On February 26, I had the privilege of preaching at King’s Cross Church in Ashburn, Virginia. KCC has been joining my church, McLean Presbyterian Church, in our series through the Gospel of Mark. This week we covered Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians, who ask him about paying taxes to Caesar. Below is a manuscript of the message I preached, along with an extended reflection and application I didn’t have room for in the sermon. You can also watch a recording of the sermon by clicking the picture above! Visit King’s Cross’s website here!
13 And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 14 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?” 15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 17 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)
Good morning friends, it’s good to be back with you today. My name is Patrick Quinn and I’m a pastoral intern at McLean Pres. Have you ever walked into a room that’s in utter chaos? I used to work with middle schoolers a lot, so I’m well acquainted with the experience. I volunteered with an organization called Young Life, and their middle school ministry is aptly named “WyldLife” because the kids are completely nuts. Sometimes I’d walk into our club room and you’d just hear animal noises; you’ve got boys climbing on furniture and girls screaming and people throwing shoes at each other—just complete bedlam. And the first question that comes out of my mouth is “Who the heck is in charge here?” After a second I’d realize: “Oh, that’s supposed to be me.” And so I’d try to wrangle everybody together and start our event.
The reason I share that picture with you is this: when we enter into scenes of chaos, our first question comes to authority “Who’s in charge here?” That’s what we see going on in our passage today. Jesus has entered into a scene that’s absolute bedlam and at its core is a question about authority. In fact, there’s a few layers to this question of authority, so here’s our roadmap for the sermon. First, we’ll peel the layers of conflict at play in this passage. Then we’ll look at Jesus’ answer to the question at the core of this scene. Finally, we’ll work backwards to see how that core answer resolves each layer of conflict above it. But first, pray with me.
Let’s start by looking at the surface layer conflict in the scene. This layer is the questions the Pharisees and Herodians ask: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
You could probably guess this is a loaded question and a hot button topic, nobody likes talking about taxes. But it might be hard to understand just how nuclear a question this was at the time. We have our own fair share of nuclear questions in our own time. Pick your own topic: political affiliation, social issues…is a taco a sandwich or not? That’s the kind of question the Pharisees ask, but ramped up to 11. These are the kinds of questions that will draw blood.
In fact, that exact question already has drawn blood within these people’s lifetime. Less than thirty years earlier, a man named Judas the Galilean had led a revolt against Rome on the basis of exorbitant taxation. They thought that Judea should be independent of Rome, that they should be their own authority. Rome strongly disagreed. They crushed the uprising—Judas and 2,000 rebels were crucified as punishment. So this question about taxes and Rome’s authority is an obvious trap; no matter what Jesus says, he’s bound to get in trouble.
But all that’s just the surface level of the power plays being made here. To understand why this question is being asked, we need to look a bit about the people who ask it. And here we find another power contest unfolding: Jesus vs. the Pharisees and Herodians.
Look with me at verse 13, we’re introduced to the newest challengers to Jesus’ authority, and they’re an unlikely couple. Here’s the thing: Pharisees and Herodians hate each other. The Pharisees would have considered the Herodians irreverent, irreligious traitors who sided with Rome for political power and enjoyed the hedonist luxuries of Hellenization. The Herodians would have considered the Pharisees dangerous because of their high standing with the people and their open criticism of Herod and Rome. But when it comes to Jesus, they decide “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Jesus is the greater enemy.”
You might not remember, but we’ve already come across these two groups together in Mark. In Mark 3:1-7, Jesus heals a man with a crippled hand on the sabbath, in a synagogue. This openly challenges the Pharisees’ authority. See how they respond in Mark 3:6 “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” As soon as Jesus starts stepping on toes, both the religious and the political authorities of his day want to get rid of him.
So let’s look at exactly how they try to trap Jesus. First they butter him up with some loaded compliments, which should already raise our suspicion of their intent, but then they lay their trap with these questions. How should Jesus answer? If he says “Yes, you should pay taxes” the people turn on Jesus as a traitor. This would remove Jesus from the equation, he’d be viewed by the public as just another Herodian siding with Rome for political power. Then the Pharisees and Herodians could go back to their same old song and dance.
