If the Jewish political and religious authorities had been doing their jobs properly, they would not have felt threatened by Jesus’ ministry or popularity in Jerusalem. Given their failures to exercise godly leadership, as seen in Christ’s reference to them as the faithless tenant farmers in the parable of the tenants, the leaders did see Jesus as a threat to their power and position, and they sought to arrest Him (Mark 12:1–12). Today’s passage describes one attempt they made to trap Him and give them cause to arrest Him.
Not a little bit of irony is evident in the interchange between Jesus and “some of the Pharisees” and “some of the Herodians” (v. 13). These leaders approached Jesus with flattery, telling Him that He was true, did “not care about anyone’s opinion,” and taught “the way of God” (v. 14). Such words were actually true, though the opposition of the Pharisees and Herodians show that they did not believe Christ taught the way of God. The irony is seen in that since the words were true, Jesus would be the least likely person to be swayed by the opinion of the authorities or to be caught in their trap.
A second bit of irony is seen in the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ giving Jesus a denarius when He asked for one (vv. 15–16). First-century Jews, for the most part, did not embrace Roman rule enthusiastically. In fact, many considered the payment of Roman taxes to be a form of idolatry, particularly since the Roman coinage in which taxes were paid featured the image of the emperor and his title, which gave him the status of deity. The Pharisees and Herodians knew that if Jesus were to openly teach people to pay this tax, the Jewish citizens would be upset and would even stop listening to Him. But note that Jesus did not have the detested Roman coin on His person; His opponents, Jewish leaders who were supposed to be adamantly against idolatry, did. If paying Roman taxes was inherently idolatrous, the Jewish authorities were complicit, not Jesus.
But, of course, our Savior said that paying taxes to the secular government is not inherently idolatrous. Knowing that advocating nonpayment of taxes would arouse Roman ire and that advocating payment of taxes would arouse Jewish opposition, Christ instead took the opportunity to teach that believers can both fulfill what God demands and do what the state rightly demands (v. 17). Caesar—the government—has a designated place of authority, and Christians must submit to that authority and pay their taxes.