The only things that are certain are death and taxes.
At least, that’s how the old saying, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, goes.
As Christians, we are much less certain of death, since we expect that one generation will meet the returning Christ without first dying.
At times, some Christians argue that taxes should not be certain, either. Usually, the objection to paying taxes is framed as concern for an unjust practice that is funded by taxation. However, those objections do not stand up to the testimony of Scripture, particularly in the life of Christ. According to Christ, we are required to pay taxes, but we are also required to fight for justice.
Jesus Tells Us to Pay the Tax
Toward the end of his earthly ministry, the religious leaders tried to trip Jesus up a number of times by posing questions designed to trick him into violating their religious presuppositions. In one case, which is documented in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26, the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking whether faithful Jews should pay taxes.
According to Leon Morris, the tax in question was probably a poll tax. Some of the faithful Jews believed paying tax to a gentile to be a violation of the law (cf. Deuteronomy 17:15), while others simply disliked paying a tax that served to enrich their Roman rulers to their own detriment.
Custom duties were disliked, but at least on paying them one got something, the right to take goods to their destination. But with the poll tax there was no such benefit. It was a tax that simply removed money from the citizen and transferred it to the emperor’s coffers with no benefit to the citizen. And if it were retorted that it paid the expenses of government, the answer would surely be that no Jew wanted Roman government and every Jew would be happy to dispense with it. (Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992], 556)
Adding insult to injury, the unwanted tax had to be paid with a Roman coin with the emperor’s likeness on it, which conflicted with some interpretations of the Second Commandment.
Taxes are never popular, but this tax in particular required using an unwelcome currency to finance the oppression from which Abraham’s descendants would have loved to be free. The people were being forced to finance the injustices directed toward them, not least the unjust execution of Christ himself.
Jesus’ response is particularly important for our own day, as we object to actions funded directly or indirectly by the government.
As happened each time someone attempted to entrap the Son of God, Jesus avoids the dilemma and sets a precedent for Christians to follow.
Jesus tells the crowd quite clearly they are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (v. 21a). This is a statement universally understood as being instruction to pay the tax, which is required by the government that God authorized (cf. Romans 13:1-7).
The command to pay taxes has at least two logical implications:
- First, Christians do not incur guilt by paying taxes, even if the government commits injustice with the funds. Arguing an immediate link between paying taxes and sin puts your Christology in question.
- Second, Christians actively sin by not paying taxes, even if they don’t want to. Jesus does not provide an out for frustration with spending allocations that are intrusive or wasteful.
Therefore, Christians should pay taxes if they are able.
A Radical Call to Justice
There is something else radical in what Jesus says. He makes it clear that there are parts of the lives of his hearers over which the government has no jurisdiction.
Immediately after affirming the duty to pay taxes to the oppressor, Jesus tells the Jews to render to “God the things that are God’s” (v. 21b).
To American ears in a post-Enlightenment world that values individuals’ rights, Jesus’ statements are benign. However, in an ancient context that presumed the ruler owned his or her people, the idea that entire allegiance is not due to the emperor was noteworthy.
Today, as some elements of society actively pursue greater government control of religious practices and reduction in conscience rights, we should be reassured that while we have to submit to the unpopular, we are not required to obey the unethical. Our allegiance to God is logically prior to our duty to our nation.
In our contemporary context, this means that, while we are required to pay taxes we do not like and that are used for injustice, we have both freedom and duty to fight for justice. That may include reforming the tax code, refusing to obey laws that are unethical or simply lobbying against some government spending.
We have a duty to pay our taxes, but we also have the opportunity to pursue the most just use of those funds we can through the means available to us.
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