What side are you on?
That question can be used in many different conversations. It can be used to ask who someone will support in the upcoming election. It can be used when are friends are fighting and they ask us to be the referee. It can also be used to determine who we will be cheering for in the upcoming football game between Kentucky and Louisville.
So, what side are you on?
Most likely, we have asked this question and it has been asked of us. When asked, this question puts us on edge and instantly creates tension in a conversation. That is the question’s purpose. When we ask someone what side they are on we create a division between two or more sides, regardless if it is sides of an opinion or disagreement. The question intends to create a rhetorical line between the questioner and responder. The questioner’s hope is that the respondent will join “their side.” The responder is left with a choice. They can join this side or choose another. Either choice the respondent makes could affect that relationship.
We are familiar with this type of question, especially in our culture that is often defined by divisions. Our culture, unintentionally and intentionally, desires that all of our conversations and engagements of issues to be set in the posture of “us versus them.” It is an argumentative ploy that suggests that there is the “right” side and “wrong” side to every conversation and that there are always “winners” and “losers” in every discussion. It doesn’t matter if it is politics, the workplace, or even the mission of the church, we live in a time where any discussion can be placed within the constraints of “my side” and “their side.”
Divisive questions can often set us in a trap. The trap is this: By taking a side we could end up alienating ourselves from another person or group. Take the wrong side or support the wrong group and you could face several consequences. You could alienate yourself from friends or other groups of support. As well, you could jeopardize your own values and morals. When we are pressed with questions like this, we must be wise and mindful that of the potential trap and address it with grace.
Our passage this morning is similar to these conversations and trapping situations. In Mark 12:13-17, a group of Pharisees and Herodians wanted to trap Jesus. They wanted to arrest him, stop his teaching, and reduce the number of his followers. Their plan was to have Jesus take a side on a fiercely debated political issue that had religious significance to the Jews. When Jesus took a side, their plan was that the “losing” side would arrest Jesus for causing a rebellion. What we see is that Jesus rises above the trap and by doing so gives us guidance on how we can rise above attempts to create divisions within our circle of friends, society, and the church.
It begins when “the leaders” send a group of Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus. For Mark, “the leaders” represented the religious leaders of the time. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes had something to gain by having Jesus arrested. Jesus’ presence and teaching challenged their authority and power. This is among the reasons why the leaders constantly questioned Jesus’ teaching and authority. This particular attempt is the second in a series of four moments of direct questioning. Each of these questionings occurred during the Holy Week, which is the week leading to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
On this occasion, a select group of Pharisees and Herodians would try to trap Jesus on a question of law that also had significant political implications. The question was about whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. The specific tax in question involved the Roman census, which was enacted by the first Roman governor of Judea in approximately 6 AD. Since Jerusalem was under Roman rule everyone in Judea was required to pay the tax. This included the Jews.
This was a controversial tax and everyone had an opinion on whether it should be paid, which includes those in the middle of this story. The Pharisees believed in a strict observance to the law, which was found in Scripture (in the Old Testament). Since the coin used to pay the tax had Caesar’s image engrained in the coin they would have been opposed to paying the tax. They would have considered the coin an idol and against the commands of Exodus 20:4. While little is known about the Herodians other than they were supporters of Herod, we can assume they were supporters of the Roman authority. They would have said that paying the tax was legal and appropriate. While Mark does not directly discuss them, there is another group that has an interest in how Jesus would respond. They were the Zealots, which were a group of Jewish rebels who desired a revolution against the Roman rule in Jerusalem. Most of the Zealots came from Galilee, which was Jesus’ earthly home area and where many of his followers lived. At least one of his disciples, Simon, was associated with this group and many of his followers were likely familiar with or committed to its principles.
Each side or group had an interest in how Jesus would respond to the question, “[I]s it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” You can feel the tension as the Pharisee and Herodian ask it. You can sense the Zealots looking on to see if Jesus was with them and would take on the cause of the revolution. Notice what each of these groups had in common. All sides were more interested in their agenda or opinion than they were about truly following whatever Jesus had to say.
This situation is too familiar to us. We have perfected the trap that the Pharisees, Herodians and even the Zealots have attempt to lay down for Jesus to enter into. We try to trap Jesus by saying he is on our side. Also, we question how Jesus would respond to a given situation with the hope he would accept our view against the view of others. Why do we do this? It is because we desire to see ourselves as the judge and ultimate decider in all matters. Paul warns against this in Romans 2:1. When warning against judging he says, “You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse!” When we hear Jesus’ response, we have to see ourselves as the person trying to trap Jesus, because often this is how we approach our relationship with Christ.
Jesus immediately sees that these groups were trying to trap him. He calls them on it and challenges their hypocrisy, which means saying one thing and then doing something else. It was blatant in this story. The Pharisee carried with him a coin that had Caesar’s image on it. This was the same coin a Pharisee would have considered to be against the law. Where are we like the Pharisee in this story? Where are we hypocritical in our relationship with Christ? Where are we not practicing what we say we do? As well, where are we asking Christ to weigh in on something with no desire to live by Christ’s teaching and desires? A life defined by hypocrisy challenges our integrity and prevents us from truly experiencing a deep relationship with Christ.
Jesus stays above the attempt to trap him and cause a division. He does so by not directly answering their question, and, thus, shows us a deeper way. Jesus says, “[G]ive to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” He says Caesar has every right to impose a tax, but he doesn’t address whether a Jewish person should pay it. According to Lamar Williamson, Jr., this frees him from the potential trap. How a person responds to paying the tax is left to their own theological engagement and relationship with Christ that is influenced by the second half of the answer. In saying we are to give to God what is God, Jesus says we are to give everything we are to God. We are to place our allegiance with God above any desire or allegiance we might have.
Why does Jesus say this? He says it because we have been marked with an image greater than Caesar’s image on a coin. We are made in the image of God, which is part of who we are. Because we carry this image with us, we are called to give our entire lives over to God. We are God’s and are called to live a life in response to that relationship. This relationship and marking is more important than any of our allegiances, any side that we could develop, or any agenda we could advance. Everything in on our life is secondary to this relationship. Our entire lives are to be lived in response to God’s great love, which is expressed through faith in Christ.
Jesus makes it clear we are God’s and it should call us to move away from attempts to create division and set up sides in our societies. Our deepest desire should be to seek the Kingdom of God. When faced with the temptation to place obedience to Christ as a matter of “us versus them” or the desire to say Christ is on our side, we must be willing to pause and ask ourselves where our allegiance is truly at. Is it with Christ or is it with me? If it is with ourselves, then we will find things broken and shattered. When we place our desire to truly and deeply follow Christ, and to allow all things to be dictated by that relationship, we will see boundaries break down, doors open, and opportunities for deep ministry created. We may not always get what we want, but it is not about us. It is about being aligned with Christ and having Christ be our first allegiance.
Our allegiance can be found by looking in the depths of our soul. Who are you living for? Who are you attempting to honor? Who are you wanting to praise? Who are you yearning for? How you answer these questions shows if you are living as someone who recognizes that you are God’s or someone who desires to live for our own wants, desires, or agendas.
Considering this, maybe we should hear again the question I opened the sermon time with. This time, we can say it differently. Instead of asking about what side we are on, perhaps I should ask each of us this: Where is your allegiance? Is it with yourself or is it with Christ?