Hypocrisy: Distorted Priorities

Hypocrisy: Distorted Priorities

Mark 12:13-17

Decade’s ago, in the period of the writer’s early life as minister, he had “imaginary conversations.” Mentally he would place himself in specific circumstances. Usually those circumstances revolved around someone who disagreed with a conclusion he reached or a conviction he held. He would imagine a hostile confrontation with an imaginary antagonist. In that confrontation, his mind’s “ear” would hear charges or accusations. Then he would consider how he would react to the charge. Commonly, he would search for the “perfect question” that would irrefutably reveal the “heart of the matter.”

In those days the writer misunderstood 1 Peter 3:15. He took Peter’s statement out of context. Unquestioningly, he took the passage to mean Christians constantly should be ready to defend our positions rather than explain our hope.

Our text presents an incident in which the Pharisees and Herodians confronted Jesus. Carefully note their motive. They did not come to understand. They did not even come to have a healthy disagreement. They came to “trap Jesus in a statement.” This was a premeditated attempt to destroy the credibility of God’s son! They thought they had the “perfect question” to create an inescapable trap. No matter how Jesus answered the question, they were certain his statement would place him in difficult circumstances. After all, that was the objective! The objective was not determining truth. The objective was discrediting a formidable opponent. If the Roman authorities were upset with his answer, fine! If Jewish followers rejected Jesus, wonderful! The Pharisees and Herodians were certain whatever the answer, it would discredit Jesus. This is a classic example of demanding a “yes or no” answer to a question that cannot be answered with either a yes or no!

To grasp why the Pharisees and Herodians thought they had the “perfect question” to either hurt Jesus’ ministry or to publicly defeat him, we must understand the situation.

Jewish nationalism was a powerful, emotional force in first century Jewish society. It commonly evoked powerful feelings among the Jewish people. The fact they were under Roman control was deeply offensive. About 40 years after this incident, 960 Jewish men, women, and children willingly submitted to suicide in order to rob the Roman troops of the joy of victory. These Jewish people endured a three year Roman siege at Massada at the end of the Jewish revolt. When it was evident the Roman forces would breech Masada’s defenses, these Jewish people decided to commit mass suicide rather than be captured or surrender. Roman control of Palestine was an emotional issue at the time of this question. The intensity of the question would increase, not diminish.

The Roman forces were determined to control Palestine. For a long period they tried to maintain a quiet control. However, Jewish emotional responses [especially from radical Jewish forces] continued to pressure the issue. With the Romans, total independence was never an option. Rejection of Roman control was accepted by Roman rulers for what it was – rejection of Roman control.

The “perfect” question: “Should Jews pay taxes to Romans?” If Jesus said, “Yes,” affirming the Roman right of taxation, he would alienate many followers and open himself to criticism as a Roman sympathizer. If he said, “no,” rejecting Roman civil authority and control, he faced immediate difficulty with Roman authorities. As far as the Pharisees and Herodians were concerned, there was no “good” answer to the “perfect” question. Jesus would be trapped by his own answer.

Note the “set up,” the way they tried to maneuver Jesus into the trap. They wanted Jesus to answer their “perfect” question! They were determined to make it impossible for Jesus to evade the question! “We know you are truthful. We know you address any situation, regardless of the people involved. You do not show partiality. You are concerned only with God’s truth.”

What they said about Jesus was true. He was truthful, impartial, denounced evil even if it were committed by a prominent person, and was only concerned about God’s views. However, their motives for making these observations were evil. They were not seeking God’s truth. They were confronting and hopefully destroying an opponent.

To see the contrast, notice what Jesus did not say. He did not say, “Do you know who I am? I know what your motives and thoughts are!” Was he God’s son? Yes! Did he know what they were attempting to do? Yes! He did not pull authority on them. “I have the power to put you in your place! I am speaking for God!” Did he have that power? Yes! Did he speak for God? Yes! Nor did he say, “If you people had any idea of whom you are messing with, you would back off!” He did not make it a faithfulness issue nor an identity issue.

Note what Jesus did. He dealt with the real issue. He did not reduce the issue to personalities, or power, or objectives, or a defense of himself. The issue was about God, not about him. Though he knew what the Pharisees and Herodians were seeking to do, he dealt with the foundation of the question. As a result, his answer continues to influence our thinking 2000 years later.

He called for a denarius. It was a Roman silver coin commonly represented a day’s wages. When the coin was given to him, he asked, “Whose image and inscription is on this coin?” They answered, “Caesar’s” [the Roman emperor’s]. He replied, “Give to the Roman emperor things that exist by his command, and to God the things that fulfill His command.” The denarius existed because Caesar had the authority to issue the coin. God’s concerns were not focused on who ruled Palestine [as certain as the Jews and the Romans were about this being a major divine concern!]. Who had the right to issue and collect taxes was not a matter of divine concern. God’s concerns for human life ran much deeper than who issued taxes and who paid taxes. Honoring God cannot be reduced to paying taxes!

The hypocrisy: declaring something was of major concern to God when it was not. The Pharisees and Herodians were seeking to discredit God’s own son by appealing to an emotional issue not on God’s high priority list [because it was on the Jews’ high priority list, they assumed it was on God’s]. The issue of the motives of those who claimed to represent God were of much greater concern to God than was the issue of Roman taxation.

We need to exercise grave care when we represent God’s issues to make certain they are God’s issues, and not ours. To substitute our concerns for God’s issues is hypocrisy.


  1. Why did the Pharisees and the Herodians consider their question about taxes the “perfect question”? Why was taxation such a controversial subject in Palestine?
  2. What is the difference between seeking truth and “setting someone up”?
  3. In this incident, what was the hypocrisy?