Jesus and Taxes

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

I’m one of those people who still does his own federal income tax return, in large part, because I don’t trust the commercial software because I am afraid that it can’t navigate the fact that I am, simultaneously, self-employed for social security purposes and an employee for income purposes. So, each year I can clear out the mental cobwebs that only a complicated math problem with several IRS schedules and an income statement of my own making can reach. Occasionally I make a mistake, and the IRS is happy to point it out, especially if I owe them more. Last year my mistake netted me a thousand-dollar refund. Even the IRS can make a mistake. One year their computer didn’t catch the fact that I am an ordained minister and they slapped me with a big bill plus interest. That certainly got my attention! But when I explained myself to a real human being, all was forgiven, but not without that prior rush of adrenaline and a few heart palpitations that Caesar, in whatever form or guise, has the power to evoke.

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.

As you know, many of our current elected representatives would like to reduce our taxes and simplify our tax code. Walter Williams wrote a column in the Ledger this week that reported some of the facts about federal income taxes. For example, the top 1% of income earners, those who have an adjusted gross income of $480,939, pay 39% of all income taxes. The top 10%, those with adjusted incomes over $138,031, pay 70.6% of all income taxes. The bottom 50%, those with incomes of $39,275 or less, pay 2.83% of all income taxes. 45.5% of households pay no income tax. We also have the fourth highest corporate income tax in the world at 38.91%.

In comparison, let me give you some of the tax facts in Jesus’ day, when he responded to the question about taxation put to him by the Pharisees, on the one hand, who thought it was wrong to pay taxes to Caesar, and the Herodians, the half-Jewish collaborators with Rome, on the other hand, who supported the imperial taxes. In addition to the taxes that every Jew was expected to pay as a law-abiding Jew, which would include 10% of their income, the first fruits tax, a yearly temple tax, and a tax on their first-born child, and probably other taxes I’m not aware of, which would have amounted to 15-20% of their income, they also had to give Caesar another 10% of their grain, 20% of their wine and fruit, import and export taxes, road tolls and a 1% tax on all their personal property. That adds up to a combined tax burden of 50% or more for every one of Jesus’ fellow Jews. We can understand why Matthew, Zacchaeus and all the other nameless tax collectors in Jesus’ day were so hated, because in addition to the fact that they had successfully outbid others who wanted the contract of taking at least 30% from everyone for the emperor, they had the right to get as much more as they could extort through threats and other strongarm tactics on their fellow Jews as their own compensation.

Jesus immediately realized that he was being set up by his adversaries who could accuse him either of insurrection against Roman civil authority or of betrayal of his Jewish identity. “Gottcha” politics and partisan entrapment are not modern inventions by Democrats and Republicans. Jesus shrewdly avoided his own first-century trap by responding in those familiar words:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.

I think we can all agree that our taxes are not voluntary gifts to the government. That’s why I like the old translation better than the one we heard today, “Give to Caesar . . .” because we render our taxes as something we owe, as an obligation, like a mortgage, or subpoenaed testimony, or the payment of our employee’s wages. Jesus is telling us that if something has Caesar’s image and likeness on it, then it belongs to Caesar and he has a right to demand of us, if we happen to live under an imperial form of government. Similarly, in a representative government like ours, we owe what our representatives determine that we owe, even as we retain the power to elect those who will represent us and subsequently write the tax code that governs the money issued by the federal reserve.

Jesus is saying that this is even truer of our relationship with God. What we give to God is not, strictly speaking, a voluntary gift. You and I have been made by God in his image and likeness, no less than Tiberius pressed his gold, silver and copper into coins with his own image and likeness in them. When I anoint Jace David and sign him with the cross, I am saying that Jace now belongs to God as his possession with an imprint that cannot be erased, remade and reborn in the image and likeness of God’s Son, Jesus, bought with his precious blood. What God demands of us, especially those of us who recognize that we have been redeemed by Christ, is us, you and I who are made in his image. Whatever we may choose to pledge to the work of his church or his larger kingdom is only a small portion of all that we are and all that we have from him and all that he has a right to claim of us.

Is there fraud and waste in the federal government? Yet bet there is. There is also tax evasion and the resulting back taxes plus interest. And so can we find examples of fraud and waste in the church. That’s why we have an independent audit of our books each year, so that you can be assured that our vestry has been good stewards of what you have pledged as a portion of your total obligation to God and his kingdom. Jesus’ story of the man who owed his king 10,000 talents reminds us that all of us are guilty of evading our obligation to God and our neighbor to an extent that we can never hope to meet that obligation apart from the mercy of the king. The king is prepared to forgive our debt as we forgive the debts that others owe us. Matthew’s account of the widow who put all that she had into the offering plate, two copper coins that amounted to nothing more than a penny, is an example of someone who rendered all she had and all she was to God.

Jesus apparently didn’t pay taxes, or very few, not because he resented the power and authority of imperial Rome, because, as he told Pilate, the governor, he wouldn’t have any authority if his heavenly Father hadn’t given it to him in the first place. No, Jesus didn’t pay taxes because he chose a life of poverty. He was in that 45.5% of our country who owe nothing in income taxes because they are poor, probably in most cases, unlike Jesus, not by choice. Matthew even preserves that strange story of how Jesus and Peter paid the annual Temple tax when he told Peter to catch a fish and pay the tax with the coin that he would find inside the fish.

Let us pray that God may inspire our representatives to amend the tax code, if necessary, so that the common good may be promoted, and so that, in addition, in our case as Christians, we may take advantage of the resulting health of our society to spread the Good News of God’s perfect kingdom as we serve the needs of our neighbors, as well as through our public institutions with the taxes that we render to Caesar. AMEN.