What would Jesus say to you about Taxes?
David gave this talk at Woodside Church (Bedford) in 2013, as part of their "What Would Jesus Say To You About..." series. Click here to download it.
The issue of paying taxes has been in the news recently, and may well have been still a major issue if not eclipsed by the Olympics. Comedians don’t pay them, top musicians don’t pay them! The rich try and avoid paying them – so what would Jesus say to us about it?
Jesus had recently completed his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey with the disciples (more than 12!) crying out Hosanna to the Son of David. He then cleansed the temple throwing out the money changers and sellers of animals for sacrifice – corrupt system of the temple – but also the time of the temple was over.
He then taught through some stories, which made it clear that in refusing to follow him, the religious authorities, including the Pharisees, were refusing God’s authority.
Two groups who normally wouldn’t associate with one another tried to trap Jesus in his words/speech. These were the Pharisees, who believed in strictly keeping the Jewish law with all its additions who in principle would have been offended by having to pay taxes to the Roman occupier and the Herodians (followers of King Herod) who would have supported the tax because Herod owed his position to the Romans. Both groups would also have been annoyed by the triumphal entry, the Pharisees because it was fulfilling Scriptures about the Messiah (who the Pharisees and other Jews were waiting for) and the Herodians because it meant Jesus was claiming to be King.
These two groups sent their disciples along to Jesus. Disciples were effectively students and most teachers would have disciples that accompanied and learned from them.
In the background were another group of people, the Zealots, who refused to pay the tax to the Emperor. One of that party a few years earlier (when Jesus was a boy) had led a revolt against the tax – a man called Judas. The revolt had been cruelly put down with many crucifixions around the countryside as an example of what happens to those that rebel.
These 2 groups of disciples come and ask Jesus a question. First they flatter him:
- You teach what is true.
- You don’t look at people’s faces – i.e. swayed by favouritism or appearance.
Then the question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? – Lawful i.e. according to Jewish law not Roman law! Jesus saw what they were getting at. If he said “No”, he would be arrested as a rebel – if he said “Yes” he would upset the Jewish people who were following him. “You hypocrites” – i.e. actor, mask wearer.
He asked for the coin in which they paid tax. Whose image? (in itself obnoxious to a Jew – whose law did not allow images) – Whose inscription? Worse – it said “Tiberius, Caesar, Augustus, son of the god Augustus, chief priest”. They could hardly pronounce the words!
So then, said Jesus, “render” or “give back” (the questioners had just said “give”). Pay back Caesar in his own coin. But man is created in God’s image. We must devote ourselves to God as we are created in His image. Implicitly, are you living for God or your own political aims?
They were amazed at his answer and went away. The Pharisees couldn’t argue, the Zealots couldn’t argue, the Roman authorities couldn’t accuse him, yet like the Zealots he was putting God first.
“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
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 portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give 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.” Matt 22:15-22
WHAT DOES THE STORY TEACH US?
In the last 200-300 years this story has been interpreted to mean – keep religion and politics separate. So when a church leader makes a comment about a political or social issue; people quote this story and mean keep your religion private – it’s ok in that realm. Keep state and church separate – yes in one sense but no to the idea that we have nothing to say on state issues. Christianity is a way of life not a private faith.
Jesus is saying the opposite. God’s Kingdom has come. There is a new Son of God and High Priest. It is getting involved in the Kingdom of God and following the Son of God that matters. Jesus is not recognising the title on the coin but is changing the world in a different way from the Zealots and Pharisees. His rule will eventually triumph over the false claim of Roman Emperors through submitting to the cross, loving enemies – yes and paying taxes! Refusing to pay taxes is not the way to change the world. We do not rebel in the way the Zealots were arguing or maintain our identity in finer points of the law like the Pharisees. We certainly do not uphold the claims of the Herodians. Through a changed lifestyle and the influence of the new King, through changing the world in a different way as Jesus did through his cross and resurrection is the way of this Kingdom.
Jesus is also demonstrating wisdom from the Holy Spirit who likewise will tell us what to say in tough situations. “For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” Luke 12:12
HOW DO CHRISTIANS RELATE TO GOVERNMENT?
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.” Romans 13:1 & 6-7 (ESV).
“Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2:13-14 (ESV).
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.” Titus 3:1 (ESV).
Paul, in writing to Rome and to Titus in Crete, encourages believers to be properly submissive in attitude and obedient in action to the authorities.
It is difficult to understand why Paul seems to recommend such compliance when the Emperor was being worshipped as a god – which Christians could not accept or participate in.
How does the Bible generally teach us to relate to authorities? The Bible has 2 views on human government:
- Ordained of God. Rom 13:1, John 19:11.
- Haunt of demonic powers – Daniel 7 (vision of beasts), Revelation – both written in apocalyptic, figurative language.
Even in case of Babylon, Daniel served in the government and respected the king, and the people were encouraged to bless the place where they lived e.g “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Jeremiah 29:4-7. Our attitude is to bless even those who persecute us.
How are we to act towards authorities? Generally an attitude of submission, obedience and honour as given by God. Do not obey when what is required is contrary to the specific word of God g. Paul in Titus 2:13, “while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”, gave a subtle reminder not to engage in Emperor worship by describing Jesus by the words used to describe Roman Emperors.
When you can influence do so:
- By voting.
- For some with a specific calling, seek to have positions of influence, like Daniel, like Wilberforce.
- By praying for them.
- By blessing them.
Because of this basic attitude we are to, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.” Romans 13:7. We need to understand even in this context, it is because we are part of God’s Kingdom, because we give back to God what is due to him that we respond to authorities in this way.
So to opt out of paying taxes is a moral issue of attitude rather than just a legal one. So tax avoidance schemes not specifically intended by government are not appropriate for a Christian. Taking advantage of specific tax provision by government to encourage saving, charities or investment etc. is fine. So are schemes to provide justice e.g. husband and wife death tax allowances. There will be “grey areas”, hard choices because that is what it is like to live in the world but our attitude is to submit to God and render Him what is right and that will govern our attitudes.