Some ask questions like these: Should Christians pay taxes? Are there justifiable reasons for Christians not to pay taxes? And what does the Bible say about paying taxes? Others don’t even think to ask such questions.
Jesus was once asked about paying taxes, which was a question that got Jesus into the political world. Many have read that text (Mark 12:13-17) as well as his comment on the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27) as indicators of how Jesus understood the relation of church and state. Richard Bauckham, in his new book, The Bible in Politics: How to Read the Bible Politically, ponders this Jesus and the taxes question with hermeneutical finesse, and he provides for us a good example of how to use the Bible when it comes to politics.
Bauckham begins with the temple tax passage (Matthew 17, see after the jump). This is a temple (half-shekel) tax for every adult male, regardless of economic status, and considered to be anchored in Exodus 30:11-16 by most (some disputed this justification of the tax). Thus, this is a divine duty: demanded by God.
Jesus’ response is an analogy: God’s relation to his people is like a king’s relation to his own children, not a king’s relation to his subjects. That is, God’s relation is more like a father than a king. “Thus Jesus’ objection is to theocratic taxation, taxing God’s people in God’s name, because it is inconsistent with the way Jesus understands the rule of God” (75). The discovery of the coin in the fish then shows that God provides for his children; God’s relation to Israel is not like a king who taxes subjects.
Jesus’ attitude toward taxes is negative, and this is understandable because of the oppressive experience of taxation. The temple authorities were wealthy, and this aggravated the temple tax for the ordinary person. Taxes were perceived as helping the rulers and not the ordinary person; they saw it as exploitation. Jesus dissociates God from that form of exploitative taxation. Jesus’ protest in the temple finds its origins in this context too. Thus, the big point: the temple authorities made the temple look like a Roman form of exploitation instead of like a fatherly God.
The second tax passage (see Mark 12 below) is about tribute to Rome, and it was collected in Judea and not Galilee. Does Jesus now accept Roman tax, or is he more lenient, than taxes for the temple? It was believed by Zealots that any tribute to Rome is a form of allegiance to Rome and denial of Israel’s sovereignty. The opponents wanted Jesus to line up with the Zealots.
But Jesus’ response is anti-Zealot. As God has a claim on God’s people, so Caesar has a claim on Caesar’s subjects. That coin represents legitimate ownership. Jesus is appealing to the Chronicler (see below), where we find a distinction between things of God and things of a king. Jesus hereby places Rome’s right to tribute in parallel with Israel’s kings’ rights.
Jesus’ point: God’s rights do not exclude Caesar’s rights.
These texts are about theocratic politics: God relates as a father, but God’s rights do not exclude Caesar’s. A Zealot government would be a Jewish form of Roman exploitative taxation. Theocratic rule exploits God. The issue for Jesus is not if Jews or Romans rule; the issue is if God rules. A change of government for Jesus would have made no difference. The challenged was to let God rule.
Theocratic politics are dangerous. But Christians are to seek to implement God’s ways into the king’s ways. We live in a fallen world and approximation is what we strive for.
His conclusion: “But where taxation is seen to benefit not the ruling classes but all, and especially those in need, where it is assessed in a recognizably equitable way, and where, in a democratic system, its administration is responsible to the people, then it need not be a form of social exploitation but can approximate to a form of social love” (84).
24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
1 Chronicles 26:30-32; 2 Chronicles 19:11
30 From the Hebronites: Hashabiah and his relatives—seventeen hundred able men—were responsible in Israel west of the Jordan for all the work of the LORD and for the king’s service. 31 As for the Hebronites, Jeriah was their chief according to the genealogical records of their families. In the fortieth year of David’s reign a search was made in the records, and capable men among the Hebronites were found at Jazer in Gilead. 32 Jeriah had twenty-seven hundred relatives, who were able men and heads of families, and King David put them in charge of the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh for every matter pertaining to God and for the affairs of the king.
11 “Amariah the chief priest will be over you in any matter concerning the LORD, and Zebadiah son of Ishmael, the leader of the tribe of Judah, will be over you in any matter concerning the king, and the Levites will serve as officials before you. Act with courage, and may the LORD be with those who do well.”