Written by Dave Lamb
Monday, 15 April 2013 00:00
Nobody likes paying taxes. And April 15 is the one day of the year that reminds us most painfully that the US government has once again commandeered part of our well-earned paycheck.
Taxes have dominated the political discussion the past few months with one sort of fiscal cliff narrowly averted, and another one looming on the horizon as our elected officials are unable to negotiate a permanent solution.
When Christians weigh in on the subject of taxes, we often ignore the Bible. So, before we proceed much further, let’s look at what Jesus says about taxes in Mark 12.
And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?"But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, "Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it."And they brought one. And he said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" They said to him, "Caesar's."Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And they marveled at him (Mark 12:13-17).
Apparently the topic of taxation was a hot one in Jesus’ day, so much so that that the Herodians and Pharisees used a question about paying taxes to Caesar to set a trap for Jesus.
“Should we pay taxes to Caesar?”
If Jesus said, “Don’t pay taxes” that would anger the Romans, the rulers of the land, and perhaps get him thrown in jail as a rebel. If he said, “Pay taxes” then that would anger the patriots and nationalists who wanted to throw off the shackles of Rome, many of whom may have been supporting Jesus. The political leaders of Israel (the Herodians) and the spiritual leaders of Israel (the Pharisees) have joined forces because they both want him dead (Death and Taxes—always linked together).
Not surprisingly, Jesus cleverly avoids falling into their trap. He responds to their two questions with two questions and two commands.
Jesus’ first question, “Why put me to the test?” shows that he understands what they are doing. They don’t really want an answer from Jesus. And now they know that Jesus knows why they asked about taxes. So they don’t answer Jesus’ first question.
Jesus then gives his first command, “Bring me a coin.” Jesus frequently uses visual aids in his teaching: a coin, a fig tree, a widow (Mark 11:13-21; 12:43). The coin contains Jesus answer.
Jesus second question, “Whose likeness is on the coin?” requires an answer. But it doesn’t require much thinking; a child could answer by looking at the coin. “Caesar’s” they respond.
Their response perfectly sets up Jesus’ second command, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (In The History Channel’s recent production of “The Bible” as Jesus delivers the first half of this command he tosses the coin to a Roman soldier. A nice touch.)
Jesus doesn’t care about taxes. It’s not a priority for him. He only addresses the subject when asked. He was concerned about bigger things. He was more concerned that God gets what’s coming to him.
So, how do we render to God what is God’s? When Jesus asked about the coin, it was the likeness on the coin that determined its ownership. Caesar’s coins bear Caesar’s likeness.
What bears God’s likeness? That would be you and me, according to Genesis 1:27. Humans bear God’s likeness as we are created in his image. So, in the same way we give government-printed money to the government, we give ourselves to God (but not only on April 15).
How do we give ourselves to God? The context of this story in Mark’s gospel provides some suggestions: we serve others, we praise God, we pray to God and we love God and our neighbor (Mark 10:44; 11:9, 17; 12:30-31). Perhaps the most powerful illustration of what Jesus is talking about is modeled by the poor widow who appears at the end of this chapter (Mark 12:41-44). She renders to the offering only two small coins (bearing the image of Caesar), which wasn’t much materially. But Jesus praises her to his disciples because it was all she had to live on, and she gave it all.
She rendered fully to God what was God’s. And like the widow, Jesus asks his followers to give themselves wholeheartedly to God.
As we pay our taxes, let’s remember that it’s more important to render ourselves to the one whom we bear the image of, our God and our Creator.
What other ways can we render to God what is God’s?
If you are looking for a creative way to pay your taxes, follow Jesus’ advice to Peter and try fishing(see Matt. 17:24-27).
David Lamb is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Biblical. He’s the husband of Shannon, father of Nathan and Noah, and the author of God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?He blogs regularly at http://davidtlamb.com/. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/david-lamb.