Mark 12:13-17

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 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? 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.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

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. Mark 12:13-17

Let’s begin with the audience. The Pharisees are our old friends. They were the parish pastors of Jesus’ day. The Moral Majority. The Back to the Bible folks. Less interested in politics than personal morality, they were intent on teaching and practicing the Jewish laws – all 613 of them – believing that if all of Israel kept the law…even for one day…the Messiah would come. Let’s give them credit for their passion and religious devotion (even though they were largely unconscious of how self-serving it all was.)

The Herodians, on the other hand, WERE interested in politics. Specifically, they were supporters of the Herodian dynasty in Israel. Which meant, short of kicking Rome out (which wasn’t going to happen), they took the “go along to get along” approach.

Normally the Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t get along – but there is nothing like a common enemy to bring people together who otherwise don’t have much time for each other. Jesus was a threat to both of them. To the Pharisees, he was a lawless charlatan who captured the attention of too many people. To the Herodians, he was a danger to the status quo that served their purposes very nicely. So they went after Jesus.

The irony in this story is that the Pharisees and the Herodians both recognized that there was something deeply true about Jesus. It IS right to treat people without partiality, “truth” IS at the heart of a godly way of being in the world. They knew that…but those principles were not demonstrated in their lives. Mark tells us they were hypocrites.

They attack Jesus with a question, asking him whether or not they ought to pay taxes. It was a trick question. The question was intended to divide Jesus from the people who followed him. It was an invitation for Jesus to get in trouble with the Romans if he said “no” – or in trouble with the crowds who followed him if he said “yes” as they resented the heavy tax burdens Rome imposed and hoped Jesus would remove the Romans once and for all. So Jesus turned the question back on them.

Give the emperor’s money back to him…but what were they to give to God? We know the answer, don’t we? Give God your heart. Your devotion. Your loyalty. Your faith. Your life.

We ought never turn that around by giving our money to God while our “emperor for the day” gets our hearts. Doing so would easily be recognized as hypocrisy.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, in all things, in all areas of our personal and public lives, keep us always open-minded to seeking the truth that is your way of being in the world. Bless and protect all leaders who seek the public good and turn our hearts always to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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