Citizenship in a country of this world brings with it moral dilemmas. Is love of country idolatry? Is it wrong to work for a company that has some corrupt practices? Is paying taxes participation in evil acts by governments?
To educate the consciences of those who find paying taxes a moral conflict.
We will look at the discussion of paying tribute to Caesar in Matthew 22:15-22 and the moral dilemmas it poses.
How outspoken ought we to be? We all struggle with this issue. Should we speak our mind or hold our tongues? Some societies are very outspoken but tactless; others are tactful but filled with pretense and fake civility. Is civility always an act of love, or is it occasionally very unloving to suppress the truth under a veil of phony politeness? If someone flattered you with insincere words designed to trap you, how would you answer them? Beginning in Matthew 22:15, the Pharisees tried to sweet-talk Jesus by calling him an honest and impartial man. What would you have said? Would you have given a courteous reply or an outspoken one? Jesus was forthright in his answer. He did not mince words, nor get entangled in polite pretense. His reply was, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trick me?”
A False Dichotomy
A false dilemma is a predicament that implies that there are only two choices. It is also called a false dichotomy, suggesting that we may only choose from two answers. The two choices may not be mutually exclusive. They may both be right or wrong at times. Politics may pretend there is no alternative or that truth is only on one side. Not every choice between two alternatives is a false one. Both choices may be right, both wrong, or one right and the other wrong. In Matthew 22:17 the Pharisees’ disciples tried to trick Jesus by putting forth a false dichotomy – pay taxes to Caesar or not. The lesson for us is that the truth in a false dilemma sometimes lies in a third option: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.
The Imperial Tax
Paying tribute to the Roman Emperor was not voluntary, but necessary for survival under occupation. It violated the conscience of believers because the coins contained blasphemous inscriptions, a reminder of the gods imposed upon them by the Romans. Some revolutionaries refused to pay Roman taxes and died as a result of their rebellion. So when Jesus was asked in Matthew 22:17 whether or not it was right to pay taxes, he was being asked a larger question of conscience that believers face today. How far do we cooperate with the oppressive rulers of this world? How much ought we cooperate with corporate overlords who demand corrupt practices on the job? Is paying tribute to Caesar metaphorical for the extent that we who are called to love the world, are to be in the world, but not of the world?
Human government is nothing to brag about. Injustice, burdensome laws and oppressive administrations have only lessened slightly under democracies. Under the Roman sandal, life was bleak for the Jews. Israel’s history was filled with saviors who liberated them from such hated foreign oppression. A popular view in Jesus’ time saw him as another such savior to free the Jewish people from Rome (Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire. 2003 Augsburg Fortress. 44.). In Matthew 22:17 Jesus was asked whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, a politically and religiously loaded question. Jesus’ answer showed remarkable grace towards a human government that did not deserve it. How did Caesar get the coins that contained his inscription if not by brutal oppression and unreasonable taxes and tributes? What was Jesus’ answer? Give to Caesar what belongs to him.
Who are our Caesars today in a modern democratic world? Most of our economies are mixed, part government controlled and part privatized. Almost entirely capitalist countries only exist in the third world where there is enormous disparity between the rich and poor. In a mixed economy, we actually serve two Caesars, government and the oligarchy (the wealthy and powerful). One demands taxes. The other demands tribute. In America, just as in ancient Rome, our Caesars are also our gods. We worship our form of government and we worship our market. Is it right to pay tribute to our Caesars (Matthew 22:17)? We might ask today whose face is on the album cover, or on the bottle of pills, or on the pension check? Our Caesars ask too much tribute and give too little in return, but pay we must.
Right & Moral Ambiguity
Compromise is a dirty word to some people, yet anyone who is married is familiar with compromise. Some compromises are troublesome, such as making a choice between two evils. Which is worse, working for a corrupt corporation or not providing for our families, paying taxes which pay for evils or going to jail? Some people boycott particular companies for their sins. A boycott is like punishing one sinner and not the rest. All companies sin somewhere and the hidden sins may be worse than the known ones. So we work for companies that sin and pay taxes to governments that sin in a world that sins. Even if all Christians joined monasteries or communes to escape, our sins would follow us. In a world of moral ambiguity we pay tribute to corrupt Caesars in order to survive (Matthew 22:17).
Integrity & Flattery
Flattery is nice but it can also be a trap. Experienced pastors are well aware of the trap in a new assignment when they are flattered and a previous pastor criticized. Sooner or later, those who say such words may end up hating the new pastor too. Hollywood schmoozing may seem positive and encouraging on the surface, but it is flattery with a purpose, to get people somewhere. Just watch a Hollywood roast to find out how people really feel. And so in Matthew 22:18 a trap was set for Jesus with flattery: You are a man of integrity and teach God’s way truthfully without being swayed to shade the truth by popular opinion. Just as Jesus was not fooled by flattery, so too when we are flattered, we ought to go on high alert for a possible trap.
Paying Unjust Taxes
Jewish society at the time of Jesus had no separation of church and state. So when Jesus was asked in Matthew 22:19 whether or not it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, the underlying assumption was the injustice of excessive tax burdens — not an unfamiliar theme to us either. Under Roman rule the burden was socially destructive. The poor often lost their lands in order to pay tribute and taxes on top of tithes and offerings (Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire. Augsburg Fortress 2003). In effect they were forced to serve another god, Caesar. The question to Jesus was a politically motivated trap. If he said yes, he would be branded a traitor to God. If he said no, he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities. His answer showed remarkable grace and incredible wisdom.
