Jesus on Paying Taxes: A Deft Navigation of Empire and Kingdom

[They asked Jesus], ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said… ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:17-22)

At first, it all seems tidy and efficient, does it not? 

During a time when the Jewish people lived under the weight of an often oppressive and corrupt Roman system of taxation (which would have required them to pay large sums of money to the very empire whose rule was a daily affront to their theological sensibilities), Jesus is asked a straightforward question about tax responsibilities as they relate to the faith community. Jesus, after asking to see a Roman coin and pointing out to the people the likeness and title of the emperor imprinted upon it, responds succinctly: Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Easy and clean, right? Jesus is defining an organized set of compartments. “Here’s your citizen compartment over here, and there’s your faith compartment over there. This part of your life is your obligation to the empire, and that part of your life is your commitment to God.” Problem solved. Next!

But, hold on for a minute. Think with me about the deeper layers of this moment of Scripture.

If Jesus’ response had been nothing more than a practical reinforcement of tidy social compartments (as in “Just go ahead and pay your taxes and be a good citizen—and don’t forget to pray!”), it would hardly have generated amazement from the questioners. And amazement, says the Scripture, is precisely what Jesus’ response inspired.

It compels us to ask the question—What was so amazing about Jesus’ response?

Perhaps part of the questioners’ amazement had to do the fact that the question itself was designed to draw Jesus into a conceptual no-win scenario. If, for example, Jesus had simply said, “Yes, by all means, pay your taxes to the empire,” he would have alienated a large portion of the Jewish community that had regularly experienced the exploitive nature of Roman taxation and that would have been looking for something more than institutional compliance from Jesus. Likewise, if Jesus had answered, “Absolutely not—Don’t give a single coin to this twisted empire,” he would have quickly been charged with sedition and likely arrested, which would have brought his earthly ministry to closure before its time.

Jesus offers neither of these responses to the question. Instead, he expands the landscape of the question in a manner that invites the questioners (and listeners nearby) to shift their focus from taxation to theology—from the emperor and his tax laws to God and God’s perfect sovereignty.

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

In order to appreciate the nuance of Jesus’ response, ponder this: What, ultimately, belongs to the emperor? In fact, what truly “belongs” to any emperor?

In a word, nothing.

Every emperor, ruler, monarch, prime minister, or president who has ever lived (including the one Jesus references) holds authority and power for a season, but eventually returns to dust, as does his or her illusions of control and ownership. What, then, does this Roman Emperor (to whom Jesus refers) own today, and what belongs to him?

Nothing.

By contrast, what belongs to God?

In a word, everything.

Our coins and our capabilities. Our accumulated resources and our well-developed skill sets. Our deepest allegiance and our very lives. All of what we have and all of what we are is looked upon rightly only when it is seen as being under the proprietorship and dominion of the One about whom the Psalmist writes these words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”  (Psalm 24:1). In theological terms, what emperor could ever claim rightful ownership over a person’s taxes when the emperor’s very breath is breathed only by the sheer grace of the Creator?

With this perspective in mind, listen to Jesus’ response to the question once again, and picture how someone with strong convictions about God’s sovereignty might have interpreted it:

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

It is less of an answer to the question about taxes and more of a theological statement about who God is and who the emperor is. “Wait,” Jesus seems to be saying, “Not so fast. You are looking to force me into the trap of a straightforward answer. But try this response on for size: Go ahead and give to the emperor what ‘belongs’ to the emperor. Just don’t forget to render to God all the things over which God has rightful claim!”

Any Roman official within earshot might have muttered, “Well, at least he didn’t tell people NOT to pay taxes.”

Likewise, any person of faith might have heard in Jesus’ words nothing less than a clever affirmation of several truths: that, in the end, everything is God’s and nothing is Caesar’s; that even a tax payment comes under God’s holy proprietorship long before its absorption into the empire’s machinery; and that, even if a Jewish person pays taxes to Rome to preserve a necessary peace, s/he does so, not because the tax belongs to the emperor, but because both the taxpayer and the emperor belong to God.

What, then, do we find in this “deeper-than-we-may-have-thought” portion of Scripture? 

We find a Jesus who can simultaneously avoid a conceptual trap while at the same time calling people to grander narratives. 

We find an affirmation of the truth that any tax we pay, any vote we cast, and any allegiance we pledge to a flag is an act of God-given conviction and not the rightful property of any empire.

Most of all, we find a glimpse of a Kingdom where the reign of God in a human life defines a soul far more than an empire ever could and where God’s sovereignty over all things makes even an oppressive system of taxation seem temporarily bearable.

No wonder the questioners “were amazed…and went away.”

There may be truth in this Scripture that Christ-followers would do well to embrace or re-embrace in 2020, especially during a season that tempts us so relentlessly to align with “the empire” (in one way or another) with a fervor that borders on idolatry and a zeal that distorts the priorities of a Jesus-shaped life.

Thank you for traveling deeply into this moment of Scripture with me. I hope that it was worth the trip.

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