THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN Jesus and some of his opponents in Mark 12:13-17 is full of interest. Mark says that Jesus’ interlocutors set out “to catch him in his words” (12:13). Doubtless that is why they begin with some pretty condescending flattery about how principled a teacher he is, utterly unwilling to be swayed by popular opinion. It is all a setup. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” they ask. “Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (12:14-15).
They thought they had him. If he answered “No,” then he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities, who certainly were not going to allow a popular religious preacher in a volatile country like this one go around advocating nonpayment of taxes. Jesus might even be executed for treason. But if he answered “Yes,” then he would lose the confidence of the people and therefore diminish his popularity. Many ordinary Jews not only felt the ordinary human resentment of taxes, but raised theological objections. How could conscientious Jews pay in coins that had the image of the emperor on them, especially coins that ascribed titles of deity to him? Besides, if Jews were really righteous, would not God come down and deliver his people again, this time from the Roman superpower? Does not principled fidelity to God demand nonpayment of taxes?
Whatever answer Jesus gave, he would be a loser. But he refuses to yield. Instead, he asks for a coin, asks whose image is on it, and argues that it is right to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Jesus thereby neatly escapes their snare, and his interlocutors are amazed.
But there are layers of implications here. Under a strict theocracy, Jesus’ words would be incoherent: the rule of God is mediated by the king, so that their domains are not so easily separable. Moreover, the old covenant structure was, on paper, tightly bound to theocratic rule. Yet here is Jesus announcing that a distinction must be made between Caesar’s claims and the claims of the living God.
Of course, this does not mean that Caesar’s domain is entirely independent of God’s domain, nor that God does not remain in providential control. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus is announcing a fundamental change in the administration of the covenant community. The locus of the community is no longer a theocratic kingdom; it is now an assembly of churches from around the world, living under many “kings” and “Caesars,” and offering worship to none of them. And that is why many Christians around the world trace the history of the non-establishment of a particular religion to this utterance of the Lord Jesus himself.