Tuesday, June 2
Anyone who claims “The Bible is boring,” has obviously not read Chapter 12 in the Gospel of Mark. In this New Testament chapter, we have a full display of human conduct and emotions; murderous vineyard workers, dialogue laced with suspicion and trickery, questions about the guidance of human conduct and royal lineage, interrogations with dark intentions, commentary on the virtue of the marginalized and spoken wisdom on the role of civic responsibility. And this all contained in a mere forty-four verses!
No doubt you have heard the famous maxim attributed to Mark Twain, “Never discuss politics and religion in polite company.” Well, in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 12: 13-17), we read of an encounter where Jesus decides to engage in such an exchange in response to a cagey question posed to him by some Pharisees and Herodians. You will recall that Pharisees (Hebrew for “separated ones”) were members of the Jewish party who obeyed the written law of Moses and its unwritten interpretations. Their focus was on holiness particularly as seen in the course of human conduct. Herodians were prominent and influential Jewish men who accepted Herod as their king and collaborated with the Roman government. It was these two groups who Mark described, in Chapter 3, v.6, as conspiring together in order to destroy Jesus after witnessing Him on the Sabbath healing a man with a withered hand,
Part of the dialogue designed to trick Jesus, seen in today’s reading, involved a question about paying a tribute or tax levied on a flat fee per person basis. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Should we pay them or not?” This was a loathsome reminder that Judea was subjugated to Rome. The Pharisees and Herodites designed their question in such a way that it looked like Jesus would get in trouble with someone no matter how he answered it. A negative response by Jesus would cast him as a seditious enemy of Rome; a positive response would undermine his popularity with the vast majority of Jewish people, who generally detested the tribute.
Our Lord’s wisdom is seen in his response to this question. Jesus asks to see a denarius, a Roman coin used for propaganda purposes that depicted the head of the emperor on one side and typically a robed woman on the reverse side of the coin holding a scepter in her right hand and a palm or olive branch in the left. The inscriptions on the coin refer to the divine nature of the Roman emperor and that all people were subject to his divine rule and authority. Jesus then responds to the Pharisee and Herodian interrogators “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor and to God the things that are God’s.” Those who tried to trick Him were amazed at this answer.
Austin Cline of Princeton University (2017) noted a traditional Christian interpretation of Jesus’s response seen in Mark’s gospel is to direct people to be diligent in fulfilling their obligations to God as they are in fulfilling their secular obligations to the state. This relationship is echoed elsewhere in the New Testament letters, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2. In the 21st century, we realize and indeed value the necessity of government in ordering the affairs of society. But we also are cognizant of the fact that government authority over humankind is delegated by God. While Christians should model good citizenship towards the state, as “the emperor” is indeed owed something, our true desire to worship the giver of all that we have and all that we are is solely owed to God.
Heavenly Father. we are so grateful to be living in a democracy where many play a part in making sure the needs and desires of the nation’s citizens are heard and met. As our leaders work together to find solutions to difficult problems, we ask that You guide them to speak respectfully and with humility to one another. Help them to show Christ-like love to those they interact with and be an advocate for their constituents and others, particularly those in these times who are without food, work, justice or safety. Amen.
Adapted from World Vision’s “How to pray for government leaders.” (2019)