However, if he says “No, don’t pay taxes” he keeps the support of the people but they turn on Rome, and this is a huge risk. The people just welcomed him into the city as the messiah and highly anticipate him overthrowing Rome. By saying no, it might spark a rebellion, and Jesus might just go the way of Judas the Galilean. That sounds just fine to the Pharisees and Herodians—either way, Jesus is out of the equation and their positions are maintained.
I hope you’re starting to get the picture here: this isn’t just a “stump the chump” question, Jesus has been thrown in the middle of a mine field. How is he supposed to get out of this one?
The Core Question and Answer
Well in classic Jesus fashion, he’s never that easy to pin down; he’s got his own question for them. You see, the crowds are asking “Does Rome have authority over us or not?” The Pharisees and Herodians are asking “How can we get rid of Jesus to keep ourselves on top?” But Jesus asks the core question, the source of all authority: Who gets to make a claim on your life? Who gets to tell me what I can and can’t do? Is it my political sovereign? Is it my religious community? Is it my ethnicity? Is it my family or friends?
Jesus is cutting to the heart. What is your heart telling you? What is your answer to this question? Who has ultimate claim on your life? The most popular answer today is: me! We all want to be our own highest authority. Everyone from Friedrich Nietzsche to Elsa from Frozen tells us so. I’d argue, that’s not a new answer; humans have been inclined to name themselves the master of their own universe for as long as we’ve been outside Eden. It’s not a new answer, but is it true?
That’s what Jesus is asking—and by the simple act of asking the question, he raises some tension. What if I’m not the captain of my own ship? In short, this is exactly what Jesus is saying: we’re not our own highest authority—and in fact, holding that belief is dangerous. We tend to think that freedom equals being our own authority—that we’re most free when we get to follow the desires of our hearts with no authority telling us what we can and can’t do. The reality is, that’s just slavery to our desires. And that actually leads to our own destruction.
Think about this: If the crowds had received permission to not pay taxes—to be the captain of their own ships—like we said earlier, that brings us right back to Judas the Galilean and a Roman cross. The things we think we want, the things we want permission to do, are often the very things that would ruin us. Maybe you’ve seen this same narrative play out in your own life. A husband decides he wants to leave his wife and have an affair, and in the process blows up his whole family and shipwrecks his own life. A prodigal child squanders all the advantages of a good upbringing by joining the wrong crowd and ends up on the streets. Kids, if you’ve ever been to a sleepover with no adult supervision where you stayed up all night eating candy and playing video games, how do you feel the next day? Sick, exhausted, and miserable.
It’s a story told time and time again with the same moral none of us want to hear: you are not the highest authority, you’re not meant to be that for yourself. But if not you, then who? Who is supposed to be the highest authority? Jesus gives us the answer in his question.
What is Jesus’ question to the crowd? He asks for a coin. Someone comes and puts it in his hand, he inspects it a bit, then holds it up. Then he asks “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”
It’s a really interesting question Jesus asks. He doesn’t just ask “Who is this?” He says “Who’s likeness is this?” Of course, everybody in the audience knows who that is: that’s Caesar. But again, Jesus’ question is a little different: not “Who” is this, but “whose” is this? Other translations say “Whose image is this?” The Greek word is literally the word “icon.”
If you’ve been around the church for a while, that word might tickle your ears. When we think about image and likeness, we hear echoes of Genesis 1, the overture of all creation. As God speaks all things into creation and breathes life into our lungs, it says at the climax of this overture he creates humanity in his own image, in the likeness of God he created us. You and I are living, breathing icons of the living God.
This is tremendous news because it settles the tension, it answers the core question of authority! Who gets to make a claim on your life? Who is the highest authority? The one whose image you bear. In Roman times, the way currency worked was that literally every Roman coin belonged to Caesar. He was the one who owned it, who commissioned its production, who allowed its distribution and determined its function; he had claim to every coin out there. But Caesar also was the one to determine the value of that coin—how much each coin was worth. And by sealing it with his own icon, he guaranteed the value of the coin. Jesus is inviting us to think of ourselves along these lines. Our king has minted each and every one of us. He has determined how many of us there are, what our purpose is, and he has guaranteed our value by creating us in his image.
