The prayer of the publican

denarius tiberias 1 01I turned over a new leaf last year: I filed my taxes a month before they were due. This year, unfortunately, I’m back to my old tricks. I’ll be with the throng of last-minute filers causing a pedestrian and auto traffic jam at the Capitol Hill post office late tonight.

Easter fell within a day of the tax deadline this year. Most religion reporters wouldn’t think twice about it. Peggy Fletcher Stack, the Salt Lake Tribune‘s longtime religion reporter, wrote a compelling story about it. She interviews local Latter-day Saints who say folks should pay their taxes, libertarians who oppose current tax policy and liberals who oppose tax breaks for those who earn profits. Many have heard Jesus’ saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” It’s a complex saying, one which has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Stack provides some context:

When the Jewish leaders asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay Roman taxes, they were setting a kind of trap for him. If he said “yes,” he would be siding with the despised Jews who collaborated with Rome and if he said “no,” he would be arrested.

How to deal with these competing claims?

“In my view Jesus teaches that, for survival, one pays, but one does so knowing a greater loyalty and knowing that soon ‘the kingdom or empire of God’ will be established in full and it will be the end of Rome,” [Warren] Carter[, who teaches at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo.,] says. “Jesus’ answer resists Rome’s attempts to humiliate, it secures the dignity of those forced to pay, reminds them of their identity in God’s purposes, and points to the sure completion of those purposes.”

The article also looks at how Jesus treated tax collectors, and puts it in a modern context:

Today’s Internal Revenue Service is only slightly more popular than tax collectors were in Jesus’ time. Many Americans live in fear of being audited or having to deal with one of its agents, despite filing on-time, legitimate forms.

But they don’t have to worry about being cheated or extorted.

In ancient Jerusalem, tax collectors were often locals who contracted to gather a certain amount of wealth to hand on up the imperial system. After paying Rome, these locals — also called “publicans” — were free to collect from the people as they wished and free to make a profit for themselves. They were regarded as traitors, as complicit with the exploiting Romans, or as thieves who collected too much and kept the extra, Carter says.

Jesus spent a lot of time hanging out with these tax collectors, choosing one (Matthew) as his apostle, eating at their houses and using them to make a point in one of his famous parables.

In that story, Jesus described two men going to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee (a temple official) and the other was a publican. The Pharisee thanks God that he is not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even the publican.

The publican, meanwhile, looks down and says, simply, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus tells his listeners that of the two, the publican and anyone who is humble will be exalted in heaven.

“He never ever taught that there was anything inherently wrong with paying tribute to the Roman Government or collecting the tax,” [scholar Marcus] Borg writes. “He was opposed to extortioners, but would fling open the door of repentance and salvation to them. He rejected none, not even the worst.”

The prayer of the publican is not something you find in mainstream media very often. And yet it is a prayer that many millions of Christians offer throughout each day. Stack managed to write about both worlds that many of her readers live in — the world where laws are administered and enforced and the world where Jesus’ words reign supreme. It’s a delicate art, and she did a great job writing about both Easter and tax day.

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  • Daniel

    It’s a great article.

    What struck me is that author decided not to deal with the issue of anti-Semitism and the history of tax collectors and Jews in the Bible. If this story had been written in Hartford, for instance, instead of Salt Lake City, would you the writer have explored anti-Semitism??

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    To be sure the question was a set-up. No one likes taxes. But if Jesus “sided” with the people, then the leaders have him on treason–and have a legitimiate “crime” to take to Pilate. Interestingly, they have a Romman coin, a display that they themselves benefited from the very same government they despised.

    But there is a deeper issue here. Caesar considered himself a “god,” as did many ancient monarchs and rulers (it also explains Samuel’s despair in the Old Testament when the people want a king “like all the nations around us;” it was akin to asking Aaron to fashion the Golden Calf). Thus the issue is not as much a question of politics but a question of faith and devotion to God.

    In the end, what the ruler calls himself or considers humself is a moot issue. God often has his people living under evil rulers (Pharoah, Nebuchadnezzar, many kings of Israel and Judah, Herod, Nero, just to name a few). We live as citizens and/or residents of the political realm we find ourselves in, knowing that our true identity and worship is in a heavenly Kingdom, not of this world.

  • Michael Rew

    One preacher explained how Jesus held up a Roman coin with Caesar on the inscription, so the coin belonged to Caesar, just as our Federal Reserve notes belong to the Federal Reserve, not to us. If the notes belonged to us, then the proprietor of “Where’s George?”, the site which tracked dollar bills, would not have been told to stop selling stamps to stamp the site’s URL on the bills. I did not understand the preacher’s spiritual connotation to this ownership of money, though. But think about this:

    Publican. Republican! I feel like I am being taxed twice!

  • Dan Berger

    Or, as the late, great Richard Armour put it in one of his famous footnotes (in this case, to The Merchant of Venice):

    Republicans, please read, “How like a fawning mocrat he looks.”

    (From Twisted Tales from Shakespeare)