Mark 12:13–17
13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 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? 15 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.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 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.


When I was in high school, my favorite type of exam was the kind with True or False questions. Even if you didn’t study, you still had a 50% chance of getting those questions right. So in that spirit, I’ve decided to give you a “pop quiz” this morning…true or false style. If you think the answer to a question is “True” I want you to give me the thumbs up sign. If you think the anwer is “False,” give me the thumbs down sign. Oh, and the subject of the exam is…you. So it should be easy, right? Actually, the questions get progressively harder as we go. Let’s begin.

  1. True or False: Breakfast is your favorite meal of the day.
  2. True or False: You are an easy person to get along with.
  3. True or False: You would rather freeze to death than burn to death.
  4. True or False: Your answer to this question will be false.
  5. True or False: You regret your decision to cheat on your income taxes.
  6. True or False: You are no longer in the habit of locking innocent strangers in your basement for torture.

As you can see, the problem with True/False questions is that sometimes neither answer is acceptable, or even true. When faced with an impossible question like that, most of you chose simply not to answer. But sometimes, that’s not a possibility, either. Sometimes you have to add a third option, one that wasn’t included in the question.

In today’s scripture passage, Jesus is faced with a similar impossible question, and he uses a coin to demonstrate his “third option.”

First, though, to help us really understand the impossible question and Jesus’ answer, let’s set the stage. Israel during the time of Jesus is an occupied country, a nation defeated and conquered by the Roman Empire. In the wake of this defeat, two factions had emerged. The Pharisees were a nationalistic resistance movement. They opposed the Roman Empire, although not overtly. The Herodians (named after Herod, the puppet King installed by the Romans) were Roman sympathizers who advocated acceptance of Israel’s status as a conquered nation, but also a member of the Roman Empire, with all the benefits that came with that.

In Mark 12:13, we read that “they” sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians. We are not told (in this passage, at least) who the “they” represents, but clearly it’s a group that is hostile to Jesus. It’s interesting to me that these two groups–Pharisees and Herodians–seem able to come together despite their differences in order to challenge Jesus. I guess it would be like Republicans and Democrats uniting in order to target someone they both perceived to be a threat. This would have raised eyebrows among Jesus’ followers, to be sure.

The Pharisees and Herodians begin by flattering Jesus, establishing him as a neutral party: “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.” We know you’re a registered independent, and you make decisions based on facts and data, not party affiliation.

So…should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?

Incidentally, this story isn’t really about taxes. Jewish people had been paying taxes to their own government for centuries before this and didn’t have a problem with taxes. The real question at stake is “Who do you side with, Jesus?” With your own people, or with the Romans?

If Jesus says “yes, it’s right to pay taxes” then he couldn’t possibly be the Messiah, the one whom the Jews believed would come to defeat the Romans and liberate them. And if Jesus says, “No, you shouldn’t pay taxes” then the Herodians will report him to the Romans, and he’ll be arrested for inciting treason.

It’s a trick question. So Jesus does a coin trick.

Show me a coin, he says. But not just any coin– he asks for a Denarius. This is a fascinating coin, with a great history. Incidentally, the Spanish word for money (Dinero) is descended from Denarius. But originally it was minted by the Roman Empire not so much as currency, but as a ceremonial coin, a commemorative coin celebrating Roman victories, and paying tribute to Roman heroes. It was a coin designed to celebrate, praise…or worship…someone. In this case, Caesar. Inscribed on every Denarius (along with an image of Caesar) were the words “Tiberivs Caesar Divi Avgvsti Filivs, Pontifex Maxiumus” — Tiberius Caesar, High Priest and Son of God (lit. “divine Augustus”).

Which side are you on, Jesus? Who do you worship, Jesus? Everyone wants to know.

And Jesus says, famously and cryptically, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. Or in older English transaltions, Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; and unto God what is God’s. We’ve all heard this so many times we think we know exactly what it means. But not so fast.

If you were a Roman, or a Herodian, chances are you believed the Imperial propaganda that Caesar was, in fact a divine being, or the son of a divine being. Was Jesus agreeing with you–Give to Caesar what belongs to him (then repeating himself) give to God (i.e. Caesar) what is his. Or was he deliberately disagreeing with you, saying “here’s Caesar, here’s God, and they’re not the same thing?

