Paying Tax To Caesar
This is a very topical subject with the issue of tax avoidance and tax evasion high on the political agenda. For any supporters of a certain football team from Glasgow, it is also a painful subject. But this is also about larger issues such as Christianity’s relationship to nation states and to what extent Christians should resist or comply with the politics of nation states.
The background to Jesus’ discussion about taxes is very interesting. Herod the Great died in 4 BC. He had ruled all of Palestine and was loyal to Rome who let him get on with it provided the income flowed to Rome. His will divided his kingdom between his three sons. Antipas got Galilee and Peraea (say Stirlingshire, Perthshire and Angus). Philip got the wild country to the north east (say the Highlands) and Archelaus got Judaea and Samaria to the south (say the central belt). Antipas and Philip were reasonable rulers but Archelaus was a disaster. In 6 AD the Romans took over directly, ruling by their own Procurator. Such men were political trouble shooters, ruthless in administering firmly. Indeed, they had to be - for their careers depended on their success. So was Pontius Pilate who held the title of Procurator and also Prefect. Roman procurators' and prefects' primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as in the district of Judea and Jerusalem with the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest. In Judea then, taxes were paid directly to the Romans, collected by people like Zaccheus.
After his appointment in 6 AD the governor Cyrenius took a census so that he could maximise the tax due to Rome. Most Jews accepted this but some rebels and zealots did not. One called Judas started a violent rebellion. He equated paying Roman taxes to slavery. He called the people to fight saying that God was their only ruler and Lord. It was a cause worth dying for - which, of course, he and others did. One account is that he suffered crucifixion with his body remaining to be eaten by ravens and his bones to be scattered by dogs. His war cry however “No taxes to the Romans” remained in popular memory. America became an independent country after a similar revolt by British colonialists in the 1750’s and 1760’s against taxation. The catchphrase “No taxation without representation” became a rallying call for the war of independence which of course unlike the Romans in the time of Judas, Britain lost.
As further background to this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians, we know that three different taxes were imposed: i) a ground tax of 1/10th of all grain and 1/5th of all wine and fruit, to be paid in kind or money ii) an income tax of 1% of income iii) a poll tax on all men from the ages of 14 to 65 and on women from 12 to 65 of one denarius - the equivalent of a labourer’s day’s wages, or perhaps about £50 today - which everyone paid just for existing. No-one ever liked paying taxes but these taxes were not to fund social security or the Palestine national health service. They went abroad. They were like Peter’s Pence in the pre-Reformation Church. They went from the poorer people to the rich and powerful.
The Pharisees and Herodians were proxies for the ruling elite of Jerusalem. They made common cause. Although Jesus was in the Pharisaic tradition he had volubly criticised their false public piety and hypocrisy. The Herodians as their names suggests were a royalist party or sect, like the cavaliers during the English Civil War or unionists in present day Scotland. They were establishment people. They offered Jesus some back-handed flattery. 'You are a man of integrity…you aren’t swayed by men…you pay no attention to who they are'. This was a description of rudeness and lack of social graces. But they offered a genuine compliment also. 'You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth'. Perhaps they tried to disarm Jesus, put him off his guard. They were not there to admire him. So they asked him two barbed and difficult questions, 'Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?' Should we pay or shouldn’t we? This was a clever move. The key words were to Caesar. If Jesus answered on one side or the other they had him. If he said 'It’s right to pay taxes to Caesar' he would be seen as a turncoat and betrayer of his own people without any claim to spiritual or moral leadership. If he said 'No - it’s not right to pay taxes to Caesar' he could be reported as an insurrectionist like Judas the revolutionary who came to a bad end.
Jesus was a match for them however. He acknowledged the true purpose of their questions which was to trap him. But he did not walk away from the questions. He asked for a denarius silver coin. Like royalty and the poorest, Jesus carried no money himself. Judas, we know, was the fellowship treasurer - but he also embezzled from the funds entrusted to him. Jesus looked the ‘heads’ side first. It bore the image of the Emperor Tiberius and round the edge the inscription of 'Tiberius Caesar, the divine Augustus, son of Augustus'. One the ‘tails’ side there was the title the high priest of the Roman nation. The title of high priest was later inherited and used to this day by the Christian Popes. In the ancient world coinage was a sign of power. A conquering nation scrapped the coinage of the conquered country and made their own. Valid currency equalled active political power. Roman coinage was held to be the property of the Emperor. Using coinage then meant acknowledging the Emperor’s rule.
