Jesus, Taxes, and Charity

By Matthew Cooper

Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent out unto Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, ‘Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?’

But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, ‘Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money.’

And they brought unto Him a penny. And He saith unto them, ‘Whose is this image and superscription?’

They say unto Him, ‘Cæsar’s.’ Then saith He unto them, ‘Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’

When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left Him, and went their way. (St. Matthew 22:15-22)

It’s sadly become somewhat de rigueur, particularly but not exclusively on the American political right, to proof-text or misread this passage or to read into it things that were not intended, to prove an ideological point or – as I rather more strongly suspect – to put a religious gloss on an ideological position (that of libertarianism, or anarcho-capitalism) which is, according to the social teaching of the Church, fundamentally godless. I’m getting ahead of myself here, though.

First, let’s think here about what the Pharisees are trying to do to Jesus with this question. It says they were trying to ‘entangle Him in His talk’ (αυτον παγιδευσωσιν εν λόγω, ‘trap Him in His words’). How would a question about taxes, though, entangle Christ? Consider that He was in Jerusalem, the seat of Roman power in the province, and that there were crowds around Him wherever He went – crowds which ostensibly hoped Him to be the Messiah who would deliver them from rule by Rome. By asking Him a question about taxes, the Pharisees hoped to set the crowd against Him if He answered one way and spoke in favour of the rights of the Roman government to tax them, or alternately to get Him in trouble with the authorities if He answered the other way and denied their right to collect taxes.

The brilliance of Christ’s answer, ‘Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s…’ (Απόδοτε ουν τα Καίσαρος Καίσαρι) is that it reverses the trap in an act of rhetorical jujutsu. Pace Reed, the Pharisees – and not Jesus – were the ones who were concerned about the interpretation of the law as it concerned property rights. Christ’s answer to them did not cast the question in terms of ‘property rights’, but instead framed the question in terms of debts. The Greek word ‘αποδίδωμι’ does not mean simply to give, but to give back, to return, to restore or to pay what is owing. This answer clearly did notturn the crowds against Christ, nor did it give his would-be legal entrappers ammunition to make a case against Him to the Romans, and yet the Pharisees ‘marvelled’ and ‘went their way’. The implication, then, which would have been clear to the crowds and Christ’s questioners both, was that the Pharisees themselves owed something to Cæsar which Christ and the crowds did not. Being in positions of wealth and power indebted them to Cæsar.

Reading this passage, therefore, as a narrow defence of property rights against the claims of Cæsar, mangles the entire sense of Christ’s answer and completely ignores the context in which it was given. In fact, given the context, it could plausibly be more correct to say that this passage could hold up the principle that property rights are conditional and dependent on the largesse of the state authority that guarantees them! But such an implication, of course, would not further the ideological agenda. Thus it is this context which gets sacrificed in favour of an anachronistic straw-man of ‘progressive’ thought (among which, I guess, would be considered any kind of thinking – broadly also including classical and conservative thought – which supports a state’s paternalistic right to levy taxes on its subjects).

It is also noteworthy that the story of the man in the Gospel of St. Luke who wanted his brother to split his inheritance with him warrants a mention, but – tellingly – this author fails to note the following condemnation Christ gives in his parable of the rich man who tears down his barns to store his abundant harvest, instead of doing what is pleasing to God. The sermon of Saint Basil the Great of Cappadocia to the rich on this passage specifically is illuminating, and shows quite well what the Early Church thought of the ‘wealth creators’ the American right wing loves to vaunt, who know very well how to tear down their barns but very ill how to please God.

This same sort of anachronistic, nineteenth-century ideological thinking (and sadly-predictable Austrian school fetishism for ‘wealth creation’ and ‘sound œconomic principles’) runs throughout this piece like a long stain. Instead of reading the parable of the workers in the vineyard as the Holy Fathers would have done – that is, as an image of the way salvation will work, or as a way of distinguishing the divine œconomia from that of man – in the capable hands of a libertarian author, it becomes instead a dull, materialistic, pedantic lesson in the mundane operation of labour markets and (of course) a defence of the this-worldly landlord’s untrammelled right to cheat his workers. Still more shamefully, the parable of the talents becomes a celebration of usury! (Again, paging Saint Basil the Great…)

