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Give to God What Is God's

Date: Feb. 16, 2020

Author: Michael Mark

Mark 12:13-17

Key Verse: Mark 12:17

Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."

It’s just about tax time here in the US.  How many people have already filed their taxes?  How many people enjoy doing taxes?  I guess that depends on if you are expecting to get money back, or pay.  There’s a saying that goes, “in this world nothing is certain, except death and taxes.”  It originated in the early 1700s, but Benjamin Franklin made it famous almost 80 years later.  The meaning is that everything in life is uncertain, but you can sure of 2 things: that you will die, and that you will have to pay taxes.  Everywhere you go, there are taxes.  There are sales taxes, food taxes, utility taxes, and of course income taxes.  I’ve come to accept them as a part of life, but what really shocked me are taxes on any bonuses you get.  If I get paid a bonus, the tax is automatically 40%.  I couldn’t believe that!  Here my company is trying to compensate me, and Uncle Sam reaches in and plucks 40% out before it gets to me, but, there really isn’t anything I can do about it.  Taxes have been around ever since civilizations organized into societies, and at the most basic level it’s everyone chipping in a little bit of something for things that can benefit everyone else.

Maybe the irritating part about taxes are that they are mandatory, and while it’s one thing to pay taxes as a citizen of your country, it might be another to pay taxes to a foreign nation.  The paying of taxes to Rome was always a hot-button issue in Judea, and one of the major rebellions that led to the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD started with the issue of taxes.  In today’s passage, we see some of Jesus’ opponents trying to use this against him.  If you recall, we are learning about the last week of Jesus’ life, the Passion week.  This story takes place on the Tuesday, just 3 days away from his death on Good Friday.  Last week, we heard about how Jesus spoke a parable against the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders, and they knew it was about them.  They were looking for a way to arrest Jesus, but they were afraid of the people, so they left him and went away.

Later that day, perhaps while Jesus was still teaching, a new group of people showed up.  Verse 13 tells us that these religious leaders sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to try to catch Jesus in his words.  Matthew tells us that the Pharisees had sent their disciples, so here I imagine they sent their young looking students as spies.  Rather than overtly try to attack Jesus, they religious leaders were operating under the radar, sending in a proxy group of people to do their dirty work under cover.  They came and acted as if they were young and eager students who want to learn from Jesus, like wolves in sheep’s clothing.  The Pharisees were the ultra-nationalistic Jews, it’s from them we still see the Orthodox Jews in our communities today, keeping their own separate identity.  The Herodians were on the other side of the political spectrum.  They were supporters of Roman rule, and supporters of King Herod, who was installed by Rome.  These two groups were essentially political parties with opposing agendas, perhaps as opposed to each other as the Democrat and Republican parties are today.  It was highly unlikely that these two groups would be allies, but they both saw Jesus as a threat to both their parties, so they banded together to try to stop him.  It’s like that saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Let’s take a closer look at their ruse in v.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?”  Look at how they smooth talk and butter up Jesus, and then slyly slip in the ticking time bomb of a question at the end.  They flatter Jesus with lavish praise, trying to catch him off guard and hopefully get him to unintentionally make a condemning confession.  These were quite a conniving bunch.  Look at their words.  They said “Teacher,” although none of these Pharisees and Herodians consider Jesus as a teacher.  Then they follow up with a list of the most excellent qualities of a teacher – integrity, impartiality and alignment with God and the truth.  With their lips they honored Jesus, but in their hearts they hated him.

This was their curveball: “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”  Luke tells us they pretended to be sincere.  I picture them asking this question probably in the most innocent voice possible, as if they were fresh young students grappling with one of the biggest issues of the time.  The imperial tax was a highly unpopular tax, especially in Judea.  It was a tax on every adult in the provinces of the Roman Empire, and a census was taken regularly to make sure the lists were up to date.  The provinces were usually conquered or subjugated territories, annexed into the Empire, and these taxes were a tribute to Rome.  Rome became so wealthy from these provinces that they were able to exempt their own citizens, which make up about 10% of the population, from taxes.  The tax was for non-citizen subjects of Rome.  The Jews were already paying tithes and the Temple tax to their religious leaders, and they had to pay this imperial tax on top of all that.  What made them resent it even more was that it was an annual reminder of their subjugation to Rome.  The Pharisees and people did pay the tax, but they did so grudgingly to the tax collectors.  If they did not pay the tax, they could be possibly be put in jail or receive a visit from a debt collector.  Also unfortunately, this tax was a flat tax, so you probably would never expect a tax refund on this tax day.

