Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's

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In chess terms they call it a “fork”.  Your opponent puts you in a position where, whatever you do, you will lose a piece.  The Pharisees and Herodians (not a natural alliance) gang up on Jesus “to catch Him in His words.”  (Mark 12:13)

“They say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we give, or shall we not give?”  (Mark 12:14-15)

If Jesus says “give”, He loses His Jewish support.  If He says “don’t give”, the Romans will shut Him up before the words leave His lips.

And for us, 2000 years later, there is a similar quandry.  If Jesus says “give” doesn’t that mean His disciples lose their distinctiveness in the world?  Perhaps we’re just meant to blend into the political landscape and stand for nothing.

Alternatively if He says “don’t give”, we might be consigned to a perpetual contrarian position as regards politics.  Christians would then, by definition, become terrible citizens in the world’s eyes.

So which is it to be?  Well Jesus has already shown His brilliance at escaping such traps (see He that is without sin…).  And here we are treated to another famous riposte:

But [Jesus], knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. 16 And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. 17 And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.

Notice that Jesus has to borrow a coin to make His point.  Here is a Man who had nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20).  He rode into town on a borrowed donkey (Matthew 21:2), He was laid in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:60) and when He died, they gambled for His only possessions, His garments (Matthew 27:35).  When it comes to money, Jesus speaks with complete integrity.  He’s not in love with money, as the Pharisees were (Luke 16:14).  We can trust what He says here because we know it is not motivated by the least degree of self-interest.

And when He gets His hands on a coin, notice what He brings to our attention… the image.  That is the key to this teaching.  We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s image.   The image-bearer belongs to the original.

Do the Pharisees agree to this?  If so they walk into a trap of Jesus’ own making…

We must give to God what is God’s image.  And what is God’s image?  We are! (Genesis 1:26ff)

Here the tables are turned on Christ’s questioners.  Both the Jews and the Romans are challenged on the most fundamental level.  It’s not about the paying of taxes.  It’s not about the recognition or legitimacy of state power.  It’s about whether we belong to God!

And if we do, then there will always be ways of honouring the temporal authority of the state – even if sometimes it takes a miracle to do so (Matthew 17:24-27).

The Pharisees might have thought that civic disobedience was the height of holy living.  Jesus says, You’ve missed the point.  Do you belong to God?  That is the question.

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

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