This question about taxes to Caesar and the Law of God itself violates the Law of God, Jesus implies.
Jesus responds to their question about the commandments with another commandment, a commandment given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai: “Do not put the Lord your God to test,” the same commandment Jesus recites when tempted by the devil in the desert. In other words, our question to Jesus about Caesar’s claim on our stuff makes us sound like satan.
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
“But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them: ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’”
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Should we or shouldn’t we, Jesus? Yes or no?”
The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. And the Gospel story ends with Pontius Pilate killing Jesus— on what charges? On the charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.
The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen.
Incidentally, this same tax where we get the word gospel from in the first place.
In ancient Rome, that word gospel referred to the announcement that Caesar had conquered you and now he was not just your salad he was your god and now you had the awesome privilege of paying taxes to cover the cost of his having colonized you.
The Roman head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint. The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter— just a quarter, less than a cup of coffee. So it’s not that the tax was onerous. It was offensive.
One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: “Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.”
Carrying the coin broke the first and most fundamental Law: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
And because it broke the Law of God, the coin rendered anyone who carried it under God’s wrath.
The coin made anyone who carried it ritually unclean; therefore, it couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped. You see how the system works?
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
You see— what they’re really asking here is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that— in order to see what they’re really asking— you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place during Holy Week, on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies. On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.
On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus pitches a temple tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip.
And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.
To answer that question, you need to know a little history. 200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.”
So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.
Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. The Sledgehammer traded one kingdom for another just like it.
But not before he becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.
That was 200 years before today’s passage.
About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean— he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band Judas the Galilean rode into Jerusalem to shouts of what? Hosanna. Judas the Galilean cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King.
Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.
You see what’s going on?
Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years just like. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is to declare a revolution, to stand up to injustice, to deliver the oppressed, to cast down the principalities and powers from their thrones.
To take up the sword.
That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax: Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? That’s the real question.
Come down off the fence, Jesus. Which side are you on, Jesus? And Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me [the Lord your God] to the test?”
Politics makes for strange bedfellows.
For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their president. Wait, bad analogy. For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like Ted Cruz asking Donald Trump to stump for him. Wait, that doesn’t work either.
You get the picture— the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.
The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. This is important. If you don’t get this, you don’t get it. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options. And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.
The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought the adminstration was making Israel great again. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and— even if it took a sword— Rome had brought stability to the tinderbox called Israel.
The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.
On the other hand, the Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. They were the resistance movement. The Pharisees were bible- believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and Son of God printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.
The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a grass-roots, righteous revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.
And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff. They’ll write him off and walk away.
That’s the trap.
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’
If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.
If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.
Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?
Which is it going to be?
The Sword or the Sledgehammer?
Which party do you belong to?
You’ve got to choose one or the other.
Check the box, Jesus.
What are your politics Jesus?
Jesus asks for the coin.
And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’
And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is eikon, the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be eikons of God.
Eikons of Caesar.
Eikons of God.
Jesus looks at the coin and he says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.”
But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for give isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question.
When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means give, as in “to present a gift.”
But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.
Instead Jesus uses the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier.
“Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.”
You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is? What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him. But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.
And what does God deserve from you?
Jesus is saying is: “You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.”
Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation, you mustn’t give to your Tribe—
You mustn’t give to those things, what they ask of you:
You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.
The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.
They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different just of a different hue. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.
But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides.
Jesus refuses to accept their premise.
His movement was about defeating his opponents by dying for them.
His movement was about overcoming their sin by suffering it in their stead.
That while we were yet his enemies, Jesus the Galilean took up not a sword or a sledgehammer but a cross.
And that qualifies all our politics.
If you’re like me, then every election season social media proves to be a good and uplifting use of your time.
The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric post and tweet and like and share this week; the Bible has a word for how we scream at each other with our signs and fence ourselves off with hashtags and draw lines always with ourselves on the faithful side of the righteousness equation.
Idolatry— that’s the Bible’s word.
And for some, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.
So here’s my one, simple bipartisan election season prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t put Jesus in a box.
Don’t make Jesus choose sides.
Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.
Don’t say Jesus is for this Party.
Or against that Party,
Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue.
Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda, should support this issue.
Don’t insist that this or that Christian value ought to have only a one-party solution.
Don’t demonize those with whom you disagree.
I mean, it should chasten all of us in our political pride that the only scene resembling anything like a democratic election in the Bible is when we shout crucify him, casting our vote on Good Friday for Barabbas rather than Jesus Christ.
So that’s my election season exhortation to you:
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
You’ve been stamped with a different image.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself— that’s my prescription for you.
Considering the supposed stakes this election season, I realize how that probably sounds like a modest prescription. But maybe modesty is the best policy. Given what the Gospel reveals about us and what was required for us— for our redemption— maybe modesty is the best policy.
Don’t do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself.
Of course, as much as you might like me to do so, I can’t conclude there.
