Should we give to Caesar?
By Brooke Stacia Demott
It’s springtime again, and the warm winds of seasonal change are met with sighs of relief, especially from winter-weary Upstate New Yorkers.
The collective solace is short-lived, however, once April 15 comes into view.
Tax time provokes mixed emotions. While some Americans happily anticipate a refund, others lament emptying their pockets to the rising federal percentages required of their income.
No matter how many “new deals” are brought to the legislative table, at the end of the day, none of us is going to volunteer to foot the bill. No one, from either side of the political spectrum, likes being taxed.
And so, the “haves” and “have-nots” alike find themselves unusually united during tax time, on the common ground of temptation. Big Brother strikes up the band, and we dance around the quiet but powerful inclination to fudge the numbers.
An extra credit here, or a “forgotten” 1099 there can go a long way toward shaving off our personal tax burden.
“It’s not a big deal,” we tell ourselves. “The government has plenty of money. They won’t even notice.”
Rationalization leads us to believe that we are not only right, but noble — even heroic — when we avoid paying into Uncle Sam’s inflated salary.
Unfortunately, God doesn’t approve of tax evasion.
In the days of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees (religious leaders of the ancient Jews) were jealous of his popularity, and routinely tried to trap him in a rhetorical snare. As tax time rolled around, they decided to capitalize on a hot button issue in Israel.
The Israelites of Jesus’ day were ruled by the unimaginably oppressive Roman Empire. This ancient Roman government was far more treacherous than any the United States has ever seen — execution as punishment for unruly behavior was the modus operandi, and to consider seeking justice from Roman soldiers was laughable. Ruthless, corrupt, and exorbitant in their taxation, they were feared and despised by the Jews.
The Pharisees saw an opportunity to trap Jesus with a seemingly straightforward question: “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”
If he said yes, the Jews would think him a traitor to Israel. If he said no, he would be turned over to the Roman authorities as a political zealot, and a threat to the emperor.
Jesus answered, “Whose face is on this coin?”
The Pharisees responded, “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus uttered these profound words. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God, what is God’s.”
With this simple phrase, Jesus managed to deflect their wicked enterprises and baffle millennia of Christian libertarians.
Jesus tells us to willingly pay our taxes, demonstrated by the fact that he himself paid taxes.
But Jesus didn’t advocate for a 501(c)(3), political mutiny, or under-the-table profits. He only said, pay them what is already theirs.
His point is simple: “They have their kingdom, and I have mine.”
Why would God care if we pay taxes?
“It’s necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” (Romans 13:5-8)
It isn’t complicated or particularly spiritual: We must follow the law to avoid punishment and maintain a clear conscience.
God established offices of authority, and governing authorities serve God, whether they know it or not. Although he may not approve of every individual in office, the office itself is a picture of God’s authority.
Remember, Jesus is not the head of a political party, but an eternal kingdom. His precepts reign in the monarchy of heaven, and he rules over all men, in every nation.
Christ requires us to submit to the government of both Caesar and God, with one caveat. If the law violates a biblical mandate — for instance, if the government insisted that we euthanize our elderly — we are bound by God’s law above it: “Thou shalt not kill.”
But where laws are morally neutral, God tells us to comply, and taxes fall into that category. How our leaders choose to spend that money may not be morally neutral, but they are accountable to God for those decisions.
As pilgrims travelling toward a heavenly kingdom, we must pay the world’s tolls along the way. Since Christ has given you access by faith to his empire, honor him in the presence of this world with upright conduct and willing obedience.
• Brooke Stacia Demott is a columnist with In Good Health newspaper. Got a question for Demott? Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.