Here are answers to each of those questions that will, I hope, make good sense of the text.
1. In what ways do questions about identity come up, not only in the Parable of the Tenants, but also in vv. 13-17, the exchange about tax? Why does Jesus ask about the Roman coin? What is he getting at?
The Parable is, obviously, an extremely provocative challenge to Israel’s religious leaders. Can they, dare they, recognize that their God, the ‘vineyard owner’ who sent the prophets, is sending his son to them – that is, a Messianic representative of the throne of David?
When the leaders then dispatch people to question Jesus about tax, Jesus immediately recognizes the trap (v. 15). So Jesus recasts the question in a way that puts it on his own agenda, the same agenda as the Parable. He makes it one about identity. This is why he asks them whether they can recognize the face of Caesar on the coin that claims that Caesar is a divine son. In the tense drama of this moment, what he is really asking is the same question as the Parable asks. They can identify this Roman ruler easily enough, with his blaspheming claim to divine sonship… but can they see that God’s reign is coming, and recognize the king, the son, sent by God?
In other words, will they do what God requires of them? So he answers:
Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They were utterly amazed at him. (v.17)
Jesus’ reply turns the question back on the questioners, and through them on the religious leaders: his overriding concern is what his fellow Jews owe to God. This is why I’ve added emphasis in quoting there – the rhetorical force in Jesus’ answer is in the second half. In importance, what is owed to God hugely outweighs what is owed to Caesar. In the perilous tension of Jerusalem that week, Jesus sees the question about tax as basically a distraction.
That Jesus could turn the question around in this way and direct his answer powerfully back to the religious leaders must have been one reason the questioners were amazed.
2. Can you give three possible interpretations of Jesus’ statement?
3. Of the possible interpretations you have thought of, which is the most convincing?
Below are three possible interpretations, the third of which I suggest is the most convincing.1
(i) Two separate realms, Caesar’s and God’s
As we have just seen, it seems that Jesus’ intention in answering as he did was to emphasize the second half of the statement. If this is right, there isn’t really a balance between the two halves – as what is owed to God matters most.
Nevertheless, many have suggested an interpretation in which there is a balance, indeed a kind of equivalence, between the two parts of the answer. In this reading, Jesus was saying that Caesar and God each have their own separate and autonomous kingdoms and, therefore, what people owe each of them is separate and different, even unrelated.
This is the ‘two kingdoms’ interpretation.
A strength of this reading is that it recognizes that Jesus’ statement means that something is owed to each of Caesar and God. The Greek verb in the text (which, as noted earlier, implies obligation) is used only once and therefore relates to both of them. Even if what people owe to God is vastly more important, something is owed also to Caesar.
However, what we have already learned about Jesus’ own message and the background to it in the Jewish Bible can enable us to see that, fundamentally, this ‘two kingdoms’ view cannot be right.
In the light of Jesus’ gospel that the reign of God was coming, can you see why Jesus’ answer could not mean that ‘Caesar’ and ‘God’ refer to two separate realms or kingdoms?
Especially from the time of the Exile six centuries earlier, it was a basic pillar of Israel’s faith that their God, Jahweh, was God not only of Israel but of the whole world. Jahweh was the creator of the whole world, and he would be its saviour and judge.
We gave attention earlier to the group of psalms which celebrate God’s kingship, the so-called ‘royal psalms’, namely Psalms 93 and 95-99. In various ways, these emphasize that point, especially Ps. 98. Jahweh is coming “to govern the earth, to govern the world with justice and the peoples with fairness” (Ps. 98:9, NAB).2
This background means that Jesus’ announcement that God’s reign was coming was about God who is king of the whole world. As a faithful Jew whose preaching was formed by the deepest possible engagement with the Jewish Bible, Jesus could not have meant that the Roman Emperor had a separate realm, one that was autonomous of God’s. We can be very sure that in Jesus’ gospel, God’s kingship was way above Caesar’s rule, not separate from it.3. Jesus was not teaching that there are two separate such realms or kingdoms.4
(ii) Give back these idolatrous coins, have nothing to do with them, so don’t pay the tax!
Some have advocated an interpretation that is, more or less, the opposite of the first one. In this second view, Jesus’ answer meant there is one realm only, God’s, and Caesar has no place in it. They argue this because Jesus’ whole message was that the reign of God is coming, and coming soon, and that this opposes Caesar’s violent and oppressive rule.