If I left it there, if I ended only on Do or Don’t Do, I’d leave you having just given you moralism pimped out in theological drag. The fact is— what I’ve given you thus far doesn’t even qualify as preaching because— modest or not— prescription is not proclamation. Exhortation about what you need to do for God is not the same thing as the announcement of the news of what God has done for you.
The Law, as the Apostle Paul says, is not the Gospel, and the Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ for us not to our work for God.
The Gospel message points always to God’s work in Jesus Christ; therefore, the Gospel stories are not primarily collections of teachings Jesus taught about this or that topic.
They’re stories about Jesus, about his work for us. Indeed the entire Bible— it’s not an encyclopedia of the universe; it’s about Jesus, from first to last. The center and circumference of all of scripture is Christ and his grace given to you freely by his bleeding and dying and rising.
Which means— our passage today ultimately is not about us or what we should do or not do this election season. It’s about Jesus Christ and what he has done to elect us for himself.
To turn today’s text into nothing more than a teaching on how we should regard our money or our politics or our relationship to the state, as Gerhard Forde says, it’s to misuse the very best thing in the worst manner.
It’s to turn the Gospel back into the Law.
Because notice— notice the Gospel promise in this passage:
‘“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denariuus and let me see it.””
And they all reach into their pockets to produce one.
But notice— Jesus had to ask for one.
The coin that condemns us under the Law— Christ isn’t carrying one.
His pockets are empty.
He alone among us is fully faithful.
He alone among us is obedient.
He alone is blameless.
He alone is righteous.
Just as Jesus tells his cousin John the Baptist at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: Jesus says that he’s come in the flesh— not to judge and condemn sinners, not to turn sinners into non-sinners, not to set sinners straight so they’ll fly right— in order to fulfill all righteousness.
In our place.
Jesus is our substitute not only on the cross but in his faithfulness.
He comes in order to fulfill all the righteousness required by the Law.
And that righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect score, the Bible promises— it’s gifted to you, gratis and forever, at your baptism.
The currency exchange that matters in Mark’s Gospel isn’t what happens with the moneychangers outside the Temple; it’s what the ancient church fathers and mothers called the Great Exchange wherein our unrighteousness is imputed to Christ, as though our sin was his own, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as though it were our own.
Christ isn’t carrying the coin that condemns. His pockts are empty. He alone among us is righteous. But in taking the unclean coin from our hands, Christ takes our sin into his own hands. And then two days later takes our sin in his body to a tree.
The baptism of his death and resurrection is a refining fire that has rendered all of you purer than silver and more precious than gold no matter what you render to Caesar.
You see, it’s a snapshot of what St. Paul says to the Corinthians: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin; so that, sinners like us might become the righteousness of God.”
That’s the Gospel promise hidden in this Gospel story, like a seed sown in a field.
What is yours is his now, your sin.
And what belongs to him is yours always, his righteousness.
Where we worship idols at the altar of politics, he loved God with all of his heart and all of mind and all of his soul and all of his strength— and all of his faithfulness is as good as yours by grace through your baptism.
Where our pocketbooks prove that we have no King but Caesar, he brought down the mighty from their thrones by being lifted up on his cross— his victory, by grace through your baptism, it’s as though you had won it by your own obedience.
Where we fail to render to God the everything that belongs to God and give a lot more heartburn and bother to the Rome we call America, by grace through your baptism you are credited as blameless as Jesus Christ himself.
You bet your ass that’s too good and too prodigal (and too offensive maybe) to believe.
Of course it is— that’s why you need a preacher.
That’s why you need the church, that’s why you need water and wine and bread.
You need tangible, audible reminders of the Gospel promise that you need not worry— ever— because your ledger will never run red because you’ve been washed in his blood.
Maybe that’s why Jesus implies we sound like satan when we ask him our questions about what we should do.
With our money.
With our politics.
Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet or what you do with it— for that matter, it doesn’t matter what skeletons are in your closet; for that matter, it doesn’t matter if you’re in the closet— or out of the closet— because by your baptism you’ve been clothed irrevocably with Christ’s own righteousness.
To get hung up on another’s unfaithfulness or sin— to get hung up on your own sin— it’s like stealing from Jesus.
All of it belongs to Christ now.
Cling instead to what Christ has given you.
What justifies you before God is Christ’s faithfulness and death not your faith in his death, and your not faithful doings in response to his death.
By grace, through your baptism— your credit score is always now Christ himself.
His permanent perfect record is yours, and there’s no take-backs or do-overs.
God is not an Indian Giver.
There is therefore now no undoing it.
There’s the Gospel promise attached to the modest prescription I gave you.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t insist that Jesus fit into your red or blue box.
You don’t need to.
Because you’ve been gifted Christ’s own righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.
When it comes to politics or your marriage or anything else— there’s no pressure, no stakes, no score-keeping.
You’re free to fail.
You’re free to make foolish choices.
You’re free to make sinful ones.
You have the right to be wrong.
Because you already have Christ’s perfect righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.
And here’s the rub:
So does your neighbor. They have the right to be wrong too.