A Politically Charged Game of Cat & Mouse

When it comes to religion and politics there seems to be more questions than answers.

For example: does the separation of Church and State mean that the church shouldn’t get involved in politics? If not, to what degree should churches get involved? Is there one Christian position on politics? Does the Bible line up with more with liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans? Does the Bible teach us how to vote? Does God redeem institutions or nations as well as men and women? Should the government compel religion or exclude it? Is the government good or evil? If good, how should Christians support it? If evil, should the Church begin a revolution and take it over?

Different Christians throughout history have responded to these questions in different ways. Some have been so fearful that they’ve run away from the state wanting nothing to do with anything political while others have been so eager to jump in that they’ve run towards the state by seeking governmental office or seeking change by campaigning for various presidential candidates. The rest of us seem to be caught in the middle not really sure how to think about politics in relation to our faith. So wherever you are in this discussion it would do us all very much good (especially taking into account our current political climate) to ask one question: how does Jesus teach us to think about these matters?

For today, turn to Mark 11-12.

It had only been two days since Jesus had entered the city on a donkey, where crowds of people were triumphantly cheering and shouting His name. Ironically now began the terrible game of ‘cat and mouse’, the endless Pharisaic and Roman maneuvering that will end in the death of Jesus. Perhaps it was the incident with the Fig Tree or the moment when Jesus turned over the tables in the temple that moved them to question Him, but in 11:27 we see it was the chief priests, the scribes, as well as the elders of the people who challenged Him directly. Asking about where His authority comes from and how He can do what He does. Jesus asked them questions in return and from being too afraid of the crowds they refused to answer Jesus, so Jesus refused to answer them. After telling them a parable which clearly laid blame on these Jewish leaders for refusing to believe in the Messiah, they grew so angry with Him that they sought to arrest Him, but again being too afraid of the crowds, they changed their plans and sought to trap and humiliate Him in public.

Now we have come to our text for today, Mark 12:13-17.

It’s unusual to see in v13 that the Pharisees and the Herodians were working together. The Pharisees, of course, being the Jewish religious leaders who opposed the Roman rule and supported Jewish liberty and the Herodians being servants of the Roman king Herod who opposed Jewish liberty and supported Roman rule. They were natural enemies that never collaborated on anything due to their rival interests, yet here they are, united in their opposition to Jesus. It’s ironic what brings people together isn’t it? These two groups now form the ‘they’ we read of in every verse of our passage. ‘They’ got together, formed a plan, came up with a question and sent some of their own to trap or catch Jesus in His teaching. This was nothing less than a carefully planned ‘ambush.’ After giving Jesus presumptuous and bogus flattery they posed their question to Him in v14, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’

On the surface of things this question may seem small but to this culture and time the question was explosive to say the least.

You see, there were many taxes, tolls, and other charges Rome commanded on their people, but the imperial tax was required only of subject peoples, not Roman citizens. So for all Jews the same sum was required from rich and poor alike. When this tax was paid to Caesar they paid it with a Denarius (a coin worth a days wage for the common person then, worth about 16 cents in our currency today). This coin, on one side had an image of Caesar and on the other side had an image glorifying his rule with the words ‘son of divine Augustus’ over it. By paying this tax, one was in essence proclaiming the glory of Caesar’s rule and their submission to it. More so, because all the coins in circulation belonged to the Caesar, paying the tax was in essence giving back to Caesar money that was rightfully his. So each time a Jew had to pay this tax it was a reminder that they were a conquered people. This was very unpopular with Jews, most of them viewed it as idolatrous because paying it implied that Caesar, not God, was king.

In asking this question to Jesus they were trying to show that He was one of two things. He was either a fraud (a weak Messiah who had no plans to save the Jews from Roman oppression) or He was a political revolutionary (a military Messiah who was going to oppose Rome). This is a ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ kind of question. Depending on His answer either He loses His popularity among the Jews, or He loses His life from the Romans who don’t allow revolutionaries to live. This question had been well thought out. It was carefully crafted, sneaky, and totally unfair. But Jesus saw through their shallow hypocrisy. He knew their true malice toward Him and that with their mouths only they were showing this honor to Him. Matthew Henry comments here saying, “Hypocrisy, though ever so artfully managed, cannot be concealed from the Lord Jesus.”

So Jesus responded to them, and did so in such a way that made them marvel at His wisdom. On Wednesday we’ll look at His answer…

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