“All that we call human history--money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery--[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.”
-John 18:36 (HCSB)
The “chi ro” (first two letters of the Greek word “Cristos” meaning Christ) was likely already an ancient Christian symbol when Constantine “adopted” it early in the 4th century. But it was at the Battle of Milvian Bridge where the symbol gained its fame and will forever be linked to the Emperor. According to historical documents, Constantine saw this symbol in a vision prior to his battle with Maximus for the control of the entire Roman Empire (east and west). He saw it as a sign from God and indeed he defeated his rival. And just like that….under Constantine’s rule….Christianity in the Roman Empire….was now legal. But it didn’t stop there. Constantine, who may or may not have been a Christian himself, made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the first time, the Church was institutionalized. For the first time, the Church became intertwined with the State. For the first time, it became financially rewarding to be part of the Church. It can be argued and debated that Constantine was responsible for putting Christianity “on the map”. But one thing’s for sure. The next 1,300 years would be one long continuous saga and struggle regarding state “ownership” of the Church. Perhaps no one, including Constantine himself, could have foreseen the implications of his actions. Obviously, during Constantine’s time, few stopped to consider Jesus’ words in passages such as Mark 12:13 – 17 and John 18:36. If Christian leaders, at that time, would have taken these passages to heart….perhaps they would not have walked down Constantine’s red carpet so briskly. Today, evangelical Christians often bemoan the separation of church and state. But as the saying goes…”be careful what you ask for….”. History shows us that a healthy arm’s length distance between the Church and the State is actually a good thing. And is consistent with Jesus’ teachings.
[Read Mark 12:13 – 17 below]
Before we dive into the scripture for today, a little background is necessary. Without it, we can’t fully appreciate the gravity of what is happening in these four verses. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, Palestine was part of a province of the Roman Empire. Typically, when the Empire conquered an area, it tolerated its culture and, sensitive to that, would support a ruler who had “roots” in that region. In Palestine and surrounding areas, that was Herod the Great....until his death in about 4 BC. Herod committed numerous atrocities during his reign, but he was tolerated by the Jewish community due mainly to his lavish construction projects (including expansion of the Temple). Prior to his death, Herod divided his kingdom among his three sons….and that’s when the wheels started to fall off for Palestine. Archelaus, the son rewarded with Palestine, was such a disastrous ruler that Rome had to forcibly remove him from power and govern Palestine directly from the "mother ship". The military was used and a Roman governor assumed command of the region….making Palestine, for the most part, a police state. The first thing the governor did was impose a series of taxes (ground, poll, income) to help pay for all the additional support/oversight from Rome. Without a doubt, these new taxes enraged the Jews who felt the Roman Empire tightening its grip around their way of life. From their perspective, a complete overreach of “federal” power. Many, in our own country, feel the same way today.
So it is within this setting, that we find ourselves in Mark 12.
At the beginning of our scripture, we are introduced to Pharisees and Herodians (supporters of Herod). Based on what you now know, you can bet these two groups were bitter enemies. And yet they had joined forces and set their sights on a common enemy – Jesus of Nazareth. Scripture tells us that they were sent (v. 13) so we know that their confrontation was a planned one. Part of their plan of attack was to be subtle…and seductive….and we see this in their compliments of Jesus (v. 14). They join in asking what they believe is the ultimate “trap question” (v. 14 – 15). Answer one way, and Jesus risks the alienation of his own people and followers. Answer another way, and the authorities could have had him arrested for being a revolutionary. However….Jesus saw right through them…and he let them know it (v. 15b). Jesus asks for a coin….a denarius to be exact. And it is notable that Jesus himself did not have a coin in his possession.
Before we look closer at Jesus’ remarkable response….a little background about ancient coinage and what it symbolized in the Roman Empire. Coins were a sign of power and wherever a coin was circulated it was assumed that the area was under the control of the person emblazoned on the coin. The particular coin that Jesus held would have had an image of Tiberius Caesar on it. It may even have had the words “pontifex maximus” which basically meant “high priest of the Roman nation”. In effect, the coin itself would have declared the Emperor’s divinity. Can you imagine the outrage of one of our coins showing the image of a sitting president and declaring his/her divinity over the United States? Now you understand the rage of the Jews a little better can’t you?
Jesus’ response to the trap question is nothing short of brilliant. But not just because he eludes the Pharisees (once again) but because it lays down a principal that we Christians can live by. By asking “who’s image and inscription is this?” (v. 16) Jesus recognized that the coin had Caesar’s name on it…so in a sense…it already belonged to him. When Jesus said “give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar” (v. 17a) he was simply saying…”pay the monetary taxes without anger because you are just giving back what the Emperor already owns. Money is the State’s domain. And after all…it’s only money”.
But then Jesus says to “give to God what is God’s”. (v. 17b) What did Jesus mean? Ever wonder what “things” Jesus was talking about? Some believe this passage is about tithing…giving to the church. But I think the meaning is much deeper….and perhaps Jesus’ question in v. 16 gives us an important clue. I think Jesus was talking about us….you and me. We belong to God. Just as those ancient Roman coins bore an image of Caesar….we bear the image of God. We’ve known that to be true….all the way back to Genesis 1:27 (So God created man in His own image…..). And according to Jesus, we’re to give ourselves over to God. We’re already His….and much more precious to Him than money.
Why is this such an important lesson today? Because this scripture reminds us that we can have peace in a world in which we feel like we’re losing our grip on control. A quick run through CNN, Fox News and Drudge Report will be convincing enough that the world…our nation…. is in chaos. Runaway deficit spending. Healthcare mandates. IRS scandals. Byzantine regulations. Corruption at the highest levels. Government overreach. Bureaucracy. Gridlock. It seems like every day brings a new crisis. Now that you understand history a little better….the environment during Jesus’ ministry…..you can at least rest assured that none of what we’re experiencing today is anything new.
It’s easy to feel helpless. Hopeless. Out of control. But that’s not the attitude Jesus wants us to have. The State is going to do….what the State is going to do. But we belong to God. The State will have its domain….and Jesus recognizes this to be so…..but, try as it might…it will never own us….because we are made in the image of God and we are to give back to God the things that belong to God.
13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Him to trap Him by what He said.[a] 14 When they came, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know You are truthful and defer to no one, for You don’t show partiality[b] but teach truthfully the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay, or should we not pay?”
But knowing their hypocrisy, He said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.” 16 So they brought one. “Whose image and inscription is this?” He asked them.
“Caesar’s,” they said.
17 Then Jesus told them, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.