They point out too that the literal meaning of the verb is ‘give back’, as noted above. So Jesus said, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s…’ On this interpretation, it as though Jesus was saying:
These idolatrous coins are nothing to do with the true God, whose rule is now coming. So have nothing to do with them! Freely give them back – they are Caesar’s tainted things – that is where they belong. So don’t pay the tax! More than that, refuse to use such coins!5
In the light of the background information you’ve read and your study of Mark 11:27-12:17, what do you think this interpretation has going for it? And what points can be made against it?
Overall, do you think it is a convincing interpretation of Jesus’ statement?
Here are three really important things that this interpretation clearly gets right.
First, this position “takes with utmost seriousness the priority of God’s kingdom in the teaching of Jesus and recognizes… the tension in the Gospels between the… inbreaking rule of God and all [other] claims”.6. This is what Jesus’ message was all about. It was not about establishing a neat division of roles with Caesar.
Second, granted that Israel’s God is God and Caesar is not, there is ultimately only one rule or realm or kingdom, God’s. In this respect, this second interpretation is correct – it rightly rejects the first reading, according to which there are two separate kingdoms.
Third, Jesus’ reply rejected the idolatrous claim on the coin. By contrasting Caesar from God so sharply, it put across unmistakably: ‘Caesar is not God!’ This was hugely important. Jesus’ answer communicated fearless rejection of Roman idolatry and, thereby, faithfulness to Jewish monotheism.7
But there are also some real problems with the second interpretation. Here are three:
- If Jesus’ reply had meant: ‘Don’t pay the tax’, he wouldn’t have avoided the trap but would have jumped right into it. Remember: his questioners, sent by the religious leaders, most likely wanted him to side with the zealots, to show that he advocated rebellion against Rome. Remember too: Jesus recognized their hypocrisy (v. 15), and they were “utterly amazed” by his answer (v. 17). So what Jesus said must have been cleverer than if he had fallen into their trap.
- In doing the exercise, you were asked to read another short passage: Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate (Luke 23:1-5). This shows that the charge that he called for non-payment of Roman taxes didn’t stick. If he had done, the religious leaders would have got what they wanted: a reason to arrest him. Moreover, this would surely have featured in his trial. It would have brought “swift retaliation”, one commentator says.8. But in Luke Pilate dismisses it and it doesn’t even get a mention in the other gospels. When we read Jesus’ answer about tax in the context of his trial just a few days later, the interpretation that he advocated such non-payment isn’t convincing.
- As noted earlier, the single verb Jesus used applied in relation to both Caesar and God, and it communicated obligation. Given that he clearly was saying that something is owed to God, he must also have been saying that something is owed to Caesar. Therefore it is not plausible he was implying, ‘Don’t pay the tax’. Rather, his statement appears to have meant, in relation to Caesar: ‘It doesn’t matter much, but, yes, these coins are Caesar’s things. So pay him what’s his’.
For these three reasons, the second interpretation doesn’t really do justice to all we find in the text, when we read it in context.
(iii) Under God, Caesar is merely Caesar; what you really owe is to God – which is to recognize God’s son.
Can we understand Jesus’ statement in a way that incorporates the strengths but avoids the weaknesses in the first two interpretations?
To see such a reading, we can bring together the strengths we have already noted and make further connections with the previous two passages in the ‘sandwich’. The following five points do this.
You can assess whether you think this or one of the other two readings is the most convincing. You can also compare all three with the suggestions you came up with.
- When we read Jesus’ statement within the drama of tension and conflict in Jerusalem, we can see that its rhetorical power was especially in its second half. He was answering back to the Jewish religious leaders: ‘What really matters is what you owe to God!’
- At the same time, by contrasting Caesar and God so sharply, Jesus said with total clarity: Caesar is not God. This is perhaps the most obvious thing his answer communicated. He thereby denied the coin’s idolatrous claim, and stood as a faithful Jew against Rome. He deflated Caesar, rejecting Rome’s blaspheming pretension.
