Mk 12:13-17 The Pharisees and supporters of Herod Antipas try to trick Jesus by asking him, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Mark 12:14)
Some years earlier, in 6AD, Judas the Galilean – a rabbi with his own group of followers (see Acts 5:37) – had led a rebellion against the Romans claiming that truly religious Jews shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar, an earthly king who was worshipped as a god. His views were still widely held by Jewish nationalists.
Jesus asks the Pharisees to produce a denarius – a small silver coin with the Roman emperor’s head on it, worth about a day’s wages. Jesus shows them the portrait and says, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
A silver denarius
Jews were used to paying the Temple tax in pure silver coins that did not bear the name of any earthly king. Half shekels or shekels (the equivalent of two Roman denarii and four denarii), minted originally in Tyre, but later issued by the Jewish authorities themselves, were the only coins acceptable to the priests, because they didn’t carry the portrait of an earthly ruler. Jewish pilgrims had to change their denarii (showing Caesar’s head) into shekels in order to pay their half shekel Temple tax (see Mark 11:15). Jesus is making the point that coins bearing the Emperor’s head can be used legitimately by Jews to pay Roman taxes, but coins without an earthly ruler’s portrait (the silver shekels used to pay the Temple tax) belong to God.
Loving your neighbour
Mk 12:28-32 One of the teachers of the Jewish law asks Jesus which is the most important commandment? Jesus replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (Mark 12:30) (see Deuteronomy 6:4-5). “The second command is this: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’.” (Mark 12:31) (see Leviticus 19:18). The teacher congratulates Jesus, adding, “These commands are more important than all the animals and sacrifices we offer to God” (Mark 12:33).
Teaching about giving
Mk 12:41-44 Jesus watches the crowds throwing their offerings for the upkeep of the Temple into the collection chests by the steps in the Court of the Women (see Map 12).
Many rich people throw in large amounts, but a poor widow puts in two tiny copper coins (leptas) worth very little. Jesus observes that the widow has put more into the treasury than all the others – for they’ve given just a little of their great wealth; but she’s given “all she had to live on” (Mark 12:44)