Lord, I know that as I read your word, my mind can only comprehend what you enable it to comprehend. My heart can only absorb what you able it to absorb. My will can only submit as you enable it to submit. I welcome your holy spirit to soften my heart, illuminate my mind, and bend my will, that I may be conformed to Christ more and more.
Today I’m meditating on Mark 12:13-17, which says:
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. (Mark 12:13-17 ESV)
The more I read through Mark bit-by-bit, rather than taking in huge portions in one sitting, the more I realize just how much of Jesus’ life and ministry was under constant scrutiny. The “fully man” part of Jesus had to be affected by this. The religious leaders, who held so much power politically and socially, were obsessed with tripping him up. They were jealous, they felt their power threatened, and they were hell-bent on getting him in trouble.
After Jesus told the story of the tenants, the chief priests, scribes, and elders wanted to arrest him, but they “feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them.” But they couldn’t leave it alone. They “sent to him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians” — the Pharisees being the most vocal and influential of the major Jewish societies of the day, and the Herodians, who were possibly soldiers of Herod’s, but were definitely powerful political figures of the day. They sent them to Jesus with one goal: “to trap him in his talk.”
The irony is that they acknowledged to Jesus that they knew he “truly” taught “the way of God.” Were they just being patronizing? Or did they really know this, but have so little respect for God that they honestly didn’t care?
I’ve been in the presence of powerful leaders in Christendom who actually seemed to have no fear of God. It’s a terrifying thing to witness. I much prefer being around people who are honest in their disdain for righteousness, than to be around people who claim righteousness and in fact are filled with selfish ambition and pride.
When I’ve heard this passage preached on or taught on in the past, it’s always been about money. But as I’m reading it today, I don’t think it’s about money at all. It’s about Jesus demonstrating once again that no one can put Jesus to the test and win. “Should we pay taxes or not?” they asked. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And they marveled at him. (verse 17)
I imagine Jesus just looking at them, shaking his head. Of course you pay taxes, folks. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s all God’s. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…” says Psalm 24 (ESV). The earth is God’s and everything that is in it is God’s.
Jesus seems to be saying, get over this obsession with trying to trip me up and get busy with the work of the kingdom! Pay your taxes—it’s all God’s anyway. The money we give to pay taxes came to us from God. The ones who handle the taxes are accountable to God. So get over it, pay up, and then get busy with the big stuff.
I believe that when Jesus said what he said (without my interpretation), the men he was talking to were cut to the quick. I think they were flattened by his divine wisdom.
But they were not softened, because we know that the testing only continued, escalating from school-yard bullying to a full-on trial, which resulted in Jesus’s crucifixion. They didn’t learn their lesson—but we can.
My take away from this is this: “Render to God the things that are God’s.” In the light of Psalm 24, this means that we are to give everything to God—or rather, back to God. Because it is all his to start with. When we live with this attitude, we are free from the trappings of “possessions.” We can live generously, open-handedly, and fearlessly. If we have the mind of the religious leaders, we want to fragment creation in to “ours” and “God’s.” This is a dangerous way of thinking, because it allows us to falsely believe that there are things in our possession that are ours, not God’s. But nothing is “ours.” It is all God’s, for us to steward. Money, time, relationships, gifts, talents, intellect, opportunities, possessions, etc. They’re all God’s—will we render them to God in how we handle them day by day?