The chief priests, the scribes and the elders sent to Jesus some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
None of us likes paying tax. Whether it is income tax, VAT, inheritance tax, or whatever, we do not like paying tax. But, of course, it is something we all have to do. The law insists upon it, and no matter how hard we may try to evade it or avoid it, the paying of tax is a fact of daily life. There is, undoubtedly, a purpose to paying tax. Our taxes ensure the smooth-running of society as well as providing the means to support those who struggle to survive day by day.
In the world of politics, the subject of taxation is very divisive, something to be argued over and to be weaponised as politicians seek power and influence. It is in this political sense that the Pharisees and the Herodians set out to trap Jesus with weasel words. They try to set his sincerity and probity against the legal demands of the occupying Roman regime.
Jesus is not deceived. Jesus understands the purpose of the question. Jesus parries the hostile question with a statement of religious certainty and a challenge for all to examine their relationship with God. Taking a coin in his hand, Jesus draws the conclusion that it must be right to offer it back to the emperor because it bears his portrait and his inscription. Jesus says, in effect: ‘Of course taxes should be paid because the coinage with which they are being paid already belongs to the one whose portrait it bears.’ Jesus does not commit treason, and Jesus does not deny the right of the emperor to claim back that which is his own.
Then Jesus uses the same logic to remind us of another duty that should be paid, this time to a far greater King, to God himself. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis we read: So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.’ Jesus is reminding us that while we have a duty to return coins to the one whose face is stamped upon them, we have a similar duty to return ourselves to God, because we are the very image of God.
Another detail that should not be overlooked is the use of the word ‘hypocrisy’. Hypocrite is the Greek word for an ‘actor’, one who assumes a fictitious persona, one who presents him or her self as someone they are not. The Pharisees and the Herodians who try to trap Jesus are hypocrites because they are approaching Jesus pretending to be what they are not. They are indeed hypocrites.
These few verses from Mark’s gospel are a clear reminder that we are called to remain loyal to God, offering to him that which bears his image, ourselves. Let us pray that we might remain loyal to that calling, and that we might not be distracted by the hypocritical concerns of the world in which we live.