No one likes paying taxes. I have known several people who worked for the IRS, and they say it’s a little like being a dogcatcher, only worse. Dogs just bite you. Strangely enough, Jesus seems to have been fond of tax collectors, including one, Matthew, among his closest followers, and he got a pretty constant stream of abuse for it.
The United States of America is one of the few countries in the world where there seems to be a commonly held opinion that people ought not have to pay taxes at all — as if the city, state, and national benefits we expect and sometimes demand should somehow materialize out of thin air. In the wake of disasters such as hurricanes like Harvey and Maria and the terrible California wildfires of this month, that doesn’t make much sense. But when it comes to mixing politics, taxes, and especially religion, people rarely make sense. The odd thing is that taxes in the United States, however unequal, are some of the lowest in the western world.
As next year’s elections already begin to dominate politics and the news media, the rhetoric has been heating up even more than usual, as might be expected, and a lot of it focuses on money and taxes, even religion, as might be expected. Fierce debates on the issue are nothing new.
According to the gospel tradition, Jesus and the Pharisees of Judea engaged in a series of heated disputes in which the Pharisees, in
league now with their usual opponents, the supporters of the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, whom Jesus called “that fox,” tried to trap him into taking positions that would alienate him from his followers, or antagonize the authorities, or both. Times evidently haven’t changed all that much.
The outcome was bound to be decisive. For Jesus posed a challenge to the status quo that meant that his followers in particular would inevitably have to choose.
The debates grew in intensity as Jesus evaded the Pharisees’ snares. One of the most famous of these encounters concerned what was called the temple tribute which is related in today’s gospel reading from Matthew, the former tax collector. Jesus’ solution to the dilemma of having to choose between Caesar and God, between paying taxes and devoutly resisting an oppressive government, has been used in America for generations to justify the separation of Church and State. It fuels the violent resistance of some groups who claim Christian warrant for refusal to pay taxes and even for armed attacks on local and federal government.
Whether or not separation of Church and State is a good or bad idea, it has nothing to do with what Jesus was talking about. What he was talking about has its roots in what Isaiah tells us in the first reading, in which God calls Cyrus, the King of Persia, “my anointed,” and, later, “the Shepherd of Israel.” The Lord has, Isaiah says, called Cyrus by name, raising him up in order that all peoples might come to know the one true God, even through Cyrus himself was a pagan and an Iranian at that. They were called Persians then.
Cyrus the Great was much more than an instrument in God’s hands. One of the most famous rulers of the ancient world, in the 6th century BCE, he overthrew the empire of the Medes, and then the Babylonians, who had invaded Israel, conquered Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and taken the Jews into captivity. Around the year 538, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild, taking with them the sacred vessels that had been looted from the temple, for which he was accorded the title messiah – “anointed,” the only non-Jew ever given it. He was killed in battle ten years later.
But it is as an instrument in God’s hands that Cyrus is of interest to Isaiah: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not.” Freeing the Jews was in God’s power to decide, just as was allowing them to fall into the hands of the Babylonians in the first place. God rules over all, whether we know it or not, or whether we like it or not. St. Paul states it plainly enough in his letter to the Christians of Thessalonika: “We know, too, brothers and sisters beloved of God, how you were chosen.”
The issue is not whether, but how we do God’s will; not whether we are Jews or Iraqis or Iranians, Democrats or Republicans, or even Prohibitionists. It’s about how we welcome and implement God’s rule in our lives. The God we worship is the Creator of the Universe, the Lord of History, not the mascot of some political party or church faction. Political parties and Empires and individuals may perform their part in God’s plan well or badly. But God’s plan will prevail one way or another.
So, Jesus says, it’s not just whose image is on the coin: if the coin is from the Roman mint, it belongs to Rome. If it’s Temple coinage, put it in the collection. He doesn’t even bother to point out that Roman coinage was not allowed in the Temple, but had to be exchanged for Temple currency, incidentally at a big profit for the official money changers. That’s another story.
This debate appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ enemies later twist what Jesus says into an accusation against him before Pilate, claiming that he forbade paying tribute to Caesar [Luke 23:2]. But what Jesus is in fact saying is that trying to isolate religion from politics is as foolish and self-defeating as is confusing them. God and country are not the same, but to think we can banish God from the decisions of ordinary life, including politics, is supremely foolish.
Adlai Stevenson once said, “We mean by ‘politics’ the people’s business—the most important business there is.” The ancient Romans said, vox populi, vox dei: the voice of the people is the voice of God. And Jesus said, render both to God and to Caesar what is due them. Whether you favor throwing the bums out of office, keeping the bums in, or bringing in a whole new set of bums, everyone’s vote is important. And so are their taxes.
The same is true for the Church. In many countries, salaries for ministers and religious educators are paid for out of public taxes. That may change. But in this country churches rely largely on the generosity of people contributing to the collection box. It’s interesting how Jesus returned to this theme in his ministry — especially as he watched the poor widow putting her two mites in. When we render unto God the things that are God’s, whether mites or tithes, we do so not out of compulsion, as so often with our public taxes, but out of love and devotion.
One way or another, we can at least pray that God will guide us in all our actions, so that as good citizens of God’s realm as well as the human community, we will act responsibly and generously, especially to assist the poor and unfortunate, which seems to be a major part of what God has in mind first of all. More about that next week.