Jesus 2020: Taxes

Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22

If you grew up in the US, you probably sometime in high school read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), written about his retreat from the materialism of society to the isolation and supposed self-sufficiency of the woods. One thing you may not know about Thoreau is that he once went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes. The tax in question was a poll tax, or head tax, levied on every individual without regard to income, and his objection was that this money would go to fund an imperialistic war with Mexico and a government that permitted slavery.[1]

Thoreau only spent one night in jail. A relative ended up paying the tax for him. Thoreau wrote his essay Civil Disobedience from the experience. Still, the event illustrates what we probably already know, and that is that taxes can be polarizing. We can, of course, go much more modern with this: like to the most recent tax reform enacted by Congress and the Trump administration, which some of us may have feelings about one way or the other; or we could talk about President Trump’s tax returns themselves (but we won’t!) As the saying goes, nothing is certain but death and taxes – and (I’ll add) the fact that we’re going to disagree about taxes. We disagree on who should pay them (is it right for the wealthy to pay a high percentage of their income?) how high they should be, and what they should go to. (Ongoing military action in the Middle East? Various social services? Abortion?)

Unsurprisingly, taxes were also controversial back in Jesus’ day.

The taxes in question would not have been taxes levied by a democratic government on its people, however begrudging, for the supposed common good. The tax in question was a tax paid to the Roman Empire by those in its conquered territories, for the privilege of having been conquered. It was payable by every adult male. Remember in the Christmas story when Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census? No one in that story is conducting a census for the purposes of ensuring equal representation. It’s to make sure everyone pays their taxes. And obviously people in Judea who were not so keen on being ruled by Rome were not so keen on paying taxes to them, either.

It’s an interesting crew of people who approach Jesus today with a question about this tax. They are disciples of the Pharisees, who we have come to know if not love over the past few weeks, but they also add some so-called Herodians to the mix. The Herodians were a group that politically supported Herod, the local king who was underwritten by Rome. They would have supported paying Roman taxes. The Pharisees, however, were known NOT to support paying taxes to Rome. They still paid them. They didn’t actively resist. They were just grumpy about it.[2]

What these two groups have in common is they don’t so much like Jesus, so, they come together to trap him.

They begin by buttering him up. “Teacher, we know that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth!” (We might imagine Jesus rolling his eyes here.) They continue, “So tell us. Should we pay taxes to the emperor – or not?”

It’s tricky ground. If Jesus says no, he is inciting rebellion. Not paying taxes is tantamount to rebellion, right – remember the Boston Tea Party? He would give the Roman government reason to arrest him. The risk is presumably more than a night in the county jail. If he says yes, that’s really not going to go over well with the masses of common people who follow him and see him as some sort of resistance leader.

The best way to get out of a trap is to answer a question with a question, and that’s what Jesus does. “Why are you doing this, you hypocrites?” he asks. (That’s not the main question.) “Show me the coin you pay the tax with.” It is a Roman coin, of course. They have one at the ready. “Whose face is on that coin?” he asks.

I imagine this is the point when the Pharisees and Herodians begin to suspect they are not going to win here. “…the emperor’s,” they say.

Jesus responds with this famous line: “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” You might know it better from the old King James: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.”

His opponents have nothing more to say, and they leave, leaving us to grapple with this answer.

On the one hand, Jesus seems to say, yes, pay your taxes. And that’s how many Christians over the years have taken it: we can be faithful Christians and also good citizens of the empire of which we are a part. Perhaps we read this and understand that life can divided into two spheres, the worldly and the religious. In one, we pay our taxes and vote and argue about public policy, and in the other we go to church and sing hymns and read our Bible. Caesar gets his due, and God gets God’s, and everyone is happy.[3]

But I wonder if we’re missing something there. I wonder if end up focusing too much on the first part of Jesus’ answer: Render unto Caesar – and not enough on the second half: Render unto God.

Because what is that which is God’s?

Psalm 89 puts it this way: “The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it – you founded them.”

What is that which is God’s? Everything. The whole world. Our whole lives.

It’s almost as if Jesus says, “You’re asking me about paying taxes, but you’re missing the bigger question here.”

And it is a bigger question, isn’t it? Because no matter how we feel about it, paying taxes is easy – in the sense that we at least know how to do it. We usually know what Caesar wants from us. But what is that which is God’s? It’s not enough to just say “everything” and not have to think out the specifics. Our time belongs to God. Our gifts and resources belong to God. Our best intentions, our ultimate loyalties, belong to God. Our day to day actions and insignificant moments belong to God.

What does it matter to owe Caesar a coin, Jesus wants to know, when we owe God so much more?

We might hear Jesus’ answer as a rebuke to these hypocrites, who have Roman coins in their pockets the whole time.[4] They come with a question about taxes, but they are already participating in the whole oppressive Roman economic system. Maybe Jesus’ whole point is to show that Caesar has already gotten what he wants from them. Taxes or no taxes, they are already his.

Or maybe we are simply to understand that taxes are not the important question here. We should give Caesar his due. Not, in this case, because the emperor is good, but because there are simply bigger fish to fry than quibbling about coins that have his face on it in the first place. Maybe the claims of God and Caesar don’t always have to compete.

But sometimes they will.[5]

The hard part is that if what is God’s is everything, then that also includes the things Caesar claims for himself. Our money, in the end, belongs to God. The way we live life within a certain community or state or nation belongs to God. Our votes, and our politics belong to God, just as much as our personal lives and relationships and our prayers.

It is clear, when the two halves of Jesus’ answer collide, who wins: not a king who conquers and subjugates, but the very maker of heaven and earth and all that is in them.

I had trouble figuring out how to end this today, and I think the reason is that the statement is just meant to hang there. The Pharisees and Herodians leave because they have nothing to say. They know Jesus just said something biting and poignant and true, and they have to go figure out what it is.

I think that’s the invitation that Jesus has for all of us: to let it hang there. Give to God what is God’s. To let that statement question our days and our moments, our big decisions and our seemingly insignificant choices.

To the one who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them and all of us, be all honor and glory. Amen.


[2] New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, p. 420.

[3] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 254.

[4] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 254.

[5] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 255.

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