Mr. Reed does do his readers one service, though, and that is to point them to the Mosaic law as the Law which Christ came to fulfil. Sadly, the only of these laws he cites are the eighth and tenth Commandments; and at that, he wants us only to consider how these two commandments apply only to poor people (as though rich people could not possibly be tempted to steal or covet that which is their neighbour’s!). The laws of Moses considered more fully and with greater intellectual honesty, however, do not exactly provide the pet ideology of Austrian œconomics with the support sought, and that may be why only such a selective and self-serving reading of them is provided. After all, in Deuteronomy the law of Moses says explicitly that people with property must set aside one tenth of their income every three years specifically to be redistributed to the poor:

When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithes of thine increase the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be filled. (Deuteronomy 26:12)

And in fact, under Mosaic law not even all the produce that grew on land a man owned was actually his property, but was in fact common property that was to be left to the poor and to strangers:

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:22)

And Christ’s own deeds in life, in relation to respecting individual property rights were of a similar nature with regard to the flexibility of Mosaic law:

And it came to pass, that He went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and His disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.

And the Pharisees said unto Him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?

And He said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?

And He said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath. (St. Mark 2:23-28)

And what did the Church historically think about such things as income taxes and redistribution? If they had indeed thought as poorly as this libertarian author does about non-voluntary giving in the form of taxation, in the interests of consistency they should have refused to take any tax money from secular rulers. And yet, as the emeritus British historian of Byzantium Judith Herrin notes:

For besides these instances of episcopal and monastic charity, imperial assistance played a crucial role in the development of Byzantine charity. On numerous occasions it is the additional income from the imperial treasury or from public funds sanctioned by emperors, that secures the survival of ecclesiastical institutions for the poor. From an early date appeals to imperial generosity, like that by Bishop Porphyrios, indicate the significance of state funding. Not only did the Empress Eudoxia finance the replacement of the pagan temple of Zeus Marnas at Gaza by a grand Christian church, but she also provided a hostel where visitors could stay free of charge for three days. Similarly, through the generosity of Empress Pulcheria, strangers who died in the Byzantine capital could receive a proper burial in her xenotapheia. The reign of Justinian, as Patlagean has shown, is vital to an understanding of church-state relations in the administration of charity. At this point, the poor are recognised as a legal category worthy of assistance, which is often entrusted to ecclesiastical bodies.

Not only that, of course, but the first Christian emperor, Saint Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles, instituted (gasp!) the first progressive taxation system in Byzantium, in the interests of rectifying past injustices perpetrated on the poor by the rich. Very much in contrast to modern American notions of ‘philanthropy’, Byzantine philanthrōpía was very much guided by funds and initiatives from the imperial state – appropriated from landlords, merchants and government officials who, we may be fairly certain by the example of the officials Saint Constantine pressured for money, were often reticent givers. And the Orthodox Church not only made no objection, not only actively encouraged the trend, but for a long time actually served as the social-welfare apparatus of the Byzantine imperial state! Many of the officials and royals who engaged in philanthrōpía were ultimately regarded as saints by churches East and West. The artificial libertarian distinction between ‘voluntary’, individual charity on the one hand, and taxation for the purposes of aiding the poor on the other (though the question never arose prior to Saint Constantine), would be a foreign one to the mind of the Early Church – clearly they did not find these two practices ‘irreconcilable’. But if we were to follow Reed’s logic to its conclusion in the same spirit of chronological snobbery he assumes, subjecting the entire history of Christendom to the sophistry of the Austrian œconomists, we would puff ourselves up in judgement over entire generations and centuries of blessed Christian saints, branding them ‘envious’, ‘thieves’ and ‘hypocrites’. But in so doing we would be exposing only our own hypocrisy and self-righteousness, our puffed-up pride at belonging to an age which possesses ‘sound œconomic principles’.

But is this and ought this to be thought of as a call to rest on our laurels and leave the business of charity to what Dorothy Day sarcastically referred to as ‘Holy Mother the State’? No, not in the slightest. Merely paying our taxes does not make us more moral or charitable or loving people. We owe much of our relative comfort and leisure as citizens of a first-world nation to the policies of the state we live under. Like the Pharisees, our paying taxes is simply ‘αποδίδωμι’. More, much more, is demanded of us than Christ demanded of the Pharisees. Also, please do not consider this an apology for ‘progressivism’, that both too-often-reviled and too-often-worshipped bugbear of the (post-)modern age. I appeal here not to Progress but to the Great Apostolic Tradition to which Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and apostolically-inclined Protestant Christians lay claim. And indeed I would echo the calls for readers to search their consciences, consider the evidence and to be mindful of the facts – particularly historical fact, Scriptural context, and traditional hermeneutics of the parables of Our Lord.