Focal Passage: Mark 12:13-17, 28-31, 38-40
Jesus was a hunted man. Mark writes that a delegation of
Pharisees and Herodians came to “entrap (the word means literally to catch by
trapping or fishing)” Jesus. They brought to him a question, not for
enlightenment, but to test him and to dare him to commit himself on a volatile
political issue — the unpopular Roman tax.
This tax was the poll tax (the Greek word kenson is a
transliteration of the Latin census) which was required of every men aged 14-65
and women 12-65. It was the equivalent of one day’s wage or a denarius. It was
a tax for the privilege of existing (William Barclay).
So that we not miss the danger of this issue, David Rhoads
reminds us that Rome bled the populace poor with taxes. He writes, “The tribute
exacted by Rome was large in itself, Herod’s revenues were huge, used primarily
to maintain his court and military troops as well as to support his extensive,
luxurious building programs.”
Taxation was the central issue for many of the rebellions in
Judea and the major cause of banditry throughout the countryside (Ched Myers).
Like the rich young ruler (10:17), the delegation used
insincere flattery — “Jesus, we know you tell the truth regardless of the
consequences. We dare you to commit yourself in this situation! Is it lawful to
pay taxes to Caesar or not?” On the surface, this was a “no-win” situation. But,
Jesus replied with another a request and a question — “Whose likeness (icon or
image) and whose inscription is this?”
They knew the answer. It was the head of Caesar, extolling
him as “August and Divine Son.” Jesus’ reply was simple and pointed: “Render
(or more accurately repay as to a payment of debt or recompense) the one to
whom you are indebted.” Jesus turned the discussion on its head and challenged
them to act according to their allegiances.
The question of loyalties arises again with a scribe asking
Jesus which commandment is the first of all. This question was a common topic
for rabbinic discussions. Jesus responds with the “Shema” from Deut. 6:4f and
then added the statement of Leviticus 19:18 (which no one had ever brought
together) about one’s obligation to neighbor.
Ched Myers writes that by using the Leviticus text Jesus was
speaking judgement against the religious leadership (and its scribes). The
verse from Leviticus 19 defines the love of neighbor in terms of
non-exploitation. Sadly, this command was regularly violated by them as
evidenced by the moneychangers and sellers in the temple court areas.
Mark concludes with words of victory — “And after that no
one dared to ask him any question.”