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, NIV)

Jesus seemed to seize any opportunity he could to teach a spiritual truth or give an important exhortation. This exchange with the Pharisees and Herodians seems no different. Trying to trap Jesus in his words, undoubtedly they were hoping he would answer their question in a way that would make him appear as a rebel against Roman authority. They were hoping he would say, “NO! Don’t give a single farthing to those ruthless, wicked oppressors,” so they could then report him to the Roman authorities for insurrection. His answer, however, was quite different. It is noteworthy that while Jesus answered their question directly, he added an exhortation to it that is just as true for us as it was for his enemies back then: Give to God what belongs to God.

Jesus’ reply is important on different counts. For one, the Lord did not have a black-and-white view of our responsibility toward government and God. His was not an either-or approach that pitted the government against God, as even some Christians want to do today, refusing to pay taxes. Far from encouraging anyone to resist paying taxes or carrying out their proper duty toward human authorities, he acknowledged that there are indeed certain things that fall within the jurisdiction of human government. This should not be surprising since it echoes what Paul wrote in Romans 13:1-7:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (NIV)

It is all right to pay taxes to the government; in fact we should.

What is also important about Jesus’ reply is the second half of it. He could have stopped at, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but he chose to make the second exhortation to give to God what is God’s. He went beyond the scope of their question to address a much further-reaching issue. This raises another question, though: What things belong to God? The simple answer is “everything,” as made clear in Psalm 50:9-11:

I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,

for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know every bird in the mountains,
and the creatures of the field are mine. (NIV)

Even money belongs to God, even though for a time it falls within the jurisdiction of men. But Jesus clearly had in mind some possession of God that goes beyond mere monetary wealth. The Lord does not specify what these things are that belong to God, but perhaps Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

Ultimately everything we have–indeed, all that we are, even our very own person–belongs to the Lord. Christians are not free in the pure sense of the word, in the sense of sheer neutrality. We don’t have the right to conduct our affairs and live our lives outside the jurisdiction of God. Although we have been set free from sin indeed, we have been liberated only to be obedient slaves to the Lord, who died for us. We have not gone from slavery to freedom; we have simply been freed from one master to serve another. Note Paul’s important words in Romans 6:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer
yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. … But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. (Romans 6:15-18, 22, NIV)

Going back to the passage in Mark’s Gospel, we should not take lightly Jesus’ phrase, “what is God’s.” Trying to live our lives as if they belonged to us and not to God is essentially theft on a cosmic scale, since we would be robbing the Creator himself of what rightly belongs to him. What do we do with our time, talents and energy? Do we live as practical atheists, paying mere lip service to the notion of slavery to God while inwardly relishing our independence? If we do, we are living out what is perhaps the greatest lie and illusion. Let’s strive to “give to God what is God’s” every day of our lives. Certainly we won’t be disappointed.

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