Mark 12:13-17 What Belongs to Caesar?


Mark 12:13-17


Another group tries to pin Jesus down with their questions, but he once again evades them by giving an ambiguous answer.


After Jesus plays the trickster in his encounters with the Temple authorities, those same authorities attempt to catch Jesus at his own game. They send the Pharisees and the Herodians (who last appeared together plotting to kill Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel) to try their hand at asking tricky questions. In keeping with the trickster versus trickster theme, their questions begin with a disingenuous show of flattery. Since Mark’s audience knows that these two groups intend to harm Jesus, this flattery comes off as laughable at best and sinister at worst. They then attempt to ask Jesus an impossible question just like Jesus’ question about the origin of John’s baptism (11:30). At first glance, their question (Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?) seems like one that could trap Jesus. If Jesus answers no, he could be accused of political rebellion. If he answers yes, he could be accused of supporting a brutal imperial state.

Jesus responds by outwitting them. He first redirects the debate from taxes to whether Caesar owns the coins that are used to pay taxes. Then, in true trickster fashion, he gives a non-answer to their question. His solution, to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God, turns the tables on his interrogators because it forces them to make the decision about whether they can pay their taxes or not. The Pharisees and the Herodians have fallen into their own trap, because if they ask Jesus to clarify, they would reveal that they don’t know how to distinguish between God and Caesar. Facing this impossible situation, they go away defeated.