Paul L. Caron

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Render Unto Caesar: Do We Have A Moral Obligation To Pay Taxes?

Robert F. van Brederode, Render Unto Caesar: Do We Have a Moral Obligation to Pay Tax?:

In this installment of Tax Matters, van Brederode considers whether paying taxes is a moral duty by referring to the famous New Testament passage in which Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. ...

Today, many take the position that paying your fair share is a moral duty and that tax dodging is antisocial behavior. Jesus’ answer — “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” — is traditionally interpreted to mean an endorsement of paying taxes, which serves contemporary tax enforcers well. ...

The traditional interpretation of the so-called tribute episode makes no sense in the political context of first-century Palestine and given the treacherous purpose of the question. All three synoptic Gospels mention the tribute episode almost verbatim and claim that the question is a trap by the Jewish establishment [Matt. 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26]. ...

The question was a trap because regardless of Jesus’ answer — yes or no — it could and would have been used against him. If Jesus were to answer that taxes should be paid, he would lose his credibility with his followers by being seen as a collaborator with the Romans, perceived as occupiers by the Jews. If he were to answer that these taxes should not be paid, he would run afoul of the Roman authorities, who could put him to death for inciting sedition. This question, therefore, put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. For the trap to work, his questioners must have known Jesus’ opposition to Roman rule and taxes. This is the Judeo-Roman political aspect of the question.

They ask whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the Romans. Lawful obviously does not refer to Roman law, which would of course allow for those taxes, but to Mosaic law. This is the religious aspect of the question. It is a challenge to his status as rabbi and knowledge of the Torah because he was forced to provide an answer vested in Scripture. The audience understood this all too well.

How did Jesus dodge the bullet? Well, he did answer with reference to the Torah. But first he asked to see the coin used for the payment of taxes. That was by itself not required to answer the question. However, asking to see the coin served the double purpose of showing the hypocrisy of his opponents, who by handing over the coin evidenced their participation in Roman society, while simultaneously demonstrating that Jesus was not in possession of Roman coin, showing his allegiance to the Jewish opposition. Thus, he effectively undermined the credibility of his questioners and secured his own. ...

Jesus answered the question as follows: “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Jesus does not elaborate on what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. He did not have to. His audience was knowledgeable enough of the Torah to know the answer: All belongs to God, to whom the Jewish people owed exclusive allegiance as Jesus had reminded them by making references to the commandments and the Shema. Loyalty to God is a prime duty of every Jew. Thus, Jesus chooses God over the emperor and implicitly rejects paying the tax because it violates Jewish law and the prime duty of every pious Jew to uphold absolute and undivided loyalty to God. Since all belongs to God, the emperor is owed nothing (except for the coin, see below) and implicitly Jesus is politically seditious in his statement, although hidden behind his clever wording.

Nowhere does Jesus state that the emperor is entitled to taxes. In those days, putting your image on a thing meant claiming ownership of the thing. Therefore, the coin belongs to Caesar and Jesus’ answer was simply to give Caesar back his coin. That would make sense because his opponents, who claimed to be pious Jews, should not have possession of these blasphemous coins in the first place. By saying to return to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, Jesus rebukes his opponents again for possessing the Roman coins.

By not limiting his answer to what belongs to Caesar but adding reference to what belongs to God, Jesus also creates separation between the two, effectively divorcing Caesar subtlety from his divine status. Jesus is therefore also religiously seditious toward the emperor.

Faith, Legal Education, Tax | Permalink