Taxes and Caesar (Mark 12:13-17)
The issue of taxation has arisen obliquely already, in terms of the call narrative of Levi (Mark 2:13-17, see above). This section treats the matter a little more directly, although the meaning of the passage is still debatable in terms of its logic. It is interesting that the whole incident described here essentially represents a trap. If Jesus affirms Roman taxation, he will offend his followers. If he rejects it, he will face charges of treason. Because the incident hinges on such particular circumstances, we should be cautious about applying the passage to dissimilar contemporary situations.
The response of Jesus to the trap revolves around the concepts of image and ownership. Examining the common denarius coin (essentially, a day’s wage), Jesus asks whose “image” (or even “icon”) is upon the coin. The point of the question is probably to allude deliberately to Genesis 1:26-27 (humans made in the image of God) in order to create a contrast. Coins bear the image of the emperor, but humans bear the image of God. Give to the emperor what is his (money), but give to God what is his (our very lives). The core element, that humans bear the imago Dei, is unstated, but it is surely implied by the parallelism built into the logic of the argument.
In using such argumentation, Jesus subordinates the taxation issue to the greater demand of God upon our lives, but he does not thereby deny the validity of taxation, even that of the potentially abusive Roman system. Nor does he deny that money belongs to God. If money belongs to Caesar, it belongs even more to God because Caesar himself is under God’s authority (Romans 13:1-17; 1 Peter 2:13-14). This passage is no warrant for the often expressed fallacy that business is business and religion is religion. But, as we have seen, God recognizes no sacred-secular divide. You cannot pretend to follow Christ by acting as if he cares nothing about your work. Jesus is not proclaiming license to do as you please at work, but peace about the things you cannot control. You can control whether you defraud others in your work (Mark 10:18), so don’t do it. You cannot control whether you have to pay taxes (Mark 12:17), so pay them. In this passage, Jesus doesn’t say what your obligation might be if you can control (or influence) your taxes, for example, if you are a Roman senator or a voter in a twenty-first-century democracy.