This humbles us, because we’re created! We’re not the creator! We’re not in charge! But it also imbues us with amazing, precious value because we’re created in the image of God. By naming ourselves as our own highest authority, we actually undervalue ourselves—and when we lose sight of our value, we lose sight of our purpose. We try to make up our own reason for existence, and then we use all our power to control that part of our lives. The gospel says that living that way is beneath our dignity; it’s actually an even higher good to be made in the image of God and to give our lives in obedience to him.
So God gets to make a claim on our lives. He gets to tell us what we can and can’t do. And to summarize all that God calls us to do in a word, he commands us to love. That transforms our relationship to other authorities in life—and its from this understanding that Jesus engages both the crowds and the Pharisees and Herodians.
Answering the Surface Questions
First, let’s look at what Jesus tells the crowd. Jesus says: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” The crowd’s not wrong when they say it’s an image of Caesar, but as one author put it “Caesar is not one but two images: he is the image on the coin, and he is in the image of God.” (Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 496)
That author Christopher Watkin goes onto explain exactly what that means for us:
[The] principle is this: you give the object to the one whose image it bears. And here is the genius of this principle: giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s is not like sorting a load of washing into skirts and blouses, with each item neatly folded away either in the “Caesar drawer” or the “God drawer.” There is no neat separation of the two…because the coin is an image of an image. The coin is in the image of Caesar, so it should be given to Caesar, and both the one who gives and Caesar himself are in the image of God, so they and everything that is theirs should be devoted to God. (496)
Later he writes this: “If I pay my taxes in a way divorced from my love for God, I love God less. If I give to Caesar in a way divorced from my giving to God, I do not give to God as I ought.” (497) In other words, Jesus’ command here frames submission to human authority as an act of worship. It is a way we praise and obey God.
No wonder it says the people marvel! That’s incredibly subversive of an earthly attitude toward authority. Often we don’t think of submitting to authority as a way to worship, we think of seizing authority as a way to exercise control. The good news is, when our value is rooted in who God says we are, we don’t have to find value in what we can seize. And when we recognize that our Heavenly Father is in control, we can actually find joy in letting go. We’re freed from hoarding our wealth to assert our power or guarantee our own protection; we can lovingly give it away. We’re freed from rioting in our hearts or in our streets when our political party loses the vote; we can trust that God is in control and love our politicians as his image bearers.
Maybe it’s not money and it’s not your political convictions, but what is it for you? We all have that one corner of our life we don’t want anybody else to touch—that one little fixation we demand total control over. For anyone to so much as question or criticize it feels like a full-on assault, and we pick up our pitchforks to assert our autonomy. What is the thing you want control over? What’s the authority you’re most worried about?
Honestly, the one main image I was struck by when reading this passage and preparing my sermon was the picture and lesson of Jesus saying “Bring me a denarius.” He asks the crowd, and they bring it to Jesus and give it to him. Here’s a thought experiment for you. What would it look like for you to bring the thing you want control over to Jesus and have him look at it? To give up your and put it in his hand?
What would you want Jesus to say? “This is all yours and you deserve it. You’re the captain of your own ship. Do exactly with it as you want!” as he gives it back to you?
What would you expect Jesus to say? “You covetous hypocrite! Pay your taxes and do not sin!” As he closes his fist around it?
Here’s what Jesus actually says: “You care so much about this. About this! This little thing. You want to make this the main thing? It’s not about this. I didn’t come for this. I came for you.”
Life’s not about Rome vs. Judea, it’s not about Republican vs. Democrat, it’s not about you vs. whoever you consider to be a threat to your autonomy. Life is about you giving your all to the God who created you and considers you so valuable he sent his son to pay your ransom—to free you from the tyranny of sin and slavery to self. And that brings us to the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians.
The passage says that they marvel at Jesus, but let’s be clear: this has not settled the conflict. In fact, it will be less than 24 hours until Jesus has his next run-in with the Pharisees and Herodians—and it ends with him hanging on a Roman cross. But Jesus the Galilean is not like Judas the Galilean, who died the captain of his own ship refusing to give Caesar what was Caesar’s. Jesus doesn’t hold onto his own authority—Jesus gave himself into their hands and committed his Spirit into the hands of his Father as an act of love.