The tribute coin of Matthew 22:20 was probably one labeled with abbreviations meaning “Tiberius Caesar, Divine Augustus Son of Augustus.” It could have also been an earlier coin with the inscription “Caesar Augustus son of divinity, Father of his Country.” Either coin makes claims which were blasphemous to the Jews. Such actions by the Romans gave rise to tax revolts such as those led by Jewish Zealots. Jesus was a different revolutionary. His agenda was certainly political, the kingdom of heaven, but the kingdom of heaven would conquer the kingdoms of this world by different means. So when Jesus said to render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar he was not capitulating to this world’s governments, but subverting them by submission to the point of death. That revolution continues today in the hearts of all who believe.
Duties of Citizenship
What is our duty to country? Is it right to mix Christianity and national idolatry! Would God want us to make an idol of country? What is the balance? Why does love for country so often seem to automatically extend to bigotry, jingoism, and xenophobia? What ought to be a Christian approach to national duty? In Matthew 22:21 Jesus was asked if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. His answer came in the context of idolatrous Roman Emperor Worship. To the Jews Caesar’s image on a coin was very offensive. Yet, paying Caesar his paltry tax was a rather insignificant claim in comparison to God’s claim. God required their entire lives. That is the difference. So, when it comes to duty to country, Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.
Give Back to Caesar
Government is a bad word to many people. In Appalachia it once evoked pictures of those who stopped the poor from earning a side income selling moonshine. On Wall Street it evokes a picture of tax burdens on businesses. In Jesus’ day, government evoked a picture of an oppressive regime, with burdensome taxes and Emperor Worship. In Matthew 22:21 Jesus was not asked whether it was okay to worship Caesar, but whether it was right to pay taxes. Jesus, the Son of God picked up a coin, which usually contained the inscription “son of a god” on it, and said that it is right to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. What then do we owe the government of our day? Whether the government is right or wrong, we still owe to the government what belongs to the government.
Give Back to God
America is the land with the world’s largest socialized freeway system and until recently the world’s best funded socialized space exploration agency. It is the world’s only wealthy capitalist country that does not have a universal health care system. Very many are not covered and the rest live under a cloud of doubt as to whether their insurance company will cover every need or find some exclusion in fine print. Americans spend twice as much on healthcare per capita than any other country. About half of bankruptcy filings in the USA are due to medical expenses. We render unto Caesar, who is a corrupt false god (Matthew 22:21). Should we not even more render unto God by helping the poor as he demands? Should not those who accumulate while others suffer be held accountable for their social responsibility?
What is God's
If we are to render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar (Matthew 22:21) do we also render to God the things that are his? What then do we owe to God? Even the coin that Caesar had placed his image and inscription upon and probably said something like “son of the gods” ultimately belonged to God. Like Caesar, we too do not really own anything. We rent things temporarily from God. What does God ask in return? He asks for honor and offerings. When human Caesars abuse us, God will rescue us. We must render to Caesar what belongs to him, even if he stole it from us in the first place. God only asks that we love him and our neighbor. What a different world it would be if we paid him what we owe.
Render unto God
The saying render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's comes from Matthew 22:21. We may assume this supports the separation of church and state, but that is wrong. It was written in a time when that was not even a concept and the Jewish and Roman religions were both part of the state. So rendering to God what belonged to God in that context then referred to the allegiance to the God of the Jewish people, not God entirely separated from a human government as we might picture it today. An unstated hidden message might be that Caesar in reality owns nothing. He is a false god. In faith we believe that what we must pay Caesar is a temporary burden. What do we render to God? Everything?
They Were Amazed
Let’s compare Stephen the Martyr’s response to questioning in Acts 7 with Jesus’ response in Matthew 22:22. Jesus knew that it was not yet his time to suffer the cross and so his answer was crafted with that in mind. He sidestepped the moral dilemma presented to him with a practical and inoffensive answer. On the other hand, Stephen went on the attack. His words were targeted and sharp, especially after verse 51. Particularly notice verse 56 in Acts 7. Stephen saw Jesus standing. Jesus who is usually described as sitting seems to have stood up in response. Stephen may have been even blunter than he needed to be, but there is a time for forthright accusation against religious injustice. If we choose to speak out, we must also know the potential consequences and the impact of our words.
Outro - Tainted Taxes
It is impossible to live and work in this world without being tainted. We work for companies that may sometimes engage in corrupt practices. Law enforcement often makes compromises because they don’t have resources to stop all crimes. Political leaders are often forced to deal with brutal foreign dictators for the sake of peace between nations. If we drive a car, we are inadvertently supporting regimes which oppress their people. So, when Jesus was asked if it was right to pay taxes in tribute to Caesar, he did not give an answer which satisfied every-one's political conscience, but the practical reality of life under a brutal Roman dictator (Matthew 22:21). We live in this world and do not yet have opportunity to change all of its corrupt ways. We pick our battles and the battle begins within ourselves.