I remember the poll tax riots in the UK in 1990. The poll tax was hugely unpopular and a mass demonstration turned ugly and then into a riot on Trafalgar Square. In Jesus’ time the poll tax was a per person tax levied on citizens of occupied territories and was just unpopular. The main difference was that any rioters would be excecuted.
The Pharisees were Jewish experts on the Law passages of the Scriptures and hated the occupation by the Romans and any collaborators. The Herodians were the collaborators! Since Mark 3:6 there had been an alliance of the two groups who both hated Jesus. In the encounter of Mark 12, they are trying to trick Jesus into inciting a revolution so he can be executed.
If Jesus refuses to condemn the poll tax, the crowds will reject him as Messiah – they were expecting the Messiah to set them free from Rome. If Jesus opposes the tax, he can be handed over to the Roman governor to be executed.
So the question is posed – should we pay the poll tax to Caesar or not?
They are looking for Jesus to make
a political statement – the un-popular tax was paid by Jews and not Romans.
a religious statement – Roman coins of the time had a image of Emperor Tiberius and the blasphemous description “Son of the divine Augustus.”
a messianic statement – Centuries earlier Maccabees had made his triumphal entry to Jerusalem, overthrowing pagan rule.
Jesus knows this a trap, which he will deftly sidestep.
“Bring me a coin” – the denarius was a day’s wages, of course the disciples had a money bag with them (John 12:6), but by asking the Pharisees for a denarius, Jesus is exposing their hypocrisy. They have one and it is brought to Jesus.
Looking at the image and the blasphemous inscription, Jesus asks “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
Caesar’s they reply – so Jesus rephrase Maccabees slogan “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is Gods.”
It’s ambiguous and clever!
Is he supporting the Roman regime? No – he is calling Jews to send back Roman images to Rome, they have no place in the temple courtyards. (Maccabees kicked out pagan things from the Temple).
Is he inciting rebellion against the Roman regime? No. Unlike Maccabees this is not a revolution of vengeance but of holiness.
The crowd are amazed, surprised! The Messiah was expected to spearhead the fight against the Romans. Jesus is calling for a revolution against the idols we hold – give back what the world holds dear to the world and give yourself to God.