My Own Pie

Libertarian Thoughts from Renaissance Guy

Jesus and Taxes

with 4 comments

     People have used the story of Jesus and the tax question as a way to try to convince me to support government welfare.  For me, at least, they are barking up the wrong tree.

     If you want to explore the subject a bit more, Wikipedia has a pretty good artcle on the story that includes the context and the various interpretations of the story.

     The most important thing to understand about the story is that the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was not asked sincerely.  The men who asked it were not trying to find out Jesus’ opinion of taxation; they were trying to verbally trap him.  Jesus’ answer, therefore, should not necessarily be taken as a categorical answer on whether it is right for government to tax people or on whether it is right to comply.  Much less is it proof that Jesus expected the governmetn to take care of the needy.  Rather, his answer was a clever way to dodge the trap that was set for him.

     The trap was to work like this:  If Jesus said that the Jews should refuse to pay taxes, then his opponents could accuse him of rebellion and turn him over to the Roman authorities.  If he said that they should pay them, then the people, who resented Roman occupation and their taxes, would turn against Jesus.

     As he often did, Jesus turned the trap around on them, exposing them as hypocrites.  By asking them to show him a Roman coin, he was pointing out that they used Roman money, and if you use Roman money, then you are obligated to pay Roman taxes.  In addition, the image of Caesar on the coin was considered idolatry to the Jews; therefore, Jesus showed that the Jewish leaders were willing to compromise their beliefs for financial security.

     The Jewish leaders had a love-hate relationship with the Roman government.  They were unhappy that their country was under the rule of another.  However, they had worked out deals with the Romans in order to retain religious freedom for Jewish people and a semblance of power for themselves.  By retaining their positions of religious authority and limited civil authority, they were able to make a great deal of money as well as keep their power.  Jesus was exposing the embarrassing fact that they were financially in league with their Roman oppressors at the same time they supposedly opposed them on religious and political grounds.

     Jesus’ question has very little to do with whether or not citizens should pay taxes to their legitimate government leaders.  Rather, it has to do with what citizens should do when an outside power is ruling and oppressing them.  Jesus’ answer seems to be, “If you are going to cooperate with the occupying force by accepting their currency, then cooperate with them fully.  Don’t pretend to be against them on the one hand, but use the benefits that they provide on the other hand.”

     The next part of Jesus’ answer is the most stinging.  He says, “. . .and give to God what belongs to God.”  Since he is talking about the image stamped on the coin, he is talking about people themselves belonging to God, for the Hebrew Bible says that people were made in the image of God.  In other words, people should care at least as much about their duty to dedicate themselves and their lives to God as about their duty to the civil government.

     His command implies that the Jewish leaders were not already giving to God what belonged to God, and apparently this would have rung true with the common people and endeared Jesus to them even more than before.  This implied rebuke, on top of exposing their hypocritical ties to Rome, left the Jewish leaders bewildered and prompted them to slink away.


Written by ambrosianideas

October 16, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Christianity, Taxation

4 Responses

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  1. Interesting interpretation. I’m not sure you are on firm standing with the “if” part. It seems to me the issue between money and God is materialism vs. spirituality. Money doesn’t really matter for your soul. I’d say that your “in other words” at the end of the penultimate paragraph is understated — he’s saying people should care much more about their duty to God, and not really worry about their duty to civil government. Taxes are neither good nor evil, but irrelevant. Pay them, don’t pay them, follow laws or not, all that will do is render you material consequences. Following or not following God’s laws or living or not living a Godly life will have “real” consequences.

    At least, that would be my interpretation — more of an Augustinian approach. That would separate Christianity from politics — it seems to me that Christianity is fundamentally apolitical — the material world is not what matters, the spiritual world is.

    Scott Erb

    October 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm

  2. RG,
    That’s a novel interpretation to me also. My understanding has always been that the Saducees cooperated with the Romans for the sake of money and power, while the Pharisees were much more purists regarding their religion, and had little if any political power. Both wanted to trap Jesus with his words in order to end his influence over the masses, thus questions like this one.

    But the idea you suggest that Jesus was saying “If you are going to cooperate with the occupying force by accepting their currency, then cooperate with them fully. Don’t pretend to be against them on the one hand, but use the benefits that they provide on the other hand” – to me that is not consistent with other teachings of Jesus or elsewhere in the New Testament.

