Question of the Tribute Money
Mark 12:13-17
And they send to him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.…

I. A SNARE LAID. This tribute money (κῆνσος)was the poll or capitation tax payable to the Roman Government, from the time Judaea became subject to the Roman power. Judas of Galilee headed a revolt against this tax, but perished with his followers. If our Lord allowed the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar, it would have compromised him with the Jewish nationalists, who would not have been slow to charge him with contempt of the Law of Moses for the words of Deuteronomy 17:15, "Thou mayest not set a stranger over thee," were explained by them as forbidding the payment of tribute to a foreign power. If he acknowledged the unlawfulness of such payment, he came into direct collision with the Roman authorities. In the one case, he offended the Judaean patriots and his own Gaiilean followers; in the other, he incensed the Herodian royalists who acquiesced in Roman rule. On the one side, it was treachery to national and patriotic aspirations and Messianic prospects; on the other, it was treason against the Roman Caesar and Pilate his governor. Such was the snare laid for him; such was the trap they set in order to catch him. Thus they thought to entangle him, rather, ensnare (παγιδεύσωσιν) him, in his talk, as a fowler ensnares a bird.


1. They put the question in such a categorical form as seemed to them to necessitate a simple "yea" or "nay; "thus, "Is it lawful to give tribute, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?" The double question is to emphasize their earnestness, and to invite a prompt reply, affirmative or negative; though the first question may refer to the lawfulness of the payment, and the second to its expediency or advisability.

2. The motive which actuated them to interrogate our Lord so peremptorily was most sinister and insidious. The evangelists, viewing their conduct from different standpoints, characterize it differently. This difference, which we discover by comparing the parallel passages, is most instructive. Their conduct in propounding this ensnaring interrogatory was wickedness according to the first evangelist; it was craftiness (πανουργίαν), according to the third; while, according to the second, it was hypocrisy (ὑπόκρισιν). Their question had a close connection with and combined all these three elements; it was conceived in wickedness, cradled in craftiness, and cloaked by hypocrisy. Thus the interrogators acted as spies, or "liers in wait" (ἐγκαθέτους), as St. Luke calls them, while they feigned themselves just men. Our Lord tore off their mask, exposing them in their true colors, and addressing them in their real character, when, according to St. Matthew, he says, "Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?"

3. The object they had in view was to embroil the Savior with the royalists, and so compass his destruction. For this purpose it is plain they desired a negative answer, as appears suggested by the words, "Thou regardest not the person of men," implying such fearlessness as would enable him to reject foreign authority as inconsistent with acknowledging God as their King. Their ulterior object, as stated by St. Luke, was "that they might take hold of his speech, so as to deliver him up to the power and to the authority of the governor;" in other words, to deliver him to the Roman power, rule, or magistracy (ἀρχῇ), and to the lawful authority or jurisdiction (ἐξουσία) of Pilate, the Roman procurator.

4. Necessity brings together strange companions. The Pharisees were as mean as they were unprincipled, and as untruthful as they were unprincipled and mean. They proved their want of principle by the unnatural coalition which they formed with the Herodians - the patriots so called who opposed foreign dominion with the elastic politicians who owned the Roman power; the foes with the friends of Caesar; sticklers for the Law with the supporters of an authority deemed inimical to the Law. Their meanness was manifest in the fulsome flattery with which they addressed our Lord; while in their base untruthfulness they pretended to approach him with a quasi-case of conscience, though in reality they were carrying out the counsel for his destruction.

III. THE SAVIOUR'S REPLY. Had he replied in the affirmative, he would have forfeited his popularity; had he answered in the negative, he would have forfeited his life. The latter was the consummation wished for by the members of this unholy alliance of superstition with political expediency. To give vividness to the transaction, our Lord ordered the production of a Roman penny, or denarius, a small silver coin of the value of sevenpence halfpenny, or eightpence halfpenny at most. On that coin was an image, the head of the then reigning sovereign, Tiberius, while round it ran the usual superscription or inscription, consisting of the name and titles of the emperor. Our Lord, as if in surprise, asks, half in irony and half in indignation, what all this meant, and whose it was? Their unavoidable answer was, "Caesar's;" and this very answer broke the snare, and the bird escaped out of the net of the fowler. Then said our Lord - Give back (ἀπόδοτε) to Caesar what belongs to him; pay back to Caesar what you acknowledge to be his. The coinage proves the king, the currency affords evidence of his property; while, on the other hand, you render to God the things that are his.

IV. IMPORTANT PRINCIPLE. This principle, so important and far-reaching, though plain enough in its general bearing, has been differently understood. Some have regarded the two parts of the answer as entirely distinct, as though belonging to different spheres, or placed on different planes, and so incapable of clashing or even coming in contact; as though he said, "Pay your taxes, and perform your religious duties, but keep the two things apart." More usually they are understood as two separate departments of human duty, coexisting and compatible; or as standing to each other in the relation of the part to the whole. According to the second of these three views, the payment of civil dues and the observance of religious duties stand side by side together, and as equally obligatory: that is, render to Caesar, as civil ruler, the obedience that belongs to him, and to God, as spiritual Sovereign, the homage of the soul stamped with the Divine image, and therefore his due; or, in a more literal and narrow sense, according to some, pay the civil taxes to the government of Caesar, and the didrachma, or temple-tribute, for the support of the sanctuary and service of God. We understand it in the larger sense of obedience to our earthly sovereign and duty to our heavenly King, as co-ordinate and coexistent, perfectly compatible but not competitive; or, according to the third view, the former may be regarded as part of the latter. This great principle, properly understood and acted on, would have prevented many an unseemly collision of Church and State, and many a sinful encroachment of one on the domain of the other. It would have prevented the papal power from trampling the crown of kings in the dust, as in the reign of John, and it would have prevented, on the other hand, the persecution of the Church by the State, as in the days of the Puritans. Our Lord intimated by his reply, that so long as the Jews were allowed to worship God according to his own appointment, and enjoyed the protection of the Roman power therein, they were under obligations to contribute to the taxes that supported that power. But these obligations to civil government were not to suspend, or set aside, or in any way interfere with the higher and holier obligations which they owed to God. Duty to God must be the regulating principle of duty to civil rulers; the latter is then part of, or rather part and parcel with, the former. Thus our Lord clearly indicated the respective provinces of civil rulers and of religious teachers - the relative positions of secular authority and spiritual power. Thus he solved the problem of two kings and two kingdoms in one realm; thus he taught obedience to civil governors in temporal things, while in spiritual their duty to God was paramount. No doubt many nice points may present themselves, and many delicate questions may arise in practically carrying out the principle stated; but we are not without light from other parts of Scripture to guide us in the application of this principle, even in cases of greatest difficulty. - J.J.G.

Parallel Verses
KJV: And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words.

WEB: They sent some of the Pharisees and of the Herodians to him, that they might trap him with words.

Moral Fearlessness
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