A friend on Facebook, lamenting the tax-exempt status of churches, quoted Mark 12:17 – “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.” (NRSV) – and asked how this could possibly justify not paying taxes.
The question, of course, misses the point of the passage, which I quote here in full:
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, NRSV)
Let’s do some exegesis!
This pericope takes place after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and after his cleansing of the temple. During this period, Jesus is teaching in the temple and the chief priests and scribes are concerned because the crowds are finding him persuasive. Indeed, those chief priests and scribes – the authorities of the temple and thus the religious infrastructure of Jerusalem – are looking for a way to kill him (Mark 11: 18). Seeking a reason to kill him, they begin to approach him while he is teaching, asking questions that are meant to catch him in a moment of sedition. These moments are captured in Mark 11:27-33 (when Jesus’s authority is questioned) and Mark 12:13-17 (the passage we are examining here).
The point here is that these questions – and certainly the question about Jesus’s authority and the question about paying taxes – are not friendly, legitimate questions. They are questions meant to entrap Jesus and create an excuse to hand him over to authorities who can have him executed.
In the case of this pericope, the question is set up this way: if Jesus answers that it is lawful to pay taxes, then the people will see him as a collaborator and turn against him (thus neutralizing him); if Jesus answers that it is not lawful to pay taxes, then the Romans will recognize him as a seditionist and execute him (thus, again, neutralizing him). As a snare, this question is not simply about paying taxes even though it does include that. Rather, this question gets to an essential question for Jews: to what extent do we owe allegiance to Rome given our allegiance to God?
In a sense, this is a question for anyone who is expected to have some sort of allegiance to more than one theos, one of which demands absolute and unyielding allegiance. For Jews in first-century Roman occupied Judea, however, there was a less common issue at play. On the one hand, Jewish people were subjects of the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and were expected through their religious commitments to recognize that God as the highest power. Indeed, when Jesus is later asked by a scribe what the greatest commandment is, he answers:
The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:29-30, NRSV)
On the other hand, however, Jewish people were subjects of the Roman Empire, which itself claimed quasi-divine status and demanded allegiance from those under its power. This extended so far as to name Julius Caesar as a god (Divus Iulius) and Caesar Augustus as his son (Divus Filius, ‘son of god’). As one can imagine, this places monotheistic Jews in a position that many of their polytheistic neighbors would not have faced. After all, some polytheists would be able to absorb Rome into their pantheon – and Rome would be able to absorb some of its subjects’ pantheons into its own – whereas the inhabitants of Judea would have seen Rome as a competitor to their own deity.
And so the question is clearly about more than taxes. It is not even about how one can serve both God and the state. It is about whether one should server God or the state. To answer either way would get in trouble with whichever one he didn’t side with.
Which is what makes his non-answer so brilliant. Jesus asks for a denarius, a coin that would have borne the image of Caesar and his divine title. The fact that Jesus needs to ask for one and that his interlocutors are able to produce one is important: it indicates that the Pharisees and Herodians had acknowledged at least some of Rome’s claims to power. Here, after all, is the image and inscription of what Jewish people would have considered a false god or, at least, the representative of such a god.
After they produce the coin and admit that it is the emperor’s image and inscription on it Jesus utters the line that started this post off: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17, NRSV) Once it is put in this context, we can hopefully see three things.
First, it doesn’t really answer the question about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.
Second, and more importantly, it turns the question into a choice. The claims of God and the claims of Caesar are mutually exclusive. If God’s claims to authority are valid, then all things belong to God and Caesar is owed nothing, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it is unlawful to pay taxes. If Caesar’s claims are valid, then one should at least give him his coin. Moreover, of course, if Caesar’s claims are valid then it is impossible to participate in a religion that claims that all things belong to God.
Third, how one responds to the choice depends on where one stands. Someone who wants to be loyal to Caesar can give to him what that person believes he is owed. Someone who does not want to be loyal to Caesar can say that nothing belongs to him and thus he is owed nothing. Jews engaged in tax revolt find themselves vindicated. People who wish to have allegiance to both God and Caesar are also vindicated… unless, of course, they recognize that such a dual allegiance is in fact impossible.
The point being that the phrase didn’t really mean what my Facebook friend thinks it means. It is not a suggestion that church and state should be separated. After all, at the time the Roman Empire was a religion as well as a state. It is instead a subversive suggestion that the act of paying taxes to the Roman Empire is itself a denial of Judaism and later, of course, Christianity.