In the time of Jesus Christ, there were groups of Jews who railed against paying taxes to Rome even as they used Roman roads and took advantage of Roman laws to evangelize others according to their worldview. Included in this group was the Pharisees. About two thousand years later, little has changed, as there are many people who will spout ideas that money is debt and refuse to seek birth certificates for their children, much less pay taxes to a government they hate, all while driving on roads build and maintained by the taxes of others and use the internet whose spectrum is regulated and sold by the same government they abhor. For some people, any sign of duty or obligation shown to a corrupt human government is an acceptance of its full and corrupt claims, while to others there is a God-given duty to give honor even to corrupt authorities, even as we honestly expose their corruption as is our duty to the Eternal, who is Creator and Ruler over all.
However, it little matters what our own opinions may be about such matters, for while we are free to accept and reject what we learn through painful experience or divine revelation, we are not free to make up facts nor are we competent to set our own standards for ourselves and others as to what is and what is not proper conduct. As we are all answerable to one heavenly judge, our freedom consists in choosing whether to obey or to accept responsibility for our rebellion, in whatever area we decide to rebel in. Though it would be easy and tempting, given my spirited nature, for people to think me rebellious, I have at various times discussed our obligations to authority , the divine command to respect all authorities, regardless of their behavior , and the intriguing history of the census tax , which has some bearing on today’s discussion. In light of this desire to understand the biblical context, what is the view of our Lord and Savior when it comes to taxation, and what relevance does it have to us?
Render Unto Caesar
Three places in the Gospels, the same incident where Jesus is confronted with the Pharisees and Herodians concerning the legitimacy of paying taxes to Caesar is recorded, in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26. Let us look at all three of these passages and then comment on what they tell us as a whole:
Matthew 22:15-22 reads: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money?” So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.”
Mark 12:13-17 reads: “Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words. When they had come, they said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why do you test Me? Bring me a denarius that I may see it.” So they brought it. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.”
Luke 20:26-26 reads: “So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor. Then they asked Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You say and teach rightly, and that you do not show personal favoritism, but teach the awy of God in truth: Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But He perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Why do you test Me? Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?” They answered and said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore the Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.”
All of these accounts give the same story, each of them adding a bit of detail to the same overall picture. Let us begin by recognizing that the whole discussion is a trap designed by the Pharisees (with the willing consent of the Herodians, the quisling allies of the Romans within Judea) designed to force Jesus Christ into an insoluble dilemma–accept the idolatrous claims of the Roman Empire or to mark himself as a tax resister and rebel against Roman authority. A similar dilemma faces believers in any corrupt and unjust nation, where the state makes idolatrous claims of being the ultimate authority, behaving unjustly and passing unjust laws but where that same state stands ready to quickly prosecute anyone who resists the day-to-day operation of the tax collection that funds the state’s activities. Often believers feel themselves caught between the duties and obligations that the Bible places on believers towards authorities (even corrupt ones) and between a rejection of the ungodly and idolatrous claims of those same governments. What is a believer to do in such a dilemma?
The solution of Jesus Christ to this dilemma is both elegant and simple. First, he asks the Pharisees to show Him a denarius. We know from the parables of Jesus Christ that He had an awareness of Roman monetary terms, as some of His parables refer to the units of Roman commerce (including the parable of the generous landowner, who pays all his workers, even those who only work an hour, a denarius apiece, which was the daily wage for unskilled agricultural labor). We therefore understand from the larger context of the Gospels that Jesus Christ Himself had no inveterate hostility towards the Roman currency, understanding the hollowness of whatever idolatrous claims the money made and accepting the units of exchange as simply that, without any kind of emotional attachment for or against the gold, silver, and copper that he spoke of in His parables. Since the Pharisees provided Him with a denarius, just as one would ask a tax resister today to show us a twenty dollar bill, and since they admitted that the name and inscription on that money were Caesar’s, Jesus Christ was able to place the Pharisees in the trap of being hypocrites in two ways: for pretending to consider Him righteous and butter him up for their traps, and for pretending to be Jewish nationalists while they accepted the authority of the Roman empire in practice.
