Taxes is not something we usually talk about in church. But it’s something that Jesus taught about more than once.
Well, once more than once. What I’m trying to say is that he taught about it twice.
But what he had to say was pretty deep, and it goes further than just what gets deducted from our paychecks.
We find Jesus today in the middle of a very hot political situation. Jesus was a very popular teacher and leader, at the head of a new movement in Israel, which at the time was occupied by Rome.
People were listening to him and liking what he was saying. So of course, the people who used to get listened to hated him. They wanted to make sure that no one was a popular or as powerful as they were.
But they had a tool in their tool box that was a little more deadly…They were happy to try and get their rivals killed by their Roman overlords. So that’s the situation that our teaching today comes out of. Sound good? Let’s get into it.
So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.
Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Luke 20:20-22
Now keep in mind that Isreal was a conquered nation. They were ruled and occupied by a foreign, pagan government. And everyone resented it. They were probably resigned to it, too. But everyone had to walk a fine line. If you embraced Rome, you were a traitor to your own people. If you got too far out of line the other way, you’d end up beaten or executed as a revolutionary.
So the people asking Jesus this question really think they have him beat. If he says “Pay” then his new followers will see him as traitor to his own and fall away. If he says “Don’t pay”, then they can tell on him to the Roman governor and get him arrested and killed. Either way, they’re pretty sure they’ve just put Jesus into checkmate.
But he perceived their craftiness and said to them…(Luke 20:23)
One mini-lesson for us here from Jesus. You don’t always have to take the bait. But the bigger lesson here, and one that I probably need to hear most of all is that Jesus sees that the other side is trying to trap him, but he still engages them. He doesn’t just change the topic, he wins the debate, and we’re about to see, makes a HUGE point about the nature of money.
“Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” Luke 20:24
He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Luke 20:25
Now, a lot of people think that this was just a dodge by Jesus, just some verbal judo. But they’re wrong. This statement blows my mind. We’re going to talk about the economics of this statement in a minute, but first I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page with Jesus about what belongs to God.
And it’s EVERYTHING!
Everything belongs to God! Not just one hour of your time on Sunday. But 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. Everything belongs to God. The people who first heard Jesus say these words would have believed that to be true and so should we.
But Jesus also says that some things belong to Caesar.
So if we believe that everything ultimately belongs to God, and we also take Jesus at his word that some things do belong to Caesar, then we have to conclude that God allows some things to belong to Caesar, and by extension, to the Caesars of this world, i.e. the government.
So God’s claim on us and on everything is unlimited, but our nation’s claim on us and on everything is limited. I wish I didn’t need to say that, but I do, because some false teachers claim it is the Christian’s duty to obey those in authority no matter what they say. Which is painfully wrong.
So that’s out of the way.
Because what really blows my mind about this teaching is what Jesus teaches us taxes. Jesus makes an incredible point specifically about money, about how a system of money works, and why that matters.
I mean, why should we “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (I like this older translation better, don’t you?”) If everything belongs to God, why do we have to render some of it to the government?
What we’re asking when we ask that is “Why does God give power to governments?” Wouldn’t it be better if we were all just a bunch of fully actualized individuals working things out for ourselves? And when it comes to taxes, why would God approve of the government taking something that belongs to me?
Here’s where Jesus’ answer really gets it’s legs.
What does Jesus refer to when he gives his answer in our scripture today? What does he ask for?
A coin. And a very specific coin too. The coin used to pay the Roman tax. You see, you have to pay the Roman tax with Roman money. The coin that Jesus asks for has value, in a sense, because it has Caesar’s face on it.
The coin isn’t seperate from the Roman economy and everything that it produces. It is an integral part of it. That’s why Jesus says to render it, give it back to, the one to whom it belongs. Because if you have one of those coins, that means you’ve been a participant in that system.
If you have one of those coins, you have benefitted from that system.
If you are going to enjoy the advantages, you have to respect the obligations.
But it goes even deeper than that!
Look at who things can belong to in this teaching from Jesus.
Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.
Do you see you anywhere in that sentence? Where am I? I want something to belong to me! But I’m not in there. And neither are you.
There are two persons that things can belong to in this statement. Caesar. And God.
Jesus is saying that the same principle applies no matter what. As a Christian, there is no area of life where you can say, “This is mine, and only mine.”
You are always, and only, a steward.
A steward is someone who takes care of someone else’s property, as if it was their own. They enjoy the benefits of it, and the responsibilities too! But a steward never sees it as theirs.
And this attitude can really help you when it comes to taxes. Because taxes can be a real source of resentment, can’t they? It seems like I have my property, and someone is coming over and taking it, because they can hurt me if I don’t give it to them.
But I hear Jesus saying here that we can’t really seperate the concept of private property from the concept of taxation. What I hear Jesus saying here is that it’s all one system. The same system that enables me to earn and buy and own, only works because it also requires me to pay taxes back into that system.
As a Christian with integrity, if you don’t want to pay taxes, or want to pay as few as possible, then you should live off the land.
Be a non-participant in the economy, and I will respect your desire to not pay taxes. BUT, if you make your money by being a participant in the American economy, if you invest in the stock market, and count your money in dollars whose value is secured by a standing army, if the value of your house is secured by public roads leading up to it, and public schools, and public water, and all of the people it takes in industries and bureaucracies that keep the AC running and the pump stations keeping your house above water, then you should pay your taxes eagerly.
Because what Jesus is saying here is that it’s ALL Ceasar’s. The small part of it that’s “yours” wouldn’t be worth a dime without the part surrounding it that’s Caesar’s.
None of this is saying that we should blindly accept the system because we are beneficiaries of it.
But we must recognize that it is a big interconnected system. And that we can’t think that by fixing one part of it, we are fixing all of it. We can’t just focus on the little part that annoys us and believe that’s the only part that matters.
So what does this mean for you beyond being more at peace with taxes?
Know that as a Christian, you live in two worlds, all at one time.
It’s not this world and the next world. It’s this world, and the kingdom of God, all at the same time. You are a dual citizen. And sometimes, you are going to have to choose which kingdom to be loyal to. We always choose God’s kingdom first. But you don’t have to make that choice when you pay your taxes. So you can take taxes off the list of things you resent. Because we all know how deadly resentments can be.
You can’t resent taxes unless you also resent money, property, and clean water.
You should be a fully engaged participant in this world. Do it all. Vote, advocate, lead, and pay taxes.
But know that getting ahead in Caesar’s kingdom doesn’t give you a leg up in God’s.
Participating in both worlds doesn’t mean they are the same. Wealth and influence in Caesar’s world doesn’t equate to anything in God’s.
In fact, Jesus had a habit of reminding us of this by saying things like “the last will be first” and “blessed are the poor.” We participate in both worlds but remember that getting a leg up in Caesar’s world isn’t going to get you a crown in God’s.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins