Solid Snippet Article #044

Death and Taxes

On Paying Taxes to Caesar
April 2013


‘Tis the season to give back in this month of April. Let the complaints about tax season fill the streets. No one likes paying taxes, especially when they don’t like the way the government governs. They might feel misrepresented or abused by a government that demands much and offers little. As I sit here in the midst of figuring out ministers’ taxes, which are notoriously difficult, I am thankful for my mom who has prepared taxes for years. I’m glad that she knows what she’s doing. It all seems so complicated!

But I’m reminded of one of my favorite moments in Jesus’ teaching when He went to Jerusalem for the last time before His death on the cross. We just celebrated Resurrection Sunday and most people are unaware that in that final week, Jesus covered a lot of ground in His teaching before that Thursday and Friday. In one of these instances, the Pharisees have found a new hobby, which is trying to trip Jesus up in His teaching to get the crowds on their side.

Pharisees tried to trap Jesus in teaching on everything from marriage to resurrection to taxes, and I think it would be fun to take a look at His teaching on taxes. I point out for Americans that the Constitution of the United States allows for the government to tax the people. However, the argument is how much until it’s oppressive and unfair? Let’s see the situation in Jesus’ day on taxes.

We can find this teaching in three of the four Gospels in Matthew 22:15-32, Mark 12:13-27 and Luke 20:20-38. We’re going to focus on Matthew’s account of the teaching, and we need a bit of background to understand the full nature of His teaching. Before we begin with the teaching itself, let me show you the situation that Jesus was placed in, between a rock and a hard place.

The groups listening in to Jesus’ teachings in Jerusalem already have an agenda against Him. They want Him gone and think that He is just on the cusp of blasphemy and heresy, and they want to help Him over the edge so that they can accuse Him in front of the people who adore Him and make Him popular. They are jealous of His popularity, and seek to destroy His reputation so that the people will once again listen to them teaching rather than Him.

Israel is currently controlled by the Roman Empire as part of the province of Palestine, and the king of Israel is a puppet for Rome. There are three types of people among the Jews in Israel. There are the Jews who are totally against Rome and its idolatry, like the Pharisees. They want their own independence. The second group is most of the people, who are neutral. The rulership of Rome has not affected their lives in a negative or positive way. It’s just reality. The third group are Roman collaborators and those who work directly with Roman interests or puppet rulers, like the Herodians.

They ask Jesus if they should pay taxes to Caesar. The catch-22 is that whether Jesus answers yes or no, He will anger one of the two extremist groups. If He says yes, then the Pharisees and the people in general will reject Him and his teachings because that’s not what they want to hear. The Messiah would protect and save them from Rome, not agree with Rome against them. If He says no, the Herodians and Roman collaborators will bring Him before Pilate and the Romans as an insurrectionist because He uses His influence to lead the people away from Rome, start riots and the like. It seems that Jesus can’t win.

But then, as He does in many of His teachings, He shuts all of their mouths from both extremes and affirms His godly wisdom through His answer. It starts with a false ultimatum, that they either pay or don’t pay. They don’t leave any openness to other options. So Jesus will challenge everyone when He responds, “Bring me a denarius.” Someone gets this common day’s wage coin and brings it to Him, and Jesus asks, “Whose image is on it?”

It is undeniable, even on our currency today, that each denomination is marked with someone’s face or name, or at least the name of the country. We used to always ask, when someone claimed ownership, “Is your name written on it?” To which I would generally grab a pen or sharpie and put my name on something. But Jesus is making a point much larger than the bickering of these groups.

Obviously, the Caesar’s image is on the coin, for it is minted by Rome, and as a declared god, the Caesar would own everything in Rome, and the Roman Empire. So the answer is simple. The people answer that it is Caesar’s image. So Jesus drops the bomb that blows their minds and calls them to action in this esoteric waste of time to trap Him. Instead, He traps them. He responds, “then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

I’m sure you could hear a pin drop. Jesus in one small statement makes a big point. God is not interested in money. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He is sovereign King over all of the Universe. He doesn’t need our money. He sees our hearts when we give sacrificially and cheerfully to Him, but giving is more about us learning to surrender than it is about keeping God in the black. We are told later in the New Testament to obey and honor the law of the land.

This would have put the Herodians and Roman collaborators at bay, because Jesus affirms, in their understanding, Rome’s cut of the financial lives of all in their Empire. However, the Pharisees are stuck with something harder to ponder than taxes. Though Jesus finishes with this statement, let us go into the mind of the common Jewish person who had at least studied the Torah, which would be everyone at the age of 12 or older in that crowd.

If the denarius has Caesar’s image on it, and that coin then belongs to him, what has God’s image on it, and so belongs to Him? The answer is found in Genesis chapter one. God said, “Let us make man in our own image” (Gen 1:26). This means that every human being bears God’s image, tainted by the Fall, but still there. This also means that while Rome can have their money, their very lives and person belong to God and are meant for His service. While they owe Caesar a bit of coin, they owe God everything. And the way that we all treat one another based on the fact that we all bear God’s image is how we “pay taxes” to God.

So two things are certain in this world, death and taxes. Taxes we pay to our government. Sometimes we might feel it is an unfair percentage, and we could be right, but taxes will always be here as we are served by some government as individuals. But we must also die to our selfish desires and learn to love other human beings. In another teaching close to this one, Jesus stresses that there are two great commandments. The first is to love God, and the second is like it, to love others. We owe it to God as His image bearers to respect others, if for no other reason than they bear God’s image.

The challenge is set before us. We bear God’s image, and so we belong to God. Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God your whole being, because you have His image imprinted upon you. He wants all of you, and He wants you to treat others with the same respect and kindness you would give to Him. We must all struggle to honor God’s image in others and to respect ourselves because we bear His image. The Pharisees were out for blood, and stopped dead in their tracks. No one could dispute His point. They put Jesus in vice grips, but He was the one bringing the pressure. Let us not feel the pressure of destroying God’s image in the way we treat one another!