The Hard Sayings: Render Unto Caesar

A sermon from Mark 12:13-17 by Fr. Justin Clemente, delivered to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on October 30, 2022. Part of our ongoing “The Hard Sayings of Jesus” series.

Even in our digital age, we’re all still familiar with faces on money. Lincoln on the penny, Washington on the quarter and the dollar. Benjamin Franklin’s likeness is on the $100 dollar bill, with his name even becoming a shorthand for the same. What’s the slang for these? Benjamins.

But the Roman money of Jesus’ day was charged and loaded with even more meaning, especially for the Jewish people. The denarius, the coin mentioned in v. 15, was an emblem of Caesar’s authority and even his divinity. It was also an ever-present reminder of Israel’s subjugation to Rome. In fact, on the denarius coin of the emperor Tiberius, which would have been used in Jesus’ day, were written these words: “Son of the god Augustus…Pontif[ex] Maxim[us],” meaning high priest.”[i] This is why it could not be used in the Temple – it had to changed out. Remember, Caesar was not so much a name as a title: it was a constant reminder that he was claiming lordship over all.

But there is a counterclaim. There is a deeper image and a deeper inscription we must all consider today. That is the heart of Jesus’ answer. And that’s where we’re going this morning.

Two Areas

Societally & Politically: Be a Good Citizen

First, although our Lord’s teaching has much, much more to say to us than this, the first takeaway is this: we’re called to be faithful citizens, as much as possible. Which includes, actually paying things like taxes.

Look at verse 13. Where does this question of paying taxes come from? The Pharisees and the Herodians. Not to get political, but to get political this would have been like Beto O’Rourke and Greg Abbott teaming up in Texas. These are two groups normally shouldn’t really be working together. The Pharisees wanted to see Rome overthrown. The Herodians were aligned with the puppet kings installed by Rome. They had a vested interest in seeing the status quo continue.

But Jesus points to a different way, and it’s the one repeated by the Apostle Paul in the plain teaching of Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Now, there is a line there, because our first allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. When we are asked to sin, then we give the reply of the Apostle Peter and say, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) We must never forget the many faithful Christians (including St. Peter) who preferred martyrdom, becoming human torches or the food of lions, rather than offer sacrifice to Caesar as an idol. They wanted nothing more than to be good citizens of Rome, yet their dignity and status in the Kingdom of God was more precious than anything – even their own lives.

Today, in our culture, ever more opposed to the Kingdom of God, we must walk as faithful citizens who are yet prepared to be disobedient if we are made to choose. We must walk wisely – as innocent as doves and wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16).

Personally: Give to God What is God’s

One of the things we have to see in this passage is that Jesus is responding, not to an honest question, but to malice and treachery (vs. 13 and 15). As author Jeff Gibbs says, “[Jesus’ answer] is a sort of non-answer to a ‘question’ that does not deserve an answer.”[ii] This group doesn’t really want to hear from Jesus about taxes, they want to destroy him. In the face of this, Jesus’ deepest word is the one he ends with: “Give to God the things that are God’s.”

These words point first to Jesus and then back at us.

First, Jesus. Think of where we are in the Gospels. This controversy comes in the middle of Holy Week. The contrast between Jesus and his opponents (God’s own people!) couldn’t be sharper. They challenge him on coins – but he will be the payment offered up to God for their sins. They wear the mask of hypocrite, while he tells the truth – in fact, he offers himself up as the pure Lamb of God, slain for sinners. Jesus, God the Son, gives to God the Father the things that are God’s. Theologian Arthur Just puts it this way:

Jesus is the Creator of all things. He has taken on flesh to re-create his creation through death and resurrection, to begin a new creation. Jesus, to whom all things belong, is about to give back to God what rightfully belongs to him: all of humanity…and all of creation.”[iii]

But there is more, and this points back to us. Jesus asks to see the denarius (v. 16), and asks the question, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Likeness and inscription. Those are loaded Bible words! First, you were made in God’s likeness (Genesis 1:27). You were made to be God’s – uniquely and gloriously! He created you to reflect his glory and to be wholly his. All of this was lost and ruined in the Fall. But God didn’t keep it there. What did he do? We sing it each year at Christmas in the words of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.

So next, inscription. Not only has God created you in his likeness, he has engraved you and written his name upon you in redemption. This word hearkens back to the prophet Ezekiel who said this of the New Covenant:

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

You have been inscribed and marked by the triune God. By faith in Jesus and your baptism into him, you have been cleansed and consecrated to walk with the living God in all his ways. In fact, in Jesus, you are now part of his new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) – a foretaste of the new heavens and new earth where everything will perfectly reflect the glory of God. This calls for wholehearted discipleship and stewardship in every of life.

This week, Lucy sent me a story that seemed serendipitous given our passage. David Green, founding CEO of Hobby Lobby, recently announced he would be giving away ownership of his company. The company began in Oklahoma City in 1972 with a $600 loan and “the purpose of honoring God.” The company has grown to be the biggest privately owned arts and crafts retailer in the world. Just this past January, the company was able to raise their minimum wage to $18.50. In addition to that, they close every Sunday in observance of the Lord’s Day and allow employees to close up shop by 8 p.m. every day. That’s different. Green writes, “That bigger mission and purpose helped me realize that I was just a steward, a manager of what God had entrusted me. God was the true owner of my business,” Green wrote. “When I realized that I was just a steward, it was easy to give away my ownership.”

Give to God the things that are God’s. Perhaps you actually thought this passage was just about taxes. Hardly. Just as he did to the Herodians and the Pharisees, so Jesus does to us this morning – he flips the script, paints a bigger canvas, and invites to come with him.

Today begins a month-long focus on stewardship and generosity at New Creation. It is so much more than fundraising campaign. Yes, our lives involve giving back financially to the Lord – in trusting him and honoring him there. But it’s about so much more than that. We embrace five stewardship principles as a congregation. You’ll receive these next week in your bulletin.

The first principle is this: God is the giver of all that we have. What we possess is not earned, but is a gift from him. This includes our whole life: our time, our talent, our treasure.

Today, and this month, out of gratefulness to Christ who gave God his due when we did not and could not, I invite you to reflect on how he is calling you to respond with thankfulness and service in all of your life. Amen.

[i] Mark 1:1-8:26 by James Voelz, pg. 583.

[ii] Matthew 21:1-28:20 by Jeffrey Gibbs, pg. 1119.

[iii] Luke 9:51-24:53 by Arthur Just, pg. 773.