In Chapter 12 of the Gospel of Mark, some Pharisees came to Jesus to test him and said to him, “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.” — Mark 12:13–17
They came to get Jesus in trouble with the authorities regarding the payment of taxes to Caesar, and he turned it back on them. They were caught in their own theological trap because they had a double standard. They did their best to get along with the Roman authorities, while quietly teaching their people that God and not the civil authorities must be the ultimate object of their worship. They taught that, in the end, everything belongs to God, so when Jesus put before them the coin showing the image of Caesar, they were trapped by their duplicity. The one appearing on the coin was to be worshiped and obeyed as a god, and therefore a divine alternative to the God of Israel, to whom the Jewish leaders were bound.
This is not simply a teaching for Christians about being good citizens and paying our taxes. It cuts to the heart of the question of whether any human government has the right to claim our absolute loyalty. Even the apostle Paul, who declares in Romans 13 that Christian citizens should pay taxes, made clear that those authorities are “God’s servant for your good.”
But Paul is equally clear that when civil authority is used to abuse those whom they are called to serve, they are to be rejected. Consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament, both individuals and government authorities must “do justice,” giving special attention to the most vulnerable of God’s children.
As Christians and citizens of the United States, we find ourselves in the midst of one of the most troubled political environments in recent history. In a sense, our sins are catching up with us.
We have built this nation from the beginning on the backs of native people long resident on the land, by exercising the principle of “eminent domain,” and have worked to “civilize” the survivors by taking their children hostage in our “Christian” schools. We have built our political economy on the slavery of Africans and others who labored in a growing economy that linked North and South as co-conspirators. Now we struggle over the difficult questions of economic reparations for those long abused and political representation for those long silenced.
And now, as followers of Jesus, we face a political process that requires us to discern what justice requires as we choose new leadership for the days ahead, knowing that some seem to ignore the wounds of the past and others are struggling to find a way forward that truly provides “liberty and justice for all.”
In the end, Jesus’ troubling command is before us: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
In these troubled political times, we must remind ourselves again that everything belongs to God.