Mark: Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar

Read: Mark 12:13-17

The battle between church and state has raged for centuries. Today we are reminded of how we should approach this classic face-off as we read John Mark’s account of the interaction.

Unholy Alliance

In light of several things I’ve learned through this present study, here is another example of an alliance that is significant, in a bad way:

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. Mark 12:13

In this case, they, implies there are talks among the Jewish and Roman leaders in the region. The Jewish leaders are obviously desperate to get rid of Jesus, even to the point of conspiring with the oppression regime that governs with a whip. Remember, just 30 years before this time, Herod had all the boys two and under killed when Jesus was born. I’m sure not much has changed in their way of thinking as evidenced by the systematic torture and execution of prisoners through crucifixion.

This is an unholy alliance, one that is not endorsed by God, but Jesus, once again, demonstrates incredibly (to say the least) how we should handle such obvious attempts to subvert God’s authority.

Teacher’s Pet

You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are Mark 12:14

I hadn’t caught this concept before reading the NIV Application Commentary, but it is true, Jesus does show favoritism to those who sincerely seek the truth. This reminds me of days when I was teaching for the University of Maryland (long time ago!). I told my students that I most definitely had teacher’s pets. Those who did their homework and turned it in on time without complaint, those who prepared for class, those who did their best — these would be my favorites and I would unashamedly show them undue partiality. They got the point.

Jesus invites those who are willing to lay down their pride and follow Him to enter into his way of life. For those who have ulterior motives, He dismisses them with more questions than they had answers for. Just a few days ago we watched this unfold as Jesus ignored the questions from the religious leaders and sent them packing without an answer (The Authority of Jesus Challenged).

Thinly Veiled Trap

The grade-school challenge is laid before Jesus,

Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” Mark 12:14-15

I’m thankful that John Mark (and Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26!) captured the moment for us to appreciate the separation of church and state. The hotly contested legal relationship continues to burden established churches to this day as we witness legal battles constantly attacking organized religion.

The Answer

The answer is rather simple:

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. Mark 12:17

Simple, yes, but once again, Jesus sends His inquisitors home unsatisfied: they were amazed. Matthew’s version agrees with John Mark’s while Luke tells us they were astonished and had no response, “they were silent.”

There are many in the church world that live in fear of losing their tax-exempt status, the revered 501(c)(3) shelter for non-profit entities, in particular, religious organizations. The rationale behind the tax-exempt status has little to do with religion, which is why, so far, the code remains in place. The concept is simple: religious organizations, e.g., churches, exist for the common good of the public. This is the call for churches to remember their role in community outreach, but not merely for the sake of checking a box. Our role is to be a key part of our community. I fully believe that if we were to embody that role, we would be fine with or without the IRS Code exemption–the community would long to see us succeed.

I’m thankful for this clear cut example of how we are to balance church and state. We have so many privileges in this country, so many laws in our favor. Lord, help us to play the vital role in society as we draw people to You!

 

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