This same dilemma affects every would-be tax resister today. Regardless of our feelings for our governments, or whatever governments are around us, we accept some degree of authority for that government (albeit limited by our higher obligations to God) as a result of engaging in day-to-day life. So long as we are in the world, even if we are not of it, we accept the practicalities of the currency and obey the laws unless they directly contradict God’s laws, in which case we accept that the government may punish us for obeying God rather than men. The apostles faced this dilemma (see Acts 5:29, among many other places) and rejoiced in being allowed to suffer as Jesus Christ did, even as they forbade believers from suffering as evildoers. In the context of these passages, refusing to pay the taxes when one uses the currency and roads of the Roman Empire (or the American one) would be sin. This point is made particularly clever when we look at how Jesus Christ phrased his reply. He did not say it was acceptable to pay taxes, as the Pharisees had asked, but rather that it was acceptable for them to render back (that is, to repay) Caesar. Taxes were not legitimate because the Caesar was god and because His claims of ownership over the people of the Roman Empire were true. The same is the case nowadays, as believers reject the authority of the state as ultimate in our lives and behavior, nor as the owners of ourselves and our children. However, then as now governments provided services with those taxes, and it was godly to repay them for their efforts with our taxes. To take advantage of public services and to refuse to pay the government back for those services is theft, and theft is a sin. A believer, whether in the time of Jesus Christ or now, must be aware of the genuine foundation of a believer’s obligations to the state (and other authorities) as part of our obligation to God that does not contradict or trump our obligations to God.
Since it is best to avoid making dogmatic statements from slender grounds, if one can possibly avoid it, let us look at two pieces of biblical context that bolster this particular understanding of Jesus’ command for believers to render unto Caesar. The first is His own behavior with regards to the temple tax, and the second is the statements of Paul in Romans 13:1-7, both of which point to the ultimate authority of God (whatever the claims of rulers) and also show the legitimacy of taxpaying on the part of believers, regardless of what tax resisters might think.
First, let us examine the context of Jesus paying the temple tax, an incident we find in Matthew 17:24-27: “When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom to the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
This is a remarkable passage, and it has been already discussed elsewhere at some length , but let us point out its obvious implications here to Jesus Christ’s attitude and behavior in paying taxes. Jesus Christ, as he pointed out to Peter through his analogy, was technically not subject to the temple tax, since He was the Son of the King (i.e. God in heaven) who owned the temple and for whom it was built. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ paid a tax He did not owe simply because He wished to avoid causing offense to the corrupt religious leadership of the time. Matthew (a tax collector himself, it should be noted) points out that Jesus Christ went above and beyond His own minimum obligations and paid an unnecessary tax to avoid causing a fight, showing obedience to the higher law of love rather than seeking a legalistic technicality that would allow Him to avoid fulfilling a normal obligation. That is what Christians are called to do–to obey the law of love and to do more than is necessary to avoid giving offense to others, if it can be avoided. This behavior is consistent with His advice to pay back Caesar in his own currency but to fulfill our obligations to God above all.
Unsurprisingly, we find that same advice in Romans 13:1-7, which formed the basis of a very lengthy discussion about the duties and obligations of believers and their authorities, which does not need to be repeated here. What we do see in Romans 13:1-7 is that Paul gives the same precise case (and language) for our obligations to taxpaying, showing it as rendering–that is, paying back for what government has done for us, while maintaining higher obligations to God. Romans 13:1-7 reads: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’s sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”
In the context of our obligations to pay taxes, Paul notes (as Jesus Christ implied) that rulers are servants of God, subsidiary authorities who have a legitimate role in collecting taxes to execute judgment on evildoers according to the standards of God’s laws. It is the God-given job of governments to regulate the conduct of their realms by the standards that God has provided, and to punish the evil with the power of the sword (up to and including capital punishment). And in order to pay governments back for doing their jobs, we owe them taxes. We not only owe authorities our taxes and customs and honor and respect out of fear of punishment, but because it is a part of our obligation to God and therefore part of our religious duty. Let us not forget, either, that Paul was writing this about Nero, the wicked Caesar who eventually would kill Paul for his proclamation of the faith of God. Paul was telling believers that they owed their obligations to a man who would later kill him, which is a remarkable statement to make. In our desire to proclaim the just and righteous standards of God (which we all have an obligation to do), we must not forget to give honor and respect even to the corrupt authorities of our world, even if they might not recognize it as honor and respect because it does not meet their own idolatrous claims for themselves. We owe those obligations not because those leaders are godly, or because their claims are just or accurate, but because respecting God requires a respect for those whom God places in authority for His purposes.
Let us note in conclusion, that the statement of Jesus Christ concerning taxes still applies to believers today. There is still a tension between the punishment that results from being an tax resister/rebel to physical authority and the desire to remain morally pure in a world that is full of corrupt governments that make ungodly claims and engage in ungodly behavior. Rather than a simple resolution to one side or the other, Jesus Christ (and Paul) reframe the discussion from one of tax paying or resisting to a recognition that we repay government in their own currency (debased or not) in honor and respect for the God-given responsibilities that they fulfill (however competently or incompetently). In respecting human beings, including those we know to be very flawed, we develop the patterns of honor and respect that apply also to God, whose ways are beyond our comprehension. Honoring authorities through paying taxes therefore ends up being a part of our larger obligation to God, recognizing that the state has legitimate claims as a subsidiary authority to God Himself. To deny these legitimate claims would be unjust and would be an act of rebellion against God as well as men.