While pretending to be sincere and asking Jesus for an answer, they already predetermined what they would do depending on how Jesus would answer.  They thought that their plan was airtight – Jesus either has to say “Yes” or “No,” what other option could there be?  In either case, they would win, and Jesus would lose.  It was a smart move on the religious leaders part to include both the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Here’s how the plan would work.  If Jesus said “Yes,” it is right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar, then they would accuse Jesus of being disloyal to the Jewish nation.  A reply of “Yes” would be tantamount to supporting Roman rule, which all the Jews loathed.  More than that, if Jesus said “Yes,” they could then attack his claims to be Messiah, saying, well, aren’t you a king?  If Jesus said “No,” the Herodians would report him for treason against Rome.  In fact, that’s exactly what they would do two days later.  Luke tells us when the chief priests and elders led Jesus to Pilate, they falsely accused him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king (Luke 23:2).”  It seemed like the perfect plot, or so they thought…

Look at v.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.’”  What… this was unexpected.  Before Jesus even responded to their question, he exposed their scheme.  He blew their cover.  Jesus knew all along that they were trying to trap him.  This is what happens when you don’t believe in Jesus.  You underestimate who He is.  He is the Son of God.  In Rev 2:23 Jesus says, “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds.”  Heb 4:13 says “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.”  They thought they had outwitted Jesus.  They thought he did not know what they plotted in secret, but Jesus exposed their hypocrisy before everyone, saying, “Why are you trying to trap me?”  I mean, here they were, acting like good students who sincerely wanted to hear from Jesus, but like an episode of Scooby Doo Jesus ripped their masks off to show the wolves that they were.

Then Jesus said, “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”  Such power, such authority!  Verse 17 says the Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at him, but I believe they were dumbstruck even before that.  They were silent, they had no response.  He shut their mouths.  They did not even try to defend themselves.  By their silence, they admitted that they were trying to trap Jesus.  But they could not walk away just yet.  Look at what they did in v.16, “They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’”  They could not run away.  It was as if they were compelled to do what Jesus said.  They answered, “Caesar’s,” not knowing what Jesus was going to say next.  Who could guess what Jesus would say?

Look at v.17.  Can we all please read v.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.”  Jesus showed them what was right, and he taught them the way of God in accordance with the truth.  The coin they possessed was not theirs, it had Caesar’s name written on it.  So it would indeed be wrong of them to keep the coin to themselves, or withhold what belongs to Caesar from him.  Why did they possess Caesar’s coin?  Because they were living in Caesar’s kingdom.  They could trade and transact with Caesar’s coin.  They could use Roman roads.  They could enjoy public theater, public baths, public buildings.  Herod the Great, though a tyrannical ruler, reconstructed the Temple of Jerusalem.  They would be under the protection of the Roman military, at least from foreign invaders, so as long as they didn’t rebel against their ruler.  We have all of the same benefits in the United States.  We pay our taxes in the US dollar.  We transact and do business in dollars, because we are under the government of the United States.  It would be dangerous not to give Caesar his due, and if they did so, it would not be because Jesus told them so, it would be because they themselves refused to do so, and they, the religious leaders, would be held responsible for their actions.

One of the reasons, however, as to why the Jews were conflicted over paying the taxes was the image and inscription that was on the coin.  The inscription would read “Augustus Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus,” and his face would be on the other side.  The former Caesars who had ruled were deified and made into gods, so Tiberius was claiming to be the son of a god.  This is what repulsed the Jews – one who claimed to be a son of a god and had an image on the coin.  Using the coin would be tantamount to idolatry, or so the Jews might think.  Shouldn’t this be offensive to Jesus as well?  I am sure it was, but perhaps Jesus also considered the coin to be nothing but metal.  There was no conflict between using the coin and worshipping God, because of this second rule: to give to God what is God’s.  If the coin or Caesar was not worshipped, then there is no conflict of paying the tax and worshipping God.  Yes, we do submit to the government, but we do not blindly obey in all circumstances, because there is a second rule to obey – to give to God what is God’s.  Remember the prophet Daniel – when there was a decree to ban prayer to any god except King Darius, Daniel still prayed to God.  When the law of God conflicts with the law of the world, the law of God takes precedence.  But so far as where there is no conflict, such as the paying of taxes, then we give both government and God our dues.

