And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. 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?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” 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
Everybody knows what this passage is about, don’t they? It gets glibly quoted to prove that the bible says you should pay your taxes. That’s usually the end of the discussion. There is, however, a lot more going on here. When I visited the nation called Israel, I got to see one of these coins that Jesus refers to from the reign of Tiberius Caesar. I could clearly see the engraved head of Tiberius and the Latin words inscribed. On one side it says, “Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus” and the other side said (shockingly, at least to me), “High Priest”. They thought that the Emperor was the High Priest of the Roman cult. No matter how one looks at it, Caesar was engraved on that coin as the son of a god.
We haven’t heard about the Herodians since chapter 3 in Mark. The Herodians were thought to be enlightened and progressive, while the Pharisees upheld conservative, traditional values. The Pharisees believed their culture was being lost to pluralism and paganism, and they wanted a return to traditional values. Sound familiar? There aren’t many enemies as bitter as the Herodians and the Pharisees. Still, they are united that they must get rid of Jesus. Back in chapter 3, not only do they cooperate with each other, but the Pharisees take the lead against Jesus. So here they come again trying to trick Jesus into saying the wrong thing.
They are not sneaky at all since their trap is easy to spot: if Jesus supports paying taxes to Rome, the Jewish crowds might turn on Him, but if He denounces the tax, then Pontius Pilate would have grounds to charge Him with inciting revolt. That’s a capital crime. Curiously, Jesus is indeed leading a revolution, but it is one of going the second mile, turning the other cheek, healing, feeding, and acts of mercy. He’s too smart to get caught in this trap though. He’s not going to issue a verdict on the “Should we pay them, or should we not?” debate.
The first thing He does is force them to look at and handle the “dirty money,” which pious Jews would not have done. They could use Jewish coins instead. A graven image of any man was forbidden, but one named as the “High Priest” and “Son of the Divine” is anathema to them! This is how Jesus demonstrates that they are cozier with the profane than they let on. When He says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” He is scornful without being seditious, essentially saying, “Send this filth back where it came from.”
Then He gives a command that speaks to the context of what He did in the temple and with the Parable of the Vineyard. “Render to…God the things that are God’s.” The temple was no longer a place where the blessings were for all the nations (just Israel—mainly Israel’s religious leaders). In the Parable of the Vineyard, the fruit belonging to God was kept by the wicked tenants rather than being distributed as God wanted. Here, Jesus is condemning the leaders for not giving God what is His, particularly in blessings for the nations.
So then, pay your taxes as Jesus says, but that’s not what the passage is about. It is not about maintaining a sharp division between church and state. This passage is about Jesus wanting the blessed fruit of God’s vineyard to be rendered unto the world. What the Pharisees and Herodians don’t get is that Jesus is the fruit, even the vine of the fruit, and those who remain in Him will have more fruit, abundant in measure, for the Kingdom of God into all eternity. And that’s the gospel.
And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away. –Mark 12:1-12
For the first 11 chapters of Mark we’ve seen parables that, especially in the tradition of Isaiah, were meant to obscure the truth. They come both in the form of oral stories and dramatic acts (e.g., the cursing of the fig tree or most of the miracles). Their obscurity is, in large measure, because their truth was a commentary on a crisis brought about by Jesus’ presence and work. To make the commentary too plain would have brought about the events of the cross prematurely. Interestingly though, even the disciples don’t have eyes to see these things for a long time. Still yet, we must work to understand the parables knowing that their meanings may not be what they happen to seem like to the unstudied reader. The content of each of the parables is important, but the very fact Jesus uses them at all is evidence of His messiahship since it was prophesied that Messiah would speak in parables thus.
Now we come to chapter 12, and Jesus tells a parable that is painfully clear. It is still a commentary on the crisis of His presences and work, but it is told in such a way as to advance the crisis. This is a big change! Jesus has just condemned the Temple, predicting its destruction while quoting Jeremiah. There is no doubt that Israel’s rulers (those who just questioned Jesus’ authority immediately before the passage above) are the tenants. They have rejected the repeated testimony of the prophets and have not given any fruit to the owner and planter, who is the Father in heaven.
