“Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and render unto God the things which belong to God” (Mk. 12:17).”
What does that really mean? Is it simply about paying taxes? Is it a call to submit our stiff necks to the governmental heel? Is it an instance of Jesus caving to cultural pressure? Or is it about something different altogether?
There is a long history of Christian interpretation that reads Jesus’ answer to the question in Mark 12:13-17 as authorizing a solution in which Caesar’s authority over material and commercial matters is acknowledged, while that which belongs to God is relegated to a separate “spiritual” realm. But this interpretation fails to make sense of the narrative dynamics of the actual text.
The question of the Pharisees and Herodians is explicitly described as a trap (Mk. 12:13) that seeks to force Jesus either to declare rebellion against Rome or to discredit himself in the eyes of the people by endorsing passive acquiescence in Roman hegemony. If Jesus’ answer to their question (“Give back to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and give back to God the things that belong to God”) means simply, “Yes, pay the tax,” then he has fallen into one side of the trap, the quietist/collaborationist side. In fact, however, Mark tells us that Jesus’s interlocutors, far from gleefully celebrating his answer, are “utterly amazed” by it. Why so? His answer is a riddle that throws the task of discernment back on the questioners, forcing them to offer a discernment about what in fact belongs to God. The key to understanding the passage lies in the often overlooked fact that Jesus does not immediately respond to the question with a pithy aphorism; rather, he first challenges the questioner’s motives (“Why do you put me to the test?”) and then demands that the questioners bring him a denarius. When they comply, he puts a question to them: “Whose image (eikon) is this, and whose inscription?” Only after they have given the obvious answer does Jesus spring his own trap back on them by stating in a pointed imperative that the (unclean, idolatrous) object with Caesar’s eikon on it should be summarily returned to its owner, while “the things that belong to God” should be truly rendered to him.
But what belongs to God? The full force of Jesus’s reply sinks in only when we recognize that the word eikon echoes the creation story of Genesis, in which we learn that God created human beings according to his own image (κατ´εικονα θεού, Gen. 1:17 LXX). With this echoing in our ears we will understand Jesus’ answer very differently: it summons all who hear this imperative to give back our created selves fully to the one whose image we bear. The question doesn’t simply deal with authority, it concerns ownership. That is why Jesus’ answer astonishes his questioners; by drawing on scriptural imagery it reminds us not only that everything belongs to God but that human beings in particular, who are made in his image, belong to him—and therefore not to Caesar.
This squares fully with the subversive polemic found throughout the gospel according to Mark: “Jesus is the true anointed king, the true ‘Son of God.’ Caesar is merely a pretender to a petty throne.” This is another subtle challenge to the primacy of Rome; a defense of the newly inaugurated, divinely instituted, kingdom of Jesus the Christ. The climactic moment comes three short chapters later when, who but a Roman official, is the first human being to declare, “Surely this man was the Son of God,” thus crowning him with the supreme imperial imprimatur.
Reading the story without listening to the narrative surrounding it, or the textual allusions undergirding it, boils all the juicy glory out of the passage; it renders down that delicious suet and dutifully gives the lard to Caesar. It it forgets the same basic principle which the Pharisees and Herodians forgot—the “fat belongs to the LORD” (Lev. 3:16).