It seems politicians are always talking about taxes. Jesus was far from apolitical.
For how many decades have we heard politicians and others talk about how unfair it is for 5% to pay 60% of the taxes. When they complain, they don’t usually mention how much of the income and wealth those 5% possess. And, these days, we often hear of the 1% and how much of the wealth is controlled by them. I’m assuming none of us here today are part of the 1% or even the 5%. Facts can be used to rouse up indignation among the populace and facts are also omitted to skew the picture.
Matthew was writing between AD 80 and 90. The burning issue of taxes at that time was a temple tax. You might ask, “The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by then, so where were the temple taxes going?” After the Jewish uprising was trampled out and the Jerusalem temple was burned and the stone walls demolished, Caesar mandated that the Jews would pay a temple tax to support the Jupiter temple in Rome. For many years, the occupied provinces of Judah had not been required to pay Roman temple taxes in honor of the ancient Jewish religion. AND when the people in Judah continued to rise up and try to overthrow and defy the Roman government, Caesar finally had enough and demanded the tribute to Jupiter. Adding insult to injury to injury to injury.
In Jesus’ lifetime, there were three regular Roman taxes. There was a ground tax: the government got 10% of the grain raised and 5% of the olive oil and wine produced--these were paid in kind and in cash. There was an income tax of 1%. In the Gospel story today the tax they were asking about would have been the poll tax that was paid by all the people who were of a working age: men from 14 to 65 and women from 12 to 65. So, all adults since people began working early and often didn’t live to the age of 50.
Today’s story occurs just after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He told a series of three parables that were aimed at the Sanhedrin or anyone who was in charge of the peoples’ spiritual well-being. The stories were told in public places in front of large gatherings of people. The Pharisees were irritated so they crafted an alliance with people who worked for Herod. Herod’s position in Judah was at the grace of Caesar. Supporting the collection of Roman taxes was paramount to maintaining his position. If Jesus answered the question incorrectly, he would be arrested for sedition and crucified. Jesus did not want this to be the reason for his arrest. If Jesus answered to appease the Romans, he would be discredited to the Jews.
The Message words the question this way, “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students. So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Here we go, the compliment to his character followed by the question no one wants to answer in public.
The Jews lived in a theocracy. God was their only king and paying taxes to a foreign, occupying government rubbed against all their religious sensibilities. The poll tax, a denarius, was about 133% of a day’s wage.
Jesus fell into a rabbinic pattern and asks some questions in return: “Why are you playing games with me? Why are you trying to trap me? Do you have a coin? Let me see it.”
A poor person would most likely not have a denarius.
So, while they are digging in their purses, Jesus can formulate an answer. He is concise. I can imagine him using the standard rabbi gestures as he says, “Whose picture is this? Whose name is on it?” They answered, “Caesar.” “Then give Caesar what is his and give God what is his.” The Pharisees and the Herodians had no response and went away shaking their heads.
Matthew’s people were still living under Caesar. Matthew wanted them to remain safe within that jurisdiction. Pay the temple tax to Jupiter because the government mandates it and give to God what you owe to God.
There were definite advantages to living in the Roman Empire. There was a unified legal code. A system of weights and measures for conducting business. Life was relatively safe because the Romans kept criminals locked up--or at least made life difficult for them. There were excellent roads for travel and commerce. There were water systems that allowed people to live in new places and in larger numbers. The government bought many of the products that were available for sale so the economy was thriving. The empire was so large there were products available from exotic places. Why not pay taxes to the government that provided such excellent infrastructure for the good of all society? And, yet, the Romans had become an empire through conquest and forced annexation.
So, how does this apply to us? We can be good citizens of our country. We can pay our taxes and understand that we benefit from the infrastructure and order the government provides. We can participate in our government by staying informed about the people who would be our leaders and how our government systems work so we can vote with our conscience. In Jesus’ and Matthews’ days, voting for the Roman leaders wasn’t an option.
When we read articles or hear people speak about issues: like 5% of the people paying 60% of the taxes, we need to ask questions and find the answers. What is the writer’s agenda? What questions does the person’s commentary raise? What facts are missing? It is a lot of work to stay informed. Do I make decisions solely on what is good for me or do I consider the common good? I will confess that in the past I sometimes voted for my own best interests and today I try to vote for the common good. And, taxes, we take whatever tax breaks we can and yet, we do not mind paying taxes that will help someone else or all of us to live better lives. We all benefit from what our governments offer. The roads we travel, the water we drink, the sanitary sewers that process our waste, our public schools, and so much more--too much to list.
Matthew wanted his Christian flock to stay safe within the Roman Empire. They were scattered everywhere and Matthew wanted them to remember they were followers of Christ. He also wanted to disconnect them from the Jewish people because the Romans were not happy with the Jews. As Christians today, I hope that we do not disconnect ourselves from others who are oppressed just to stay safe and secure. Yes, we can pay tribute to an empire and we also must remember that all we have and all we are comes from God.