- But what was owed to God? Here the fundamental issue was about identity and recognition. This is surely why Jesus asked whose head is on the Roman coin. The contrast between his questioners’ easy recognition of Caesar, this so-called divine son, and their failure to recognize who Jesus was, is extremely striking. This is where the connection with the Parable of the Tenants – indeed with both the previous passages (the other two pieces of the ‘sandwich’) – is so illuminating. Jesus’ identity and authority were what was fundamentally at stake in the tense debates between Jesus and the religious leaders. What these owed to God, to the vineyard owner, was recognition of what he was doing by sending his son.9
- Here is another connection between the parable and Jesus’ answer about tax. The parable was all about what the tenants owe to the vineyard owner but refuse to pay. The vineyard is not theirs, and they even plot and commit murder to seize it. Mark says that Jesus told the parable against the religious leaders and its whole point was: they needed to give the vineyard back to God. It cannot be a coincidence that the verb which Jesus used in the next controversy meant that he said: ‘Give back… to God what is God’s!’ (You might recall that, according to Mark, Jesus used this verb even though his questioners had used a different one, meaning ‘give’ – see 2.2.6, after ‘Reading’, third point.)
- Against the background of all that, something was owed to Caesar, too. Relative to God, Caesar was only a side-show, but he was owed “the things of Caesar”. What were these? Well, merely these coins. Jesus seems to say:
You can dismiss the idolatrous claim on these coins, because it’s false. See them for what they are. They barely matter, but they are the currency of Caesar’s role. They’re his things, so pay them. What really matters is what is owed to God!
When we combine the last point with the others, we can start to see why people found Jesus’ answer “utterly amazing”. On one hand, he basically threw the question back at the Jewish religious leaders. On the other, he pulled Caesar down to earth. At the same time, he implied this: we Jews have an obligation to Caesar, which means that, under God, Roman rule has a place. Under the reign of Israel’s God which is coming, Caesar has a role.
Read those five points again. Do you agree that the close study we have done of Mark 12:17 shows that Jesus’ statement really did, in the heat of the controversy in Jerusalem at that moment, put across these things?10
If it did, it was an astonishing answer.–
END OF RESPONSE TO EXERCISE
To return to 2.2.6, close this window.
These correspond with a threefold classification of possible interpretations given by Joseph Fitzmyer, although I don’t follow his characterization of the three closely. See Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to St Luke X-XXIV (Anchor Bible 28; Doubleday, 1981), 1292-3. Walter Pilgrim develops Fitzmyer’s three kinds of reading into four, but it is not easy to see how his third and fourth are fundamentally different. See Pilgrim, Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament (Fortress, 1999), 66-72. ↩
The Hebrew word translated ‘govern’ in the NAB is the verb form of mishpat. Hence this verse speaks more literally of God coming to judge the world with justice and fairness; cf. NRSV. But this simply reflects what we saw on screen 2.1.4: in the ancient Israelite understanding, the basic work required of those who govern is judgment in court – through which justice is brought to people who are oppressed and afflicted. ↩
Richard Cassidy made this line of argument against a ‘two realms’ interpretation of Mark 12:17 strongly. See his Jesus, Politics and Society (Orbis, 1978), pp. 58-59. He did not refer to the background to it in the royal psalms. ↩
This sort of misreading of Jesus’ ‘render’ saying has been very common in Christian history. In connection with it, Pilgrim refers to “the blatant misuse of this text… throughout history”, Uneasy Neighbors, 67. ↩
Arguments for an interpretation along these lines have been made by D. Nineham in The Gospel of St Mark (Penguin, 1963) and R. Horsley in Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (Harper and Row, 1987), 306-17; cf. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 43. ↩
Pilgrim, Uneasy Neighbors, 68 ↩
Pilgrim, Uneasy Neighbours, 68 ↩
“[I]n the parable we saw those who were not prepared to render under God, the owner of the vineyard, what was due to God, and here Jesus exhorts them about such a gross neglect of duty”, Witherington, Gospel of Mark, 326. (Even though Witherington has argued that the controversy about tax should be read as part of the ‘sandwich’ it forms with 11:27-33 and the Parable of the Tenants – as described earlier, in 2.1.6 – he doesn’t then draw out very much from this, not more than the statement quoted here.) ↩
The ‘response’ on this screen has pointed to connections between the exchange about tax and the Parable of the Tenants because these are so illuminating for understanding the former. Although Witherington, following Myers, points to links both between these and with the previous passage (i.e. connecting all three parts of the ‘sandwich’), it is very surprising that most commentators barely try to do this. In particular, I have not found any writer who brings out the centrality of the theme of identity in both the parable and the exchange about tax. ↩