This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The idea didn’t originate with Grover Norquist. When Jesus would have been just a tyke, a guy known as Judas the Galilean started an anti-tax campaign in the Roman province of Judea. Most people have never heard of him, but he made quite a splash back in the day. The Romans had instituted a new tax policy in 6 CE, which required a census to implement (the author of Luke uses the memory of this census as the pretext for getting Joseph and Mary down to Bethlehem in Lk. 2). This policy was something new, since taxes were previously paid to whatever ethnarch or king, such as Herod and his sons, that the Romans lifted into leadership over the Jews. But in 6 CE the Augustus determined to switch to direct rule by a Roman prefect, who organized the census to prepare for the new direct taxation process. The tax was, as are taxes anywhere, widely unpopular, and taxation would be a constant point of contention between Rome and the Jews. But Judas the Galilean took his protest to a whole new level. Proclaiming himself as Messiah, he turned the question of paying taxes to a pagan emperor into a theological issue. Basically telling the Romans to “Read my lips,” Judas further tried to leverage his call for “no new taxes” into a political and military coup to unseat the Romans as the Maccabees had done a century and a half earlier to the Seleucid Greeks. But as Josephus tells us, this effort was swiftly and brutally suppressed by the Romans.
Yet, in what may be the first recorded example of “zombie economics,” Judas’ idea came back to life and would remain in circulation in the province for roughly the next sixty years until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
This is part of the social context of this week’s gospel lection from Matthew 22:15-22. According to Matthew, the opposition to Jesus sought to spring a political trap on Jesus by asking him how he felt about tax policy. Specifically, was it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor (v. 17)? As the introduction of the matter demonstrates, they are trying to get Jesus to come down on one side of the issue or the other, since Jesus had been known for respecting everyone (v. 16). Either he will have to side with the emperor against the people and look like a collaborator, or side with the people against the government and look like Judas the Galilean. Either way, not good options.
It is important to recall that the Roman system of taxation was confiscatory, with scholarly estimates of total taxation being as high as 50%. The provinces existed to keep resources flowing towards Rome. In addition to this head tax, there were any number of other taxes which provincials like the Jews were required to pay to their overlords. And the method of collection was notoriously corrupt, as the many derogatory New Testament references to “publicans” attest (cf. e.g. Matt. 9:10-11; Luke 19:2-10).
Jesus, however, deftly avoids his opponents’ trap. He asks for the coin in which the tax was paid, and is handed a denarius, which, according to Matt. 20.2 was a day’s wage for a peasant. Jesus then asked his opponents “Whose head is this, and whose title?” and when they told him, he responded with the now-classic retort from the KJV to “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
As evangelical biblical scholars Walter Kaiser and F.F. Bruce have noted, the word translated here as “render” has the idea of giving back to someone what is properly their own. The money was always Caesar’s–his rule created it, maintained it, and secured and regulated the marketplace in which it was utilized. People who had a denarius may have thought it was theirs, but as Jesus reminds them, the stamp of Caesar shows that not to be the case. But this does not mean, from Jesus’ perspective, a capitulation to Caesar in any way, for he balances what is due to the emperor with what is due to God. He does not have to unpack this for his hearers, who know full well that Jesus is referring to the Imago Dei of Genesis 1:26-27, stamped more indelibly on each human being than any emperor could ever press into a lump of metal. You can tell what is due to whom, Jesus is saying, by the stamp of the one who made it.
There were times in the life of the church when the preacher could leave the matter at that, and focus on what it means for us to render ourselves to the God who made us. Sadly, however, in this present age, we are beset by people, inside and outside of the church, who are on an anti-tax jihad. Grover Norquist, who has rigidly enforced national Republicans’ signing of the pledge never to raise taxes, has famously said that he wants to shrink government down to the size that it can be drowned in a bathtub. In light of this week’s gospel lesson, however, as well as a thorough study of the entire scripture, it is quite clear that, wherever this notion originated, it isn’t in any way grounded in biblical faith. In addition to this passage, Matthew, for example, has already had Jesus speaking to the question of paying taxes earlier in chapter 17. He’s not complaining about how high they are–and they were onerous, way more so than people people pay today. Instead, in that passage he is concerned that he and his followers not be giving offense by withholding payment rather than siding with the first century Tea Partiers.
The current antitax sentiment could not be more ill-timed. The need for more revenue has not been this great for generations, yet the wealthy have seen their effective tax rates go through the floor for the past 30 years. In the 1950s, the wealthiest Americans paid an effective rate of more than 50%, while today they barely pay a third of that. At the same time, the income gap between rich and poor has widened so significantly that according to the IMF, it threatens the growth needed to put the economy back on track and the unemployed back to work. This situation, in which billionaire Warren Buffet’s assistants pay higher tax rates than he does, occurs as the country fights two wars, has many millions on some form of public assistance or income supplement, and we borrow more than a trillion per year to keep even more from falling into poverty.
Pastors cannot sit by quietly while this situation continues. The fact is that the widespread contempt for taxes is detrimental to the well-being of society, particularly the poor and middle classes. An illustration of the current penchant for entertaining such destructive notions comes right of of the front page of the nation’s newspapers. The GOP presidential candidate getting a lot of attention just now, Herman Cain, has offered the horrendous idea that the current system be replaced by corporate, personal and sales taxes of 9% which even the conservative Washington Times optimistically says will bring in $360 billion a year LESS than the already inadequate amount coming in right now. That someone touting a program this radical would even be taken seriously as a potential president is ample demonstration of just how strange things have gotten and what the pastoral challenge this Sunday in preaching this text will be.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology and is parish associate at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.