This parable has been told before. In Isaiah 5 we hear of a vineyard that produced fruit and thorns. The fruit is hoarded up by those who rule in Jerusalem. Now we see more of the meaning that the vineyard was supposed to be a blessing to all the nations (remember Jeremiah’s line that Jesus quotes, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have turned it into a den of [nationalist zealots].” The fruit was first for the Jew, but then for the Gentile. The Jewish rulers rejected this notion. They wanted to keep all the Father’s blessings for their own advantage.
Jesus augments Isaiah’s parable though by inserting Himself into the story. There are servant-messengers (the prophets), but Jesus is not merely a servant-messenger, He is the beloved Son of the owner and planter and the Heir to the entire vineyard! Then Jesus reveals the earthly fate of the Son and Heir: death and expulsion. And He adds the fate of the tenants: destruction and reassignment of the vineyard to others. This should be powerfully inspiring to Gentile readers, but careful readers must notice that it is unimaginably enraging to the chief priests, Pharisees, and elders.
Jesus ends the scene with a question. It suggests, well, more than suggests, that He is a stone that was rejected for the Temple. They are the builders who rejected Him, but He was in fact not just any stone, but the Cornerstone all along. God did it and for those who have eyes to see, it is marvelous. And that’s the gospel.
And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” –Mark 11:27-33
I run and walk at a park close to my house. This park has a long, paved path through both wooded areas and the parts that are developed, including 4 baseball fields that are heavily used in the fall. Last week I was jogging by late in the evening when several of the games were finished, and the stream of cars impatiently trying to exit was huge. Joggers beware!
I noticed a particularly large jam of cars with some honking their horns. This was when I realized that the car in the front of the line had stalled. Some poor mom with kids in the back was frantically trying to get the car started, to no avail. There was one of those pickup trucks behind her with big wheels and has been raised high from the ground. This young man jumped down from the truck, stood in the middle of the access road, and began directing traffic around the stalled car, as well as providing stop-and-start directions for a few cars trying to enter on the road. It was frankly impressive as he got everything moving again, took the pressure from the unfortunate mom, and so on.
I had seen this from some distance and had almost made my way through where the path intersects that road when my attention was turned to a city police officer who drove onto the grass, parked, quickly exited his vehicle, and yelled at the young man still directing traffic, “Who do you think you are!” I don’t know the ins and outs of the law on this matter, but it was clear that the police officer did not approve or have any appreciation of the man’s leadership.
At our place in Mark’s gospel, Jesus had shut down the operations in the Temple for an hour or two the day before, as He condemned the temple as a cave of rebels. They were nationalistic in their zeal for Israel over everybody else. Jesus reminded them of God’s word preached by Jeremiah that the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all the nations. It was a city on a hill, a light to the nations, a salty place without envy. Instead, they just wanted to make Israel great again. And Jesus won’t have it.
So in the passage above Jesus comes back to the Temple the next day, and He gets asked a question by the “police”: “Who do you think you are!” Jesus directed traffic in the temple; He had been functioning in a very priestly way (remember priests are the guardians of holiness), and they didn’t like it. Jesus answers their question with an ingenious question that also concerned a man who had functioned in a priestly way, but without their authorization: John the Baptizer.
In keeping with the character of Mark’s writing and literary purpose, this is posed as a riddle that the careful reader of Mark’s gospel will understand but the chief priests, scribes, and elders won’t. Often the conflict here between Jesus and the others is thought of as Jesus asking His question in a crafty way to avoid answering their question. That is a failed interpretation. Jesus wasn’t just turning the tables on them: He was answering their question with a question. In other words, if they could answer His question, then they’d have the answer to theirs. But they can’t and won’t.
We careful readers know that Jesus was anointed King by John the Baptizer, and that’s the answer to “Who do you think you are!” He has not yet been enthroned, but He has been anointed, and He was doing exactly what He should do by condemning the Temple (and all those who run it) as God’s true king. Those who take up their cross daily and follow Jesus never need to wonder about where the benefits of the Temple are or who has authority over those benefits. It is King Jesus, and that’s the gospel.