Is Paying Taxes a Theological Issue?

In my home state of Missouri, voters will get the opportunity in November to decide whether to increase the state gas tax by 10 cents a gallon to help pay for road and bridge repairs and to fund the Missouri Highway Patrol. The tax would increase by two-and-a-half cents each year for four years.  Already there are individuals protesting this tax, and at least one protest group has been organized and filed a lawsuit to keep the proposal off the ballot.

Opposition to taxes is nothing new. There will always be taxes as long as we have government. There will always be attempts to modify or to eliminate taxes.  What is a Christian response to taxation?  Should we pay taxes that support programs and individuals with whom we disagree? . I have no easy answer.  In the past, Baptists in England protested having their tax money fund the Church of England

Some would advocate the actions of a man who was called Judas the Galilean.  He was a man who started an anti-tax campaign in the Roman province of Judea.  Most people have never heard of him, but he made quite an impression  back in his day.  The Romans had instituted a new tax policy in 6 BCE that required a census to implement.  This policy was something new.  Previously taxes were paid to whatever official (such as Herod and his sons) that the Romans placed in leadership over the Jews.  Caesar Augustus switched to direct rule by a Roman prefect who organized a census to prepare the mechanism for processing the new direct taxation.  The author of Luke uses the memory of this census as the reason for getting Joseph and Mary down to Bethlehem in chapter 2.

The tax was, as are taxes anywhere, widely unpopular, and taxation was  a constant point of contention between Rome and the Jews.  Judas the Galilean took his protest to a whole new level.  Proclaiming himself as the Messiah, he turned the question of paying taxes to a pagan emperor into a theological issue.  Judas further tried to leverage his call for “no new taxes” into a political and military coup to unseat the Romans.  But as Josephus tells us, this effort was swiftly and brutally suppressed by the Romans.  Judas’ idea survived him and would remain in circulation in the province for some sixty years until the fall of Jerusalem  in 70 CE.  Judas’ followers were called Zealots and one of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Zealot.  Some scholars think Pilate may have associated Jesus with Judas the Galilean, or even thought Jesus was Judas.

This brings to mind a question Jesus was asked as reported in Matthew 22:15-22.In chapter 21 and the beginning of chapter 22, representatives from a number of Jewish leadership groups come to Jesus with questions: questions about his authority (21:23-27); questions about the resurrection (22:23-33); and questions about the Law (22:34-40). The question in Matthew 22:17 is brought by disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. If the Herodians represent the interests of Herod and the other clients of Rome within his circle, this is an unlikely group of partisans. Yet, representatives of both groups come in order to “trap” Jesus.

First, they use flattery by speaking of Jesus’ integrity, commitment to truth and equity, and lack of concern for the opinions of others (22:16). Then, according to Matthew, they laid a political trap for Jesus by asking him how he felt about tax policy: was it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor (v. 17)?  As the introduction of the matter demonstrates, they are trying to get Jesus to come down on one side of the issue or the other.  Either he will have to side with the emperor against the people and look like a collaborator, or side with the people against the government and look like Judas the Galilean.  Either way, no good options.

Jesus, however, was aware of their evil plan, and so he said, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin for paying the tax!”

They brought him the coin,  and he asked them, “Whose face and name are these?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered.  So, Jesus said to them, “Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:18-21).

The Pharisees avoided Roman coins, for they bear the blasphemous image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription proclaims him divine.[1] Yet, when Jesus asks for a Roman coin, they readily provide it. There, in the sacred space of the temple, the Pharisees possess the idolatrous image!

Apodidomi, the word translated here as “pay,” has the idea of giving back to someone what is properly their own.  Their money was always Caesar’s.  His rule created it, maintained it, and secured and regulated the marketplace in which it was utilized.  People who had a denarius may have thought it was theirs, but as Jesus reminds them, the stamp of Caesar shows that not to be the case.

As  with many of Jesus’ sayings, it is not clear exactly the point he was trying to make. Whatever Jesus is getting at here, he is not describing a compromise that divides human loyalties neatly between YHWH and the emperor.

I think He is asking an unspoken question: whose image do you bear? What is your greatest loyalty?  The coin of our country bears the image of dead presidents, but each of us bears the image of God. We may divide our budget, but we must never divide our loyalty.  We must never forget to give God what is His: ourselves.

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[1] The inscription on the coin required for the tax reads: Augusti Filius August Pontifex Maximus (“Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”).  Boring, Eugene, “Matthew – Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 420.

 

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