So what belongs to God?  Everything!  Ps 24:1-2 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.”  How do you know?  Well, who’s image is on the universe?  Who’s inscription is written on it?  Ps 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”  The stars, the skies in all of its beautiful colors day after day has God’s name written all over it.  The mountains, the seas, the flowers of the field display the work of his hands.  And what else has the image of God?  You and me.  In Gen 1:27 it says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  You, your very life, and everything you own has been given to you by God.  You were wonderfully and fearfully made.  Every day when I look at my daughter, I am amazed that God could make something like that, so cute, so beautiful.  And not just my daughter, but all babies, all people were made beautiful.

Then, what can we give to God?  God desires our hearts and our bodies, God desires our whole being, our minds in devotion to him, our hearts in love for him, our bodies in service to him, for his glory.  But there is a problem.  Because of our sin, we have nothing to offer.  Sin has marred and corrupted, it has worn out and degraded the image God created in us.  We love God’s image – look at it, see it in v 14: Jesus was said to be a man of integrity, impartial, and lives in the way of God in accordance with truth.  In summary, Jesus is absolutely holy, absolutely pure, absolutely good, but we are not.  Sin has made us deceitful, partial, unholy, proud, jealous, greedy, envious.  It’s worse than the denarius, which in our modern day look like smashed and beat up coins.  Because of sin we’re like the tattered, ripped up dollar bill that won’t go into the vending machine, and is only good for the shredder.  God’s holiness, his absolute purity and glory cannot accept something like this from us.

But God loved us.  Like a bunch of old antique coins he purchased us, and then he restored us.  He did this by sending his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall never die, but have everlasting life.  We were purchased by the blood of Christ, who paid the price for our sins, and bought up all our debt.  Peter tells us it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that we were redeemed from our empty way of live, but by the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Pet 1:18-19).  By the blood of Christ we were cleansed, and made holy.  Does anyone have a collector’s coin or gold or silver bar?  Have you seen what those collector’s coins look like?  They are pristine, shiny, without any defect, beautiful to behold.  That is what Jesus came to do: he came to restore us, to re-mint us, to re-stamp us and re-image us in the holiness and righteousness that only he could provide.

So you, now, a fresh, beautiful, shiny silver dollar, what can you give to God?  You can offer yourself, and you will be acceptable in Christ.  1 Cor 6:19-20 says, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.”  Rom 6:13 clarifies: “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.”  From this point on, consider yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Jesus Christ.  Say, “so long sin.”  Rom 12:1-2 echo this thought: “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 and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  You were wonderfully and beautifully made, and in Christ you have been wonderfully and beautifully remade, so be born again into a new life, repent, and sin no more, and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  As Peter wrote, “Live such good lives among pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Pet 2:12).”

It is not always easy to pay our taxes, and many times the issue of taxes have started rebellions.  The Jewish revolt that led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD started because of Roman taxation.  They did not listen to Jesus.  The Boston Tea Party in 1773 AD was a famous political protest in American history that started because of taxation.  Because we have sinners collecting taxes, the system is easily misused and abused.  The governments of this world eventually degrade because of sin, demanding more and more from its people, but giving less back.  They take to the point of burden, as God had warned his people when they wanted a king.  But God operates on a completely different economy.  He gives, lavishly, abundantly, and fully, so we could give back to him and to others.  He spared not his only Son, and gave him up for us all, so how will he not also, give us all things. He created the world, and gave it to us to take stewardship over it, to rule over it and subdue it.  He has given us more than enough to have life to the full, so that we may be able to give back to God what is God’s, and glorify him in the process.  I will conclude with a very short example I heard from a long time ago.  Imagine you give a child, it could be yours, or a relative, or a sweet little friend that you love.  You give the child $10, and say, buy whatever you want.  The child buys a toy for him or herself, but also takes part of that, buys a chocolate bar, and gives it back to you out of love and thankfulness.  The saying “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes” warns us of inevitable death and taxes.  But Christ promises us inevitable life, changing us, so that while on earth, we may give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but more importantly give to God what is God’s.

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