When a pithy saying becomes common, we often forget why it lives on for millennia. That is the case with this phrase that Jesus said to the Pharisees and Herodians when they tried to trick him into saying something he would regret.
A few days earlier Jesus had shared the parable of the tenants who were managing their master’s vineyard. The master, living afar, sent his servant to retrieve fruit, but the renters beat him up, and the next servant too. The master sent a third servant whom they killed, then his son, whom they also killed. To explain this parable Jesus quotes the Psalms, where it was said that "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes" (Mark 12:10,11).
Jesus’ story and its interpretation infuriates the Jewish leaders, for they know he is speaking about their rejection of him. So they devise a plan and send debaters to ask Jesus sneaky questions. A contentious issue at the time was the Roman occupation and Rome’s heavy taxation of the Jews.
These men butter up Jesus and then ask him an impossible question: “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we” (Mark 12:14-15)?
It’s a lose-lose question. If Jesus answers “Yes, pay,” he’s in trouble with faithful Jews. If he answers “No, don’t pay,” he’s at risk of getting arrested by Roman centurions.
Mark tells the rest of the story: “But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’
“’Caesar’s,’ they replied.”
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’”
“And they were amazed at him.”
Today we might say Jesus is speaking like a politician—making statements that everyone will like. But in a way he has made a statement that should upset Romans and Jews, for he declares Jews should respect both authorities.
The beauty and genius of Jesus’ response is to reveal that believers are citizens of two kingdoms, one earthly and one of God. And from 1 Peter we are commanded to “show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
Jesus states that while living on earth, we are to live God’s way — and that includes respecting and honoring our human leaders. While the tension between following God and respecting human authority is not easy to manage, we know this is God’s will.
Lord God, thank you for the wisdom of Jesus in this situation. Thank you that you call us to live as dual citizens as believers. Even if we may not always understand or agree with our government’s actions, may we show respect for our leaders at all times, honor them, and pray for them. Thank you that we can help establish your kingdom on earth as well, as we share your love and your good news with our neighbors and friends, with gentleness, respect and honor.
Throughout this Day: When you consider those in authority over you - government officials, supervisors, leaders, etc. - what are your initial reactions? Ask the Lord to humble your heart toward them, even if you do not agree with their stance or decisions. Pray for them, honor and respect them out of love for God's image-bearers.
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