Today’s reading is Mark 12:13-17:
They came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion. You do not regard a person’s status but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay the census to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?” Knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” They brought one to him and he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They replied to him, “Caesar’s.” So Jesus said to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They were utterly amazed at him.
“Should we pay [the tax] or should we not pay?” This seems like a valid enough question to be asking Jesus, who certainly has all the answers. However, there is a lot of talk of deception in this passage: “to ensnare him in his speech,” “knowing their hypocrisy,” “why are you testing me,” etc. The passage is clearly not as straightforward as the Pharisees and Herodians wishing to understand the morality behind taxes. Rather, they ask him this question with the intention of having him arrested! How? If Jesus answered as they had hoped – by telling the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the crowds gathered around them that in God’s eyes it is not lawful to pay the tax to Caesar – he certainly may have been arrested. The Romans, who were beginning to despise Jesus due to the attention he was getting and to their fear of him and his followers overthrowing their power, were desperately looking for a reason to arrest Jesus. If he had told the crowds to stop paying their taxes, which was treason, they would have had just what they needed! Of course, the Son of God was much smarter than they might have guessed, and he cleverly avoided this trap.
Chicanery or not, this is definitely a question worth considering. Is a Christian individual obligated to obey the government when his or her ultimate authority is Christ? In a country like America, this does not seem to be too much of a stretch. The vast majority of our laws protect our freedom and liberty, and politics aside, our government certainly is better than many others. While we may grumble that taxes are higher than we would wish for, I doubt many people would stop paying them altogether if it meant giving up our police and fire departments, road system, military, libraries, etc. But what about in a country where the government is not as just as ours? If you think about it, this was closer to the scenario in which the question was directed to Jesus. The Romans allowed the Jews and other religions to practice their faiths as long as they remained quiet and out of the way and did not incite anything. However, they definitely were oppressive to the Jews: charging them absurdly high taxes, taking over their land as they pleased, even so much as abducting Jewish women whose husbands could not pay their taxes. Are we still obligated to obey the government in these situations?
Jesus’ answer to this is simply, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This is an extension of the fourth commandment: Honor thy mother and father. Beyond just our parents, this Christian tenet calls us to obey those who have authority over us, so long as they do not lead us away from God. Looking specifically at the case of paying taxes, we are called to give to the government what belongs to it, and certainly money falls into this category. We should not be so attached to money and material goods as to disobey the government’s authority. In cases of tax evasion and things of the sort, we not only do this but fall into various other types of sin: dishonesty, greed, etc. Neither our wealth nor our material goods fall into the category of what we owe to God; rather, we owe Him something much more valuable. What we owe to God is our lives. He gave them to us after all.
Haley Curtin ’18 lives in Canaday Hall.