Mark 12:1-17: Whose Image, whose property, whose fruit?
Here, Jesus begins speaking in parables again, signifying further judgment on the priests, the scribes, and the elders (Mk. 4:11-12). Jesus has just finished enacting judgment: the triumphal entry, cursing the fig tree, clearing the temple, and instructing His disciples to pray for its destruction. His authority has been questioned, but He has authoritatively answered their quibbling. Jesus authority is from John the Baptizer, who received his authority from heaven.
This story is not foreign to his listeners. Jesus is taking up a well known story from Isaiah 5 (cf. Ps. 80). But Jesus has told it all wrong. And His enemies feel the force of His words (12:12). We understand the parable as well as His enemies did (v. 12): the owner of the vineyard is God, and His servants that He sends to tenants of the land are His prophets. The tenants are the established Israelite authorities: the priests and Levites, the elders, and the scribes. What is the owner seeking? He is seeking fruit (v. 2). What do the tenants want? They want the inheritance (v. 7) which presumably is the vineyard. Therefore their plan, to some extent all along, has been to kill the heir. To wound and kill the servants of the Master is already to set the course.
This parable reminds us of the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard where Ahab is consumed with greed and lust for Naboth’s real estate. Through the instrumentation of Jezebel and her political manipulating, he kills Naboth and steals the vineyard. One of the striking things about this event is Ahab’s response when he is confronted. Elijah comes down at the word of the Lord and confronts Ahab, declaring his destruction and the destruction of his house. And Ahab repents! (1 Kg. 21:27-29) We often remember Ahab for his great wickedness (and that’s fine), but it should be remembered that he repented (of this sin, at least) and God forgave him. But notice the striking difference of the priests, elders, and scribes. Unlike Ahab, when they are confronted with their sins of murder and theft, they “sought to lay hands on Him”.
Not Regarding Faces
So they send some philosophers and logicians in to try to tape Him saying something treacherous, talking like a zealot—because that would take care of Him quick. Like Jezebel, they hope to manipulate the system so as to rid themselves of this pesky upstart. So they come to Jesus and address Him as a teacher, but not just any teacher, a teacher that doesn’t care (v. 14). We know you don’t care about anybody except for God. We know you don’t give a rip. But this is all the lead up, the set up for the pitch. They want to load Jesus up with a reputation for not caring about anyone which by their estimation should include Caesar or it will turn the people against Him. But Jesus shoots through their rhetoric. Notice that He seems to not be familiar with a denarius or the image of Caesar. We trust that Jesus was educated enough to be familiar with these basics, and so the “lesson” is for the men who have asked the question—as though this is a “no-brainer”. Whose image and inscription is this? The humor or irony in this question is what has come before: The priests and their groupies are afraid of everyone: they fear Jesus (11:18), they feared the people who followed John (11:32), and they fear the multitude that is following Jesus (12:12). And this is the very thing Jesus refuses to do: he does not regard the “face” of any man. And with a subtle bit of wit, Jesus asks, who’s face is this? I don’t remember.
Of courses they know because they do regard faces. And Jesus answers, speaking the truth: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. This is a question about taxation, and therefore this is a statement about private property. Just as Jesus has just indicted the Jewish Leaders of murder and theft, so He is demanding that those things which bear the image of God be rendered unto Him, and those things which bear the image of Caesar are to be rendered unto Him. Given the political and cultural climate of the era in which Jesus ministered and taught, it is unlikely that the people listening would have missed the force of His statement. Every faithful Hebrew knew that man was made in the image of God, but every faithful Hebrew should have also had some conception of the Fall and restoration of that image (Gen. 5:1-3). The promised “seed” would restore the image fully, but until then, the descendents of Adam and Seth would carry the “image” until God raised up the “Seed”. In this sense, Israel itself, as God’s Son (Ex. 4:22-23) collectively bears the image of God. This explains the faithlessness of worshipping idols; it was an inherent claim that the image had been restored before it actual had. Look, here it is! Christ is the Seed; He is the restoration of the image. In Him we are being conformed to His image, being changed from glory to glory.
Therefore when Jesus tells His questioners to render unto Caesar and to render unto God, perhaps one of the central demands, Jesus is making is that they hand over the people of God. He is implying, to some degree, that these Jewish leaders are Pharaoh, enslaving God’s people and refusing to allow them to worship their God.
Conclusion and Application
This passage has a lot to do with property. Who does the vineyard belong to? Who lays claim to its fruit? Who’s people are you? Who are you to be rendered to? One of the lies that confronts us in this culture is the lie of autonomy; the lie that people are completely unfettered and therefore deserve to be free just because. But this is an irrational claim. Men, women and children do not have a natural, inherent right to be free. They are dust. Rather, it is the image of God in man that demands justice. It is the ownership of God that compels us to give freedom. But slavery is inescapable: the only question will be, ‘who is your master?’ Whose image and inscription do you bear? Slaves have always been branded by their masters, and it is no different in the Church.
You have been set apart in your baptism, in baptism, you were anointed, christened, made to be an image of the Messiah. And at that time: The Name of the Triune God was placed upon. Therefore you are now free from everything that restricts you from faithful worship of God. That bondage has been broken for ever, and you have been summoned to bear the image and name of God with all honor.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!