19When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
20So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. 21So they asked him, "Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. 22Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" 23But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, 24"Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor's." 25He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." 26And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.
What people don't know about Jesus is that he's smart -- no, he's wicked smaaht -- like:
(Homage to Ms Joanne, Mr Pak, and Ms Choe. Am I missing any other Hahvahd luminaries in our midst?)
Anyway, as I was saying, Jesus is really smart. I am not speaking in jest. Dallas Willard, philosopher and spiritual theologian, has written a terrific article entitled, "Jesus The Logician." See his essay: http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=39
It is with the view of Jesus' intelligence that we should interpret the passage above. To make the passage about Jesus' thoughts on politics or the political sphere vis-a-vis the spiritual sphere is to misread this passage. Jesus' intelligence shows up in his Houdini-like escape from the dilemma that's set up by the spies' question -- "Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (v.22) The question demands a yes-or-no answer. If Jesus answered, "yes," this answer would clearly disappoint his Jewish listeners. In Mark 12:14, the tax in question is described as an "imperial tax to Caesar." People were forced to pay a poll tax to the Roman emperor. This tax was hated and some Jews refused to pay it, on the grounds that such payment admitted Roman right to rule. If Jesus answered, "no," then the Roman officials would have gotten upset. In fact, the spies were anticipating that Jesus would answer "no" "so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor." A classic trap. A seemingly impossible situation to get out of without blowing off the question.
What does Jesus do? He asks for a denarius, which was worth a day's wages. It'll be equivalent to our $100 bill.
Jesus asks whose head and title is on the coin? They answer, "The emperor's." Jesus then says the following line which will become famous in its own right: "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Jesus, perceiving clearly this trap, gives an answer that un-traps the trap. There is no reason for Jesus to give a deep theological answer to the rightness or the wrongness of paying taxes to a foreign power. Jesus did not come to champion a Jewish political cause. He came for something far greater and globally consequential: he came to save the fallen world.
Had Jesus conducted a graduate level seminar on the topic of paying taxes to Rome, he might have given a different answer. We can't really know. My guess is that he would have said, pay your taxes even if you think it's unwarranted b/c you are living under a governmental power that's imperfect. Be a good witness. Show that you are a good citizen. The Early Church Father, Justin Martyr, took this position, as well as the Apostle Paul. We must understand that these folks did not live under a liberal democracy where citizens can rightly protest and vote in someone else to their liking. They lived under emperors. It's a whole different matter politically speaking.
Getting back to the above passage, Jesus is smaaht. Wicked Smaaht. Better yet, Jesus is Wise, which is smarter than smart. Jesus is wise enough not to get entangled in an artificial argument that's been set up to entrap him. Jesus won't play that game. You can't outsmart the smart Jesus. Jesus is always one step -- nay, two or three steps -- ahead of the smartest person in the room. We serve an amazing smart Savior!
Let's pray: Lord Jesus, you are brilliant. You are smarter than the smartest human who's ever lived. You are wiser than the wisest person who's ever lived. And you are our friend and Lord! That's encouraging for all us who lack wisdom and intelligence. No Ivy League, no graduate school, no internship at Google, Apple, or Microsoft can be better than a life-long internship under your tutelage. So, Lord, impart to us your smarts and wisdom in the ways of God and in the ways of this world. May your intelligence be released upon your people today. In Your Name, Amen.