Two decades ago, when we were both young and dangerous, one of the first jobs my wife held was as a collections officer for the Internal Revenue Service. For several years, she was sent to pry Uncle Sam's due from tax dodgers and protesters in rural Appalachia. They may have grumbled, but it turned out not to be a fair match; she gave no quarter and usually came back with the dollars.
Looking back, it sticks with me that people offered her plenty of excuses for not paying their income tax. They didn't believe in it. They needed the money to buy a house or a new car. The government was too big or sloppy or intrusive or misguided. Generally, they just felt entitled not to pay their share, and as I watched my wife work and heard their stories, I came to have less sympathy for that sense of entitlement. I had to pay; why shouldn't they?
Maybe you disagree. Certainly these excuses are still used, and last year's political scandal that led to the hasty retirement of a high-ranking IRS official just added another one to the stack. Many of us would love to rationalize our way out of this civic obligation; if they didn't make us pay it, we wouldn't. My wife is out of the business, but there will always be job security for IRS collections officers.
Whatever Americans think about the fairness of having to pay federal taxes, though, first-century residents of Judea certainly had more reason to gripe. An occupying army of Roman soldiers had invaded the country with much bloodshed and cultural upheaval, and taxes were not paid to demonstrate good citizenship so much as to stay alive.
And so, in Matthew 22, some Pharisees lay out a trap by asking Jesus whether it is right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar.
This is a good trap. If Jesus says no, he risks joining the long line of dead instigators against Roman rule. If Jesus says yes, he risks joining the long line of impotent prophets with little to offer a proud people languishing under the occupation.
Either way, the Pharisees know, the power of Jesus will be deflated once they spin his "no" to the Romans or his "yes" to the Jews.
This leads us to verse 18: "But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, 'You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.'
"They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, 'Whose image is this? And whose inscription?'
"'Caesar's,' they replied.
"Then he said to them, 'So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.' When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away."
Yes, at a simple level this answer probably means that a follower of Jesus should pay the tax required by today's equivalent of Caesar, even if Caesar is corrupt - even if the money isn't going to make it to Caesar because the corruption is multi-layered.
Most of us would reasonably interpret the equivalent of Caesar to mean our federal, state and local governments. And while American currency is inscribed "In God We Trust," that fine print on the backside pales compared to the big portrait of a famous political leader on the front.
Hmm. There appears to be no way out of paying up.
To take the comparison an absurd step farther, remember that in America today, Caesar's Palace is actually in Las Vegas. Maybe we could hypothesize that the equivalent of paying off Caesar Augustus is to turn over a percentage of your denarii to the extravagant, risky, flashy, sexist, silly lifestyle represented by what happens in Vegas. I'm not recommending this, but you can see how even paying taxes to Vegas might be parallel with what some devout Jews thought of turning over their coins to Rome. And still Jesus told them to do so.
Even if that's how harshly you view the government in Washington and how much you cringe at the idea of turning over dollars to the IRS, you still should do it, too. The alternative is not worth it: No need to start an insurrection over it; no need to get yourself locked up.
Unless, of course, being able to hang on to a few more of those U.S. dollars is the most important issue of your life.
If that's the case, then not only is the image of Caesar on your money, it's impinged on your heart as well. You are showing that you belong to a world in which dollars and denarii drive your decisions.
And that's why, beyond the simple question of whether Christians should pay taxes, people with pure hearts struggling to live rightly in today's world need the second, more demanding half of Jesus' instructions: "Give back to God what is God's."
Beyond a doubt, as surely as Caesar's image was stamped on the denarius, an image has been stamped on your life. It is the image of God, to whom you belong. Your species has borne that image since the first chapter of Genesis, when God spoke: "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature."
As you ponder that with your pure heart and reflect it with your true nature, note that Matthew 22 is an exceedingly rich chapter, and that before it is over Jesus will get in at least two more memorable quotes.
First, he will fend off another trap - this one set by the Sadducees about which of your many spouses you'll get to be with in Heaven - by insisting in verse 32 that, as The Message says, "The Living God defines himself not as the God of dead men, but of the living."
Second, when the Pharisees regroup with their second trap, he will proclaim that the important thing is to live for that Living God - with all your heart and your soul and your mind - as expressed by your actions toward others.
Now, none of these answers from Jesus will mean much to you unless you agree with his premise that the most important thing in life is to live for God.
If you do agree with that, though, you see why "Give back to God what is God's" is a much more powerful instruction from his Son than any nodding acceptance of the financial system that pays for roads, soldiers and bureaucrats in Rome or Washington. And you see how it can provide Christians with powerful motivation for what they say and do about issues of contemporary governance ranging from immigration to the environment.
So, sure, pay a few denarii to keep Caesar happy, but remember whose image is stamped on your heart. Give Caesar those few denarii, but give God all the important stuff.
Bible Study Questions
1. Specifically, what in your life should you be challenged to give back to God?
2. Do you agree with the premise of this writer that followers of Jesus should quietly pay their taxes? Are there exceptions?
3. Other than tax money, what are people of faith obliged to "give back to Caesar"?
For Further Reading
1. Another view of Matthew 22: http://www.albertmohler.com/2010/04/05/render-unto-caesar-on-paying-taxes-after-obamacare/
2. A lawsuit over whether churches can lose their tax-free status cased on what is said in their pulpits: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/suit-to-restrict-pulpit-speech-dismissed/
3. Advice for Christians on how to handle your taxes: http://www.cbn.com/finance/scalici_taxes.aspx
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