Tax Day II

Posted: April 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

Hats off to a controversy story that has been poorly interpreted, exploited and wrongly used for centuries: Mark 12:13-7 (parallel Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26). It is the story of Pharisees and Herodians attempting to trap Jesus.

“Is it lawful (in the religious sense) to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

People have used this question and its answer as a way to reinforce being a good taxpayer. Some have used it to talk about a separation of church and state. They all miss the mark.

Background to the text: Palestine is a Roman occupied territory and the Emperor levies taxes through his appointed vassals to fund the reach of the empire and reinforce submission. And so the 90% of the population that is peasantry funds the 10% that is empire and local aristocracy. And, no small thing, Caesar is seen as divinely appointed and endowed.

Do you pay the tax of Caesar – fund the occupying forces? If you say yes, you’re sleeping with the enemy. If you say no, well, we know what the powerful do with insurgents. Hence, the trap.

But the response of Jesus takes us way beyond the outlines of the trap. He directs people to a Roman coin and asks whose visage is found there. It is the Caesar. Well then, give to the Caesar what belongs to him. Now what would that be? What does rightfully belong to the Caesar? First hard question. But wait, he’s saved the punch line for last.

But give to God the things that belong to God. And what would those be? What rightfully belongs to God? And what’s more, in a world in which the Caesar is seen to be the divine benefactor, to whom a tribute is fitting, Jesus draws a distinction: The Emperor and God are two different things. There is an empire of this world, its powers and principalities, and then there is the empire of God. Our loyalty to each is distinct. And one always trumps the other. Our citizenship to one always serves as the measure of the other. Can you imagine which?

After that, his detractors  shut up. No wonder.

  1. Rob Weir says:

    Wow, never thought about it this way. Thanks, Tim.

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