Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:17, 19-21 ESV)
Taxes. One of the two things we can be assured of. Death being the other one. Not the rosiest outlook on life, but there is a scalpel’s edge in this cynicism that cuts into the quick of a social truth.
Maybe if it wasn’t election season I would have seen this passage differently. Maybe if Warren Buffet hadn’t publicly barked that he paid less in taxes than his secretary This text would have felt different as I’d read it again. Maybe if the two major political parties didn’t line up so neatly, and passionately, opposite with regard to taxes I wouldn’t have been so sensitive to this issue.
We hear fringe elements of our culture proclaim that we are under an oppressive tax burden and the government is a bottomless pit that we keep throwing our money into, and not so much throwing as much as being sat on and having the change squished out of us. And, I will be honest, every week when I look at the break down of my paycheck I can’t take my eyes off of the difference between what I worked to earn and what I got to keep. But, in all reality, this complaint is as old as organized society. As Christians it’s a cruel Biblical text that tells us that the wisest leader to ever live, Solomon, was not shy about his use of taxes on the people. If taxes are so bad then wouldn’t the wisest, non-divine had’ve eliminated the practice?
Jesus, as He is circumventing the tricks of the scribes and Pharisees, makes a bold implication here as He redirects the issue from taxes to worship. Jesus, very intentionally it seems, never took a political stance while He was on earth. He avoided even the slightest hint of it. For a church that tends to politicize a great deal of things in our culture this must be somewhat disconcerting. Jesus was born into a culture that was not free, did not offer “every” opportunity to “every” citizen, and found that the ruling kingdom didn’t have any qualms about instituting martial law if things got out of hand.
What I think is important here is to take a step back from the shouting and the commercials and the hostile ideologies to see what is universal. Republics, Democracies, Constitutional Monarchies, Communist Compounds, and Tyrannies will all pass away. Regardless of the system and/or form of government, we find that they are all temporary. If we pay 60% in taxes of every dollar we make, or 6%, the core issues of life don’t change. Our focus can be dangerously shifted by campaigns that promise so much and that have historically always failed to deliver.
One of the most sure ways to know that something in the Bible is true is to ask the question, “is it universally applicable?” We ought to question things by saying, ” does this thing that makes sense in America also work out in Malaysia? The prosperity gospel is an easy example to bring up because of its prominence in our historical and cultural moment. The suggestion is taught that if we love God, do what He says, and bless the ministry trying to acquire a new jet with a “seed gift” then you will have everything you want and need. Go try that same thing in China or the Sudan. See if faithful Christianity has kept every farm from succumbing to drought and every village from being brutalized by AIDS.
So the question is, “what is universal?” Worship is universal. Regardless of taxes or drought or disease or oppression, the expression of love and gratitude for our Savior and Sustainer is seen in every culture, situation, and moment. Our focus can all too quickly be diverted from what is eternally important to what can change overnight. Jesus upends that temptation by saying, “the things that belong to this present world, don’t hold to tightly to them…but the things that are designed for eternity, the things that belong to God, at all costs get those things right.”