A Taxing Question
The Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher…is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” – Matthew 22:15-17 excerpts (NRSV)
There are two basic questions about taxes today: 1) what is each person’s fair share; and 2) what are the best uses of our collective resources?
Two thousand years ago, in Roman-occupied Israel, the question was more basic and more dangerous. That’s why some Pharisees posed it to Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the [Roman] emperor, or not?”
Their tax revenues didn’t support public education, infrastructure, and community services. Taxes paid for the Roman army whose boot was planted on their necks. In short, Jews were forced to fund their own oppression. Did God’s law support that?
There is a parallel question in the current call to defund police. Should our tax dollars support increasingly militarized police departments, which disproportionally target black and brown citizens? Does God’s law support that?
Jesus’ answer – “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” – did two things. First, although Jesus tacitly affirmed paying taxes, his answer also stripped Caesar of the emperor’s pretensions to divinity. Second, Jesus made it clear that God is never party to oppression.
Tomorrow many will celebrate independence from empire. Let’s also remember that America has since become an empire. How might Jesus call us to respond?
Even as we pay taxes and debate their best use, call me to a higher standard of justice and generosity.