    I see no indication in Scripture that there is anything wrong with using currency, regardless of whose picture is on it, or accepting the protection offered by government in terms of keeping the peace, nor that benefiting from government in that way implies one should “cooperate with them fully” when they are doing things that go against service to God.

    On the contrary, God’s people are expected to work for the benefit of the people they live among, which would include paying taxes, and obeying the civil government (see what God told the exiles in Babylon, through Jeremiah, I think, as well as commands in the NT letters). But they are clearly to draw the line at cooperating when it would mean disobeying God (Daniel, and Acts 5).

    Jesus had plenty to say to the religious leaders about their hypocrisy. But I think it is reading too much into this passage to see it here.

    I do agree, though, that there is no basis in this passage to say what Jesus thinks government should be doing with the taxes it collects. Applying any Scriptures to our government today is complicated by the fact that our American government is “by the people,” so it’s not us people and them the government, is us people and us government. And if it seems like the government is just “them,” it’s because we have chosen not to get involved in that way.

    Regarding Scott Erb’s last paragraph, the material world does matter, it just should not be elevated in importance over the spiritual world. Christians have always cared about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but it generally been done by non-governmental groups such as hospitals, rescue missions, various community groups, etc.

    And I’m not sure what it means to be “apolitical.” I do not think it is possible to have a society without people trying to influence others, make rules about issues that affect other people, use compromise to get most people to agree, etc. If what you mean is non-partisan, then I would agree. A Christian should make decisions based on what is right/what is best, not based on what group is pushing for or against something.


    October 19, 2009 at 2:04 am

  3. I was thinking more about Augustine’s original theological perspective and how it led to nearly 1000 years of Christian retreat from the worldly. Progress, material gain, and all the things that we in the modern world seek was rejected. All that mattered was the afterlife, this world was at best a distraction. Do your duty (as defined by tradition and the Church) and you will have an eternity in paradise. “Progress” in the sense of being able to do more and achieve a more materially successful world was something in the past (Rome) not the future. This put Europe in a 1000 year deep freeze in some ways, as the Islamic world and China represented the pinnacles of world civilization at the time. The enlightenment, which led to progress, science and material wealth, also led to the “de-Christianization” of Europe and an increasingly small role for religion vis-a-vis secular thought or ideologies (ideologies = secular religions).

    Coming from a Christian background (with a lot of study of theology and the Bible), but having decided that I could not myself hold on to belief in a particular story or theology, I am no longer a Christian. Yet I find the New Testament a highly inspirational and spiritually enlightened and inspired work.

    Scott Erb

    October 19, 2009 at 2:39 am

  4. I happened to be reading Jung today for my training program and ran across this, which reminded me of you. It is from “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” in a chapter called “Concerning Rebirth.” Jung is writing about different forms of the rebirth motif and has identified identification with a group as a type of rebirth or transformation. He notes that group identity is fleeting, putting a person in the position of having to seek repeated intoxications to keep him from being who he actually is when away from the group (an idea I find interesting, especially when applied to causes or religion!).

    Anyway, forgive me in advance for the length of this, but it’s such a good comment on the psychology of the welfare state that I’d like to know your thoughts. Here it is:

    “The group can give the individual a courage, a bearing, and a dignity which may easily get lost in isolation. It can awaken within him the memory of being a man among men. But that does not prevent something else from being added which he would not possess as an individual. Such unearned gifts may seem a special favor of the moment, but in the long run there is a danger of the gift becoming a loss, since human nature has a weak habit of taking gifts for granted; in times of necessity we demand them as a right instead of making the effort to obtain them ourselves. One sees this, unfortunately, only too plainly in the tendency to demand everything from the State, without reflecting that the State consists of those very individuals who make the demands. The logical development of this leads to Communism, where each individual enslaves the community and the latter is represented by a dictator, the slave-owner. All primitive tribes characterized by a communistic order of society also have a chieftain over them with unlimited powers. The Communist State is nothing other than an absolute monarchy in which there are no subjects, only serfs” (Collected Works, vol. 9i, p. 127 [par. 228]).


    October 19, 2009 at 6:55 pm

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