I once received an email from someone who had been converted to Christ during one of our mission trips to Russia. She was reading the Gospels for the first time. Her comment about Jesus as she first encountered Him was, “How wise He is!”
It’s so true. Take, for instance, Jesus’ famous reply to the religious authorities’ question about whether or not they should pay taxes: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.” Studying Mark last weekend, I was struck again by how wise this answer is, and even more so, after I read this interesting historical note from one of my commentaries:
[His answer’s] cleverness is to be found not only, or even mainly, in a studied compromise, but rather in that he has undermined the questioners’ position in two important ways…
[The first] element in Jesus’ response relates to why Jesus asked to be shown a denarius and drew attention to its image and writing. The silver denarius was the required coinage for tax payment, and it carried a portrait of the emperor together with his official title, which at this time under Tiberius would include the words DIVI AUG. FILIUS, ‘Son of the divine Augustus.’ For a strict Jew this was not only politically but also religiously offensive, involving both a ‘graven image’ and also words which should not be applied to any human being, certainly not a pagan Roman. But for everyday commerce the Jews were able to avoid ‘idolatry’ by using copper coins, locally minted, which bore no image. By asking his questioners to show him a denarius Jesus wrong-footed them. He himself apparently did not have a denarius, but his questioners were able to produce one. They were therefore in no position to criticize Jesus for lack of patriotism or of religious scruples, if they themselves were already carrying the ‘idolatrous’ imperial money.
The theological basis of Jesus’ response is more far-reaching. It is that the Zealot ideology underlying the supposed dilemma is false. Instead of setting loyalty to God and to Caesar in opposition to each other, the straightforward meaning of Jesus’ words is that both may be maintained at the same time. He gives no specific guidance as to what is one’s obligation to each party, though the implication of his “give to Caesar” following on the recognition that the denarius bears Caesar’s name surely implies that the use of the denarius to pay the poll tax falls clearly within the category of Caesar’s dues. His pronouncement assumes that there is no clash between the legitimate claims of Caesar and of God. It is therefore an answer no Zealot could have given. But neither is it simply pro-Roman: God also has his rights.
R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark