem as well, just like his father Herod the Great. This is likely what is behind the comment in Luke 23:12 during Jesus’ trial, that “Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.”
So Herod needed Rome, but he also eyed Jerusalem as a place he would love to govern.
There is a lot of politics happening in the gospels and different parties jockeying for power, and the Herodians were one faction.
The Pharisees on the other hand were the more “orthodox” and “conservative” party in that they rightly believed that the Messiah had to be a real Jew, from the tribe of Judah, born in Bethlehem, and descended from David. And since Herod the Great was an Edomite, and had murdered his wife, and many other family members, and Herod Antipas was not much better, it was clear that he was not the promised Messianic king.
So the Pharisees rightly rejected Herod’s messianic pretensions, they knew better, and their chief concern was to maintain their own power and eventually regain real Jewish sovereignty in Judea. So they did not like paying tribute to Caesar, but they had no choice and so paid it anyways.
Summary: Despite whatever theological disagreements there were between Pharisees and Herodians, they were united in their hatred for Jesus, and thus as it says in verse 13 they want, “to catch him in his words.”
What is the trap they are going to set?
14 And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we give, or shall we not give?
Well as it says in Psalm 12:2, “With flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.” These Herodians and Pharisees set their trap with flattery and false compliments to Jesus.
They say that Jesus is true. They say that Jesus judges justly, that is without respect of persons (he “carest for no man”). They say that Jesus teaches the way of God in truth.
And in all this flattery there is a double irony. First in that they themselves are doing the opposite of everything they are applauding in Jesus.
And second, while they intend these compliments falsely, in reality they are speaking truer words than they realize.
Because Jesus really is the truth. Jesus really does judge without respect of persons. Jesus really does teach the way of God and is himself the way the truth and the life.
So while the Pharisees and Herodians think they are setting a trap for Jesus, they are really setting a trap for themselves.
As it says in the next verse in Psalm 12:3, “The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, And the tongue that speaketh proud things.”
Now before we see how Jesus cuts of these flattering lips, let us consider the human cunning behind their question, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”
What outcome are the Sanhedrin hoping for? In their minds this is win-win question no matter how Jesus answers.
1. If Jesus says “yes, it is unlawful to give tribute to Caesar,” then they can have him arrested by the Romans for stirring up rebellion. “He claims to be a king, and now he’s telling people not to pay their taxes, that is the definition of treason and sedition, therefore he must die.”
A few days later, when they actually do arrest him and drag him before Pontius Pilate, they are going to run this same play. It says in Luke 23:2, “And they began to accuse Him, saying, ‘We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.’”
Pilate sees through this false accusation and sends him to Herod. But you can see that this is the charge they are trying to make stick to Jesus.
2. The other option is that Jesus says “no, it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar,” and then he loses the favor of the masses who expect him, as the Messiah, to throw off Roman oppression and restore to the Jews their political and economic freedom.
So as far as the Sanhedrin are concerned, either Jesus alienates his “base,” the Jewish masses who want to enthrone him as king and get some tax relief, OR he incriminates himself by saying tribute to Caesar is unlawful, and they can charge him with sedition. In their minds, this is the perfect question with a win-win outcome. Whatever he answers, Jesus will lose his influence.
How does Jesus respond?
But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it.
So Jesus openly says, “why are you testing me?” He wants them to know that he knows that they are being hypocrites.
This question about the lawfulness of paying tribute is not an actual question, it is merely hypothetical, because if any of them actually refused to pay the tribute, they would lose the very thing they are desperately trying to hold onto, namely their status and authority which Rome gives them.
And so at first he does not answer their question, but rather asks them to bring him a Roman denarius (translated as penny in the KJV).
The denarius was a standard issue Roman silver coin (you can see a picture of it in the bulletin),and it represented about a day’s worth of labor (Matt. 20:2). So if minimum wage is $15 an hour, and you do 8 hours of work, a denarius would be roughly equivalent to $120. So it’s not a lot, but it’s something. And everyone in Judea was required to pay this tribute/head-tax.
Now remember, because Jesus was living in Galilee, he was in Herod’s jurisdiction, not Pontius Pilate’s, and therefore this tribute/tax did not actually apply to Jesus. He did not have to pay it. So the Sanhedrin could appear to be asking Jesus this question because he is an outsider, He’s a Galilean. He is a neutral third-party judge who can settle this “intramural question” among the Jews. Does it violate God’s law to pay tribute to Caesar?
One of the arguments that some zealots used against paying this tax, was that the money itself was idolatrous and blasphemous.
Leviticus 26:1 says, “Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land…”
And if you look at the coin, you can see that on one side is a graven image of Caesar, and written upon it says, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus,” and on the other side, PONTIF MAXIM, “High-Priest.”
So on this coin, was a graven image and Caesar was claiming to be both son of God and high-priest. And so the argument goes that to pay such tribute was to break the first commandment. It was to commit idolatry. And no such images should be allowed in the holy temple.
A generation earlier, in the year 6 AD, a man named Judas the Galilean led a tax revolt against this tribute to Caesar, and he is quoted as saying, “They are cowards who would endure to pay a tax to the Romans, and would after God, submit to mortal men as their lords.” The logic of these zealots was that Israel was a sovereign theocracy ruled by God and God alone, and therefore no foreign power could extract tribute from them.
And while that might sound biblical and pious, it is actually the opposite of what God had commanded after the first temple was destroyed (see Jeremiah, Daniel, etc.).
