Jesus now comes into direct conflict with the religious authorities. He tells a parable about a vineyard and those who were given the task of caring for it. Instead of being good stewards of the vineyard making it productive on behalf of the owner, the tenants desire to have the vineyard for themselves, even resorting to killing the owner's son. Yet, in spite of this, the tenants are no match for the owner; he will take his vineyard back and throw out the caretakers who have been so careless and corrupt.
When Jesus is done telling his story, the implications are obvious. The religious leaders know he is speaking against them. God entrusted them with his vineyard (Israel) and they have mismanaged and failed to be responsible with their charge. Here the actions of Jesus in the Temple come back into view. God still owns the vineyard and will tend to it, but those who have been placed over it will be removed; but not before they kill the Son of God.
The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders want to arrest Jesus, but he is still quite popular with the masses. They leave, but they are not gone for good.
It is now their turn to test Jesus in the hope of leveling a charge against him. Some Pharisees and Herodians come to him in order "to trap him." Pharisees and Herodians did not get along. They were polar opposites in many way; but as it is said, politics and religion make strange bedfellows. It is also said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The Pharisees and the Herodians begin with empty flattery: "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality." Jesus, of course, is not taken in by their empty words. But, nevertheless, the question they ask Jesus is politically charged. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?"
They appear to have Jesus in a no-win situation. If he tells them to pay the tax, then he risks losing his following among his fellow Jews, who despise the tax and see it as a compromise with paganism. If Jesus recommends withholding the tax, then they have something to charge him with before Pilate. It is interesting to note that Jesus does not have the coin in question, but those who ask the question do, revealing their own hypocrisy.
As the image of Caesar is on the coin, says Jesus, give it to Caesar; but you give yourself, he continues, to God. Jesus is not saying that he likes the tax, but neither is he suggesting that the Jews start a tax revolt, which would bring the wrath of Rome down upon him.
The "image" imagery is clear. The coin that is in Caesar's image should be given to Caesar; but human beings, who are in the image of God, need to give themselves completely to God. Faithfulness to God, reflecting God's image in the world and to those around, even in undesirable circumstances, is what God requires.
It could be that there is a reminder here of the parable of the vineyard. Jesus has accused the religious authorities of not reflecting God's image in the world, and perhaps that is the suggestion here as well.
More testing for Jesus is now at hand. the Pharisees and the Herodians have been unsuccessful in tripping up Jesus. It is now the Sadducees' turn. They approach Jesus with the question concerning the resurrection. They really do not care what Jesus believes about husbands and wives in eternity. What they want to know is whether or not Jesus believes in the resurrection of the dead at all.
Mark tells us that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. This was just not an abstract theological debate amongst scholars who disagreed; the debate over the resurrection of the dead was just as politically charged as the argument over paying taxes to Caesar. The Sadducees rejected resurrection, among other reasons, because resurrection subversively suggested that God was going to bring renewal, that God was eventually going to topple kingdoms, including Rome. Those who have a stake in the status quo, who benefit from things staying the same, do not need God coming to rain on their parade.
Quoting from the Book of Exodus, which is found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), which were the only books the Sadducees accepted as authoritative, Jesus affirms his belief in this politically subversive doctrine. Of course, most of Jesus' fellow Jews believe in resurrection as well, so while there can be no charge for which to accuse Jesus, at least, they know where he stands.
After Jesus is given one more question concerning the greatest commandment, and then he in turn denounces the scribes, he and his disciples behold the sight of the very wealthy putting in large sums of money into the Temple treasury. After them comes a very poor and elderly widow, who deposits two of the least valuable coins possible; an amount that will obviously go unnoticed as the money is counted.
But Jesus notices; in fact, he responds to this act by telling his disciples something that they, no doubt, found hard to believe. "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
The contrast cannot be seen more clearly, not only in reference to the wealthy contributing their leftovers, but in contradistinction to the religious authorities throughout the chapter, who unlike this widow, have failed to be faithful, even though God has entrusted them with much. She in her poverty has pleased God; she is a faithful part of the vineyard that God loves.