Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
Mark 12: 13-17
My friend Kim Fabricius offered the following commentary:
Against the backdrop of the Roman occupation, and the presence of the agents provocateurs – this odd alliance between Pharisees, populists who hated the poll tax, and Herodians, royalists who supported it (”My enemy’s enemy is my friend”?) – the key to the passage is the denarion.
1. The coin is produced by the interrogators: Jesus doesn’t carry any filthy imperial lucre, i.e. he completely dissociates himself from the Roman occupation, which is demonic (cf. Mark 5:1ff., the exorcism of the dirty-swine farmer of Gerasa, at the eastern edge of Roman empire – the evil spirit’s name is “legion”).
2. The “portrait”, eikon, on the coin is that of Tiberius; the money is the emperor’s; its possessors implicitly pay idolatrous homage to this phoney deity. There is no nascent two kingdoms doctrine here; on the contrary, the rule of Caesar and the reign of God-in-Jesus are set in absolute, indeed apocalyptic confrontation.
3. Note not only the inscription – (in full) “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontifex Maximus” – but also the word “inscription”, epigraphe: it occurs in only one other place in Mark – at 15:26, the “inscription” above the cross: “O Basileus ton Ioudaion“. Again, the absolute opposition – not correspondence – between the “Divine Son Caesar” and “the King of the Jews” could not be clearer. Any sermonic exhortation about our civic duty to pay taxes based on this passage suggests either social-historical ignorance, or ideological captivity to the “principality and power” of Christendom.