So these zealots were the more extreme “Jewish nationalists” who wanted to set up God’s kingdom by force, rather than submit to the authorities God had placed over them, and the reward for their zealotry was that Rome violently destroyed them. It would be this same zealotry that would spark the final war between Rome and Jerusalem which Jesus will foretell in the next chapter (Mark 13).
So the Pharisees and Herodians and the Jews are all aware that this tribute to Caesar is a touchy subject. People had died rebelling against it a generation earlier, and there was a diversity of opinion about whether such tribute and revolt was lawful or not.
But Jesus sees through this trap, and calls them on their hypocrisy by telling them, “Bring me a penny, that I may see it.”
What is Jesus doing by asking for this coin? He is making them answer their own question. If they bring him the coin, then they reveal that they believe it is lawful and therefore lose whatever influence they had with the populists. If they don’t bring him the coin, then the charge of sedition and disloyalty to Rome can be leveled at them. Jesus has now put them in a lose-lose dilemma.
What do they do?
16 And they brought it.
So they could have said, “we don’t have any, we have the courage of our convictions and refuse to pay such idolatrous (or oppressive) tribute to Caesar.” But by the very fact of them having and bringing to him such a coin, within the Temple complex, they are revealing where they stand on this question. They cannot pretend to be sympathetic with the zealots or Jewish masses.
Jesus goes further and makes them acknowledge what is on the coin.
And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s.
Whatever arguments they pretend to have against paying this tribute, whether theological, political, or otherwise, Jesus is exposing as hypocrisy.
The fact that they have a denarius, and know what is on it, and all of them pay it, proves that their question about its lawfulness is hypocritical.
Nevertheless, Jesus gives them an answer to their question that makes them marvel.
17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.
What is Jesus saying in answer to their question? Is it lawful or not?
The crucial word in Jesus’ answer is this word “render” (Ἀπόδοτε), which means to give back to someone. And since you can only give back to someone what was first given to you from them, the question becomes, what is it that Caesar had given to the Jews?
For starters, the denarius that bears his image and inscription was only in circulation because Caesar made it so. And what that coin and tribute represented was the many other blessings that Caesar had provided for them, like safety and protection from foreign invaders.
Before Rome had authority over Jerusalem, the region was fraught with civil wars and constant threats from other nations and empires. Jerusalem was geographically located at the crossroads of many trade routes, and so it was a very strategic city that any empire would want to occupy.
So humanly speaking, Caesar and the Roman Empire provided the security, stability, and peaceful conditions for the Jews to worship God and even prosper.
And for those who knew the prophets well, especially the book of Daniel, God had revealed that the Jews would be governed by four subsequent foreign empires until the coming of the Messiah (Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and then Rome). This is what Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2 foretold (the great statue), it is what God revealed to Daniel in Daniel 7 with the four beast empires, and so the Jews should have known that if they kept covenant with God, He would take care of them just like he had in Esther’s day, just like he had preserved them under the Assyrians, preserved them under the Babylonians, preserved them under the Persians, and so forth.
If they obeyed God and were faithful to Him, these beast empires would eventually either convert or God would replace them. Which is exactly what happened in those 400 years between Old and New Testament.
And so when we read in Romans 13, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God,” we have restated for us what the policy had always been: Bear witness, be faithful, worship God alone, keep the commandments, and unless the government is requiring you to sin (bowing down to the image), submit to their authority, pay the tribute. Maybe its theft, maybe its unjust, maybe its tyrannical, but it is not a sin to be stolen from. It is not a sin to give back to Caesar what Caesar has made.
Paul says more explicitly in Romans 13:6, “for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.”
Now it is this second part of Jesus’ answer that really makes the crowd marvel, “Render to God the things that are God’s.”
If the coin belongs to Caesar because it bears his image, what bears God’s image? Caesar. You. Everyone. Everything belongs to God, and therefore we can trust that when we give back to Caesar what God commands, namely tribute/taxes, we are giving to God what belongs to God. Because all things come from Him and the powers that be are ordained by Him.
And so Jesus is calling all of his hearers to not only give to Caesar his due, but to give back to God what God has first given to them, and that means giving to God our everything, our heart, our soul, our mind, our strength, our breath, our time, our talent, our treasure.
And when you truly belong to God and offer yourself to Him, and you know that God is the power behind all earthly powers, including the evil ones, you can live in the midst of a wicked world with “a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).
Or as it says in 1 Peter 2:16-17, we can live “as free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. 17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.”
The Jews wanted to use God as a cloke for their envy, and greed, and maliciousness. The Jewish zealots tried to use God as their justification for rebellion, and murders, and civil wars.
And in a similar way Christians, especially those living under oppressive and wicked regimes (as we are) will be tempted to use God and the Scriptures as a cloke for all kinds of things that are actually disobedience to Him.
So we need to get really clear in our minds what belongs to Caesar, and what does not, and we will work on that next week. But you cannot actually answer that question unless you know first and foremost what belongs to God, and whose image you bear.
Jesus Christ suffered and died and rose again, so that the image of God in you, could be renewed and transformed into the image of Christ. As Paul says in Romans 8:28-29, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. 29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son…”
The life of a Christian, whether under Caesar or under any other authority, is one in which if you love God, He will make all things conspire for your good. And what is that good? That you are conformed into the image of Christ.
There is no higher good or higher reward than to know God and be made more like Him. So render to your Creator the life He has given, and He will give it back to you immortal and resurrected and far more glorious than before.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.