Jesus gave one of his most enigmatic commands. 'Give to the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar what is in fact his and give to the God and Father of Israel what is his', that is, to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. This text has come through the centuries as one of the most important in the whole Bible. It balanced respect for political authority and spiritual freedom. It eschewed violence and upheld the political status quo even if it was burdensome. It carved out and clarified the personal spiritual nature of Faith. Jesus’ interrogators were impressed by his answer because they had not been able to catch him out. They thought politically and materially. He thought spiritually. Jesus gave breath to his own following and ensured its survival and success. His movement would not be crushed. His disciples would not be slain' en masse'. The Church would be born and would live. It did.
But here is the basis for Christian political passivity and conservatism. Paul expanded this teaching in his writings in Romans 13 'Everyone must submit to the governing authorities' and Peter did also in his first Letter chapter 2 'Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men'. This was why early Christians did not fight for their Faith and chose martyrdom for three centuries under Roman rule. It will not surprise you to know that it was a Scot who questioned this doctrine. John Knox. When Mary Queen of Scots asked him whether subjects had a right to resist their ruler, he replied that if monarchs exceeded their lawful limits, they might be resisted, even by force.
Christian thought ever since Jesus has always maintained that nation states are ordained by God for good order and governance of people. The benefits of good governance can be seen when it is absent such as in Somalia and Syria today. We complain much about our politicians but the democratic system is the least bad option. In Christian thought, such benefits must be balanced by responsibilities. Today Christians may take either side of the social argument about benefits and responsibilities. In the aftermath of late summer’s riots in London and elsewhere this was the message that was put out. Liberal Christians are strong on benefits and softer on responsibilities. Evangelical Christians tend to be stronger on responsibilities and weaker on benefits. However it is evangelical Christians throughout the land that are more actively involved in social projects and humanitarian activities. The great social Reformers of 18th and 19th century Britain were evangelical Christians. The Bethany Trust is a very good local contemporary example. Liberal Christians in the Church of Scotland talk a good game and are politically committed on the left. Evangelicals emphasise worship and social action together and tend to be spread over different political parties.
Jesus nevertheless both in words and in example put God before the Roman Emperor. He later told Pilate that his political power over him was given by God. God allowed him his role. He did not resist the decision of Pilate to have him crucified because he knew he was fulfilling His father’s will. To this day, He offers the world that light and hope that all arguments and struggles and battles can be won without violence. What a contrast with Islam and with the state of Israel.
For every Christian, loyalty to God comes before loyalty to the state. Many Christian Brethren, Salvation Army and Quaker members refused to fight during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Many were willing to serve as medical assistants on the front line - but they would not carry weapons nor would they kill. The gave to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was God’s. Two Roman Catholic nurses in Glasgow have recently been fighting for the freedom not to have to be responsible for abortions. In England some evangelical Christians have lost their jobs out of loyalty to their Christian consciences.
Returning to the issue of paying taxes. We know that there are many ways to avoid paying taxes from the dishonest to the technically astute. Large companies pay accountants a lot of money to minimise their tax burdens. Rich individuals do so too. There are loopholes and schemes to be exploited. Rangers have been caught out. Barclays Bank has been caught out. Greece has been caught out. There is also an expansive black market throughout the country. In local car boot sales, markets and on internet sites such as eBay, paying tax can be avoided. Many trades people deal in cash where they can. Do they all complete an honest tax return at the end of the year? Tax evasion is different from tax avoidance and is a crime. Harry Redknapp got away with his secret bank account. Ken Dodd got off with his charge of tax evasion. His brilliant QC George Carmen told the judge 'Accountants may sometimes be comedians but comedians are never accountants'.
In this nation, we receive definite visible quantifiable benefits from our taxes. Our society depends on these now. In America for all it is a rich country there are not the same proportional social safety nets. In many poor countries there are none at all. Yet there are resentments in Britain about taxes that go to the European Union and there is a perennial argument about whether Scotland pays more tax than it should or less than it should.
Going back to Jesus. It was essential for Jesus not to get bogged down in an argument about money and politics. His kingdom was not primarily about either. This issue - this confrontation - this discussion - this argument - was crucial. Christianity was born out of a clear distinction between the eternal rule of God in the hearts of men and women and children and the rule of human beings on earth. Let us rejoice in belonging first and last to God’s kingdom as we share temporarily in the human kingdom and society in which we live out our days and years.