As Phil 2 says, he doesn’t count “equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” And as Hebrews 12 says, “for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is [now] seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In just a few weeks, we’ll observe Good Friday; we’ll spend a whole day remembering Jesus’ execution and the chaos of that horrible day. But let’s remember, in the midst of that chaotic scene, Jesus makes it clear exactly who is in charge: Not Caesar, but God. In the chaos of your own life, and all the vying for power you’re tempted to get wrapped up in, remember whose image you bear.
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As a closing thought that didn’t make it into the sermon, there’s an important element in submitting to human authority as an act of worship. Human authorities can claim whatever belongs to them, but your soul is not one of those things. Christopher Watkin writes about the “asymmetrical” nature of our allegiance to God:
According to Jesus, however, Caesar never owns me. He rightly can demand my taxes, but he has no right or authority to my very self, for I am in the image not of Caesar but of God. God, on the other hand, can rightly demand my very self because I am in his image and because he has redeemed me from slavery to sin to belong to him: “You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings” (1 Cor 7:23). This is an example of biblical asymmetry. I am to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but not as mirror images of each other. (498)
One of the telltale signs of idolatry is when we offer to something other than God the soul-level allegiance only he can claim. The little corner of our lives we try to build a fence around and claim as our own is usually a fortress we build for our idols. And when we set up our lives in this way, we end up having a funny relationship with any external authority—whether it be God or the state or our family or our employer.
The first funny feature of our attitude toward external authority is this: for how adamantly we like to assert we’re the captains of our own souls, we’re deeply unsettled and unsatisfied by that idea. Here’s what I mean. We all want to follow the beat of our own drum, we want to do whatever we want whenever we want to—but that’s not enough. Not only do we want autonomy, we also want permission to be autonomous. We don’t just want to pursue our own desires, we need other people to recognize and even celebrate our pursuit.
Isn’t it interesting that we are ravenously starving for affirmation from something outside of us? Think about it like this. What do you think the people, the crowds, we hoping Jesus would say? I’m sure people were begging for any reason to not pay taxes, and for someone to tell them it’d be okay not to. They wanted Jesus’ permission to oppose Rome, to be the captain of their own ships, but they needed someone to tell them they could be their own authority.
You see the tension there? Here’s the tension: we simultaneously need a greater authority and hate it. We hate it because it might tell us something we don’t want to hear, it might tell us we’re not in control. We need it because we innately recognize we’re not the masters of our own ships—we want something beyond ourselves to give us permission to be our own authority.
Because of that, we are actually fine with settling under an authority that lets us feel like we’re in control. The kind of authority the Pharisees and Herodians offered was an alluring, deceptive kind. It gave people some tolerable limits that maintained the facade of autonomy. “Sure, the Pharisees demand I keep the sabbath and only eat kosher food—and that’s annoying—but I get to control my own world within that fence. Sure, Rome and the Herodians demand I pay taxes and give homage to Caesar, but as long as I do that and keep the peace I’m left to my own devices.” Meanwhile, those in power get to look at all the people underneath them and say, “See? I’m in control here!”
With that being said, again, we have limits for how much authority we can stomach. We’ll be compliant and submissive where we can, but at a certain point, we draw the line. Rome can tax us to a certain point, but when it starts digging too deep into our pockets, we pull out our pitchforks. We all have at least one little corner of our lives where we build a castle and put up “NO TRESPASSING” signs.
Here’s the tough thing about Jesus: he is just so invasive! The kind of authority Jesus claims on your life leaves no little corner for you to build your own castle. Every single corner of your being and your life and your desires God claims as his. And as the sermon stated before, that’s actually the way we’re supposed to live. Peace and fulfillment can only be found in giving our whole selves to God as the one whose image we bear.
Let me ask you again: What’s in that corner for you? What are you defending? Where do you draw the line? What might it look like to surrender that corner to Jesus and to trust him with your whole life? Take time to name those specific things you are afraid to put into God’s hands. Commit to praying this week for God to loosen your grip on that thing and strengthen your trust in him.