Our world is not that different to Jesus’ world. It is riddled with social, political and cultural divisions. This can create a tribalistic social context that is combative and hostile. Jesus can not only empathise with this; he experienced it. Jesus also offers a pathway forward.
In Mark 11, Jesus’ enemies try to trap him with a thorny question. After evading the trap, Jesus tells a parable against those religious leaders who just tried to ensnare him. In response, they try to trap him three times in chapter 12. The first of those, which is well known, will be our focus.
But before we get to that, the word used for “trap” is a word to describe hunting and catching animals for food. Jesus’ enemies were trying to bait and snare Jesus like an animal, before having him killed.
How does Jesus defuse the combative and hostile atmosphere? And how might that apply in our tribalistic culture?
The first trap
Here is the first trap: Jesus’ enemies ask, “Is it right to give the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we give it or shouldn’t we?” (Mark 12:14-15).
The question is crafted with evil genius.
Talk about a hot-button issue in Jesus’ time. When the Romans introduced their imperial tax in AD 6 in Judea, it immediately provoked a Jewish revolt led by Judas of Galilee. But the Romans mercilessly crushed the revolt. Sixty years later, in AD 66, there was another Jewish revolt attempting to overthrow the Romans. That led to the Romans defeating the rebellion, flattening Jerusalem, killing thousands and destroying the Temple.
Jesus is being asked this question roughly in the middle of this past and future violent and bloody rebellion. The situation was a powder keg. And there were presumably Roman soldiers standing within eyesight of this conversation.
The question is crafted with evil genius because it is a lose-lose situation. If Jesus said “no – we shouldn’t give to Caesar”, he would likely have been arrested as an insurrectionist for fostering rebellion and be executed. If Jesus said “yes”, the Jewish people would view him as a traitor and his public reputation would be ruined, ending his ministry. This trap is nefariously clever.
In recent years, Christians have been divided over a range of hot-button issues.
Ancient Israel and modern Australia
The social background to this question is what ties it with our own time. Let me explain.
Jesus’ fellow Jews in Israel held very strong but different views about the Roman Empire. Some – the Zealots – wanted to violently overthrow them. Others – the Essenes – thought it best to withdraw away from Roman-governed mainstream society because it was spiritually polluted and morally bankrupt. Others – the Herodians – were happy to pragmatically conspire with the Roman authorities for personal gain. And there were other views, too.
The issue was simultaneously emotive, divisive and very important. Whatever your views on this issue, they would make you unpopular with someone. Credit to Jesus’ enemies; it was a brilliant trap. Jesus – the greater genius – rightly asks, “Why are you trying to trap me?”
The precise issues in Jesus’ day that caused division among God’s people are different to those in our day. But the parallels are instructive. In recent years, Christians have been divided over a range of hot-button issues: vaccination, lockdowns, Black Lives Matter, the Voice, liberal vs labour, and many more.
These are big, important and divisive issues. So was Roman rule of Israel in Jesus’ day.
Our cultural system is set up to bait and trap us.
I happen to have some strong views on several of our current issues. I’m sure you do too.
Our culture is a funny thing. Today some issue that virtually no one talked about a year ago suddenly is the “in thing”, and many feel pressured to have an opinion about it. Then in a few months or a few years, another issue takes the spotlight. And so on.
In this passage, individuals were trying to trap Jesus. In our culture, I believe there is a spiritual power called tribalism that seeks to trap us. For our context, a working definition of tribalism is “loyalty to those with our socio-political views combined with strong negative feelings for people with other views”. Tribalism seeks to turn people against each other.
Our cultural system is set up to bait and trap us, so that we dig our heels in on a particular issue or a range of issues.
Then, because many people have poor conflict resolution skills, and on social media conflict resolution is both impossible and undesirable, our culture presses us into an “us vs them” situation. Demonic principalities and powers try to bait and trap us into an “us versus them” tribalism, so that we view the other group of people as the enemy.
He pointed his finger firmly at me, grinned and interrupted.
In his book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, Thaddeus J. Williams observes: “The rules of our current cultural moment … [are] little more than a self-righteous exercise in dehumanising those we disagree with – expanding the chasm between a tribalised ‘us’ and a demonised ‘them’.” I suggest our response to this should follow that of Jesus: “Why are you trying to trap me?” (Mark 12:15).
Many years ago I was having a heated theological disagreement with a friend – I’ll call him Dave. He was a little older and more mature than me, but I was convinced my theology was right. After we went at it for a while, it was clear neither of us was going to persuade the other. He pointed his finger firmly at me, grinned and interrupted, “You know what bro, I love you.” I was so annoyed. I wanted to carry on the argument. I had more points to make. But, actually, he was discipling me into affirming what was more important. He schooled me. Our loving one another was more important than having to agree on that subject. I was annoyed at the time but, once I realised the Christlikeness I had just witnessed, I have been grateful ever since.
Christians will disagree with each other, just like everybody else will. But in this current cultural moment, we as Christians have a beautiful opportunity: to disagree without being disagreeable. To be known for disagreeing with people in a way that demonstrates love for the ‘other’ and humility about our own convictions.
It has never been a requirement of God’s people that we have identical theological and political convictions. Every hot-button topic is not a deal-breaker.
The conclusion is as obvious as it is brilliant.
Jesus’ genius answer
Our Master Jesus isn’t finished: “‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ And they were amazed at him” (Mark 12:15-17).
On the coin was the image of Tiberius Caesar, as everybody knew. According to ancient ways of thinking, the coinage not only was guaranteed by the Emperor but actually belonged to him. Therefore, no one who used the coin could object to paying taxes to Caesar.
By using the word “image”, his listeners would likely have immediately associated it with that famous verse from Genesis 1. There, God said he made human beings in God’s own image.
The conclusion is as obvious as it is brilliant. The coin bears Caesar’s image, so give back to Caesar what is his. You bear God’s image, so live in a way that honours the one who has proprietary rights over you.
Jesus’ wisdom sets aside tribalism, ancient and modern, and instead imparts life.
What is also brilliant about this answer is it has the potential to defuse the tribalistic division of “us vs them”. Jesus is reminding his hearers – and his questioners – of a game-changing truth by way of a question: “Who is made in God’s image?” All people. That radical democratising truth that all people are made in God’s image was, in the ancient world, unique and revolutionary. Crucially, that includes those you disagree with.
Trying to trap other people like animals dishonours people and the God in whose image they are made. In saying this, Jesus was reminding his questioners of their faith and their failure to follow it.
Similarly, allowing ourselves to be trapped by a tribalistic spiritual power into a “righteous us” versus a “demonised them” is compromising our faith. People, including those we disagree with, are to be treated with dignity, not demonised. This is true even when the issues matter a great deal.
Jesus’ wisdom sets aside tribalism, ancient and modern, and instead imparts life.
And Jesus’ answer also raises the issue of authority. But that’s a topic for next time …
Rev. Dr Adam Dodds is a Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Brisbane Campus of Alphacrucis University College, and Teaching Pastor at Nexus Church, Brisbane. He is also the author of Resilient: Spiritual Formation for Mind and Heart. Find out more about him here.