If you’re a Pharisee, a Jewish religious leader, you believed passionately in the very first one of the ten commandments–you shall have no God’s before me, and then later, you shall not make for yourself any engraved images. Was Jesus, by showing you an engraved image with another God on it, agreeing with you and demonstrating his knownledge of the scriptures? Or was he disagreeing with you, and saying that you should pay taxes, like a good Roman or Herodian?

It’s not clear. But notice what *doesn’t* happen next–none of them, Herodians, Pharisees, ask Jesus to clarify what he means. You’d think someone would say, “Hey Jesus, what exactly is it that belongs to Caesar? Roman money, but not Jewish money? Our property and our bodies, because they conquered it all? And what exactly is it that belongs to God? Our money? Our property and our bodies, because, you know, God created everything?

But they don’t ask. Instead, they walk away. In a hurry. Verse 17 says that they were “utterly amazed” at him. But that word amazed, in Greek, is ἐξεθαύμαζον (exethaumatzon). It can also mean “very afraid.”
What were they afraid of? I think they were afraid that he was about to answer those questions that they were too afraid to ask.

When we look at the stories of Jesus, I always like to ask the question, who are we in this story? And in this particular story, there aren’t a lot of good options: There’s the mysterious “they” who sent the Pharisees and the Herodians. I don’t think we want to be them. There’s Jesus. Even on a good day, we’re probably not going to be Jesus. There are no disciples in this story like there were last week. That leaves two choices. We’re either the Herodians or the Pharisees, towing our party line, and trying to cram Jesus into our box, and fully prepared to reject or ignore him if he doesn’t give us the answer we want.

And if we’re honest, we’re terrified he might actually give us an answer to a question we didn’t ask. Like the Pharisees and Herodians, we like to think that we have it all figured out–what belongs to God, what belongs to the government, and what belongs to us. Actually, we like to think that it all belongs to us. We share with the government begrudgingly (because the IRS will come after us if we don’t) and God *maybe* gets whatever is left over, or in our pocket, at the end of the week, month, year.

Before we wrap things up today, I want to go back to one key word in Jesus’ response. It’s that word “give” or “render” unto Caesar, “give” or “render” unto God. Both of those words are missing something. The word Jesus uses is ἀπόδοτε (apodote). The “dote” part means give, or render. But the “apo” is a prefix that means “re.” Re-give, Re-render, or better yet, give back. This is the language of indebtedness, something we, as Americans, actually know a lot about.

When you take out a mortgage to buy a house, or a loan to buy a car, you get the thing up front, and then you give back an equivalent (or greater) recurring payment, over time, until you have “given back” the full value of the thing. Likewise, the government gives you things (roads, security, public education) up front, in good faith, and then you pay for these things at the end of the year through your taxes. When you occupy the house, drive off the lot with the car, on the public roads, use public land or services–when you do any of these things, you incur a debt that must be paid.

So I want you to ask yourself this question. What things do you believe that God has provided for you, up front and in good faith? Your children? Your spouse? Your career? Your health? Your life? The world you inhabit? I can’t answer that question for you, but I would suggest that the things you find yourself praying for most are the things you believe God somehow has a hand in. Your prayers may not always be answered in the way you want, but you probably wouldn’t pray if you didn’t think God had something to do with those things.

And if you do enjoy any of those things you pray for; if you benefit from those things you ascribe to God, what are they worth to you? In what ways are you indebted to God? And in what ways are you giving back to God what God has given to you? The good news is that God doesn’t require a down payment; God charges zero interest; and God will never come audit you or reposess what he has given to you if you don’t keep your end of the deal. But God does expect you to give. Not, as I said last week, to your detriment or poverty. But if God has blessed you with good and desireable things in this life, then from those things–give back to God what is God’s.

I’ll leave you with one last True or False question. Yes, it is a trick question, only slightly manipulative on my part. And no, I don’t mind if, like Jesus, you come up with a really good “third option.”

True or False: You are thankful, relieved, and proud of your decision to give back to God and turn in a pledge card to First Presbyterian Church today.