This guest post is by Daniel Shorthouse. Daniel is a political theory and economics nerd, an obsessive reader of theology, and the Director of Worship at an Anglican church in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. As a Director of Worship, he is a composer of worship songs, which he hopes would qualify as “hymns.” He hopes to use his writing to persuade his fellow believers to abandon the political means in favor of the counter-political way of Jesus.
You’ve probably heard someone, in answer to a libertarian’s objection to taxation, quote from Matthew 22:21 regarding “rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” But more often than not, the quotation seems to stop there, leaving out the second half of the verse: “and unto God, what is God’s.” And the second part, I believe, is the really important bit.
As I write this, it’s just under two months away from the US Federal tax deadline. But I think it’s appropriate to have this discussion now, before the anti-tax arguments from libertarians and paleoconservatives, and knee-jerk responses from the mainstream, begin to fly in earnest. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say—but I hasten to clarify that I’m not writing this to forearm anyone with anti-tax rhetoric. In fact, my point is that we need to stop thinking about the Tribute Episode as being about taxation, one way or the other. (To be frank, we need to stop trying to use Jesus as ammunition against our political opponents altogether, but maybe that’s a matter for a different post.)
Obviously, the question posed to Jesus in the Tribute Episode was about taxation. But that does not mean that taxation is the point of the story.
The matter of taxation seems far less urgent if we ask not what belongs to Caesar, but rather what belongs to God. Yes, the passage has something to say to us about the Christian’s proper relationship to money and government. But ultimately, the coin, the question asked by Jesus’ opponents, and even the looming presence of Caesar over the whole ordeal, are all props behind the real question: what do we render to God?
The answer is everything. And to fully understand what that means, we need to know what our purpose is on this earth—because part of the problem is that far too many Christians have imagined God’s purpose for humans as disembodied souls ascending to heaven, leaving Caesar to be the governor of worldly affairs.
But historically, Christianity does not imagine such a separation between the spiritual and the physical, by which God in put charge of “heaven”, and the created order left to its own devices. On the contrary, it is the story of God becoming man, assuming humanity in its fullness, including the physical: fully reconciling humanity to our Creator. That is what Jesus accomplished as the Incarnate God, in his ministry, on the Cross, and through the Resurrection. And all we who are in Christ share in the inheritance of that which Jesus accomplished.
See the significance: Jesus Christ was God-as-human, doing God’s will on earth as in heaven. And now, we are the Body of Christ. As Jesus Christ was God-as-human, the Church is meant to be humanity-as-God—however imperfectly we manage to live up to that purpose.
So what does this have to do with taxes?
Well, not much. But that’s the point. For we who find our identities in Christ (even those of us who might say “taxation is theft” without irony), taxation is not the crucial matter. Jesus is Lord, and through him we render all to God. Everything we do, and all that we have, ought to be committed to the mission of the Church, to doing the sort of things Jesus did when he was on the earth: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, liberating the oppressed, uplifting the marginalized, and prophetically confronting oppressors.
In allowing Caesar to take over that role, the Church has committed a grievous dereliction of duty. We have entrusted our welfare, our security, and even our identity to the state—and instead of a ministry of reconciliation, we have a society of welfare bureaucracies, endless wars, and tribalism along national and political lines, with opposing political factions within the Church clawing against each other for control over the reins of the political apparatus. And whatever we have to say about the morality of taxation, it is impossible to render everything to God and at the same time call for Caesar to act as the broker of our fiscal means.
But I don’t mean to let libertarians off the hook. We may be somewhat above the fray because we aren’t trying to get Caesar on our side, but all the same, we often render him more attention than he deserves. And we can far too easily become entangled in arguments about government policy and legal theory, when Christ ought to be for us a sword to cut through that Gordian knot. If Jesus is Lord, then our allegiance to him transcends politics. Jesus himself was not turned aside by such trick questions. Let him be our example.
Certainly, there is a time and place to discuss the moral and legal problems of taxation, but I believe the yearly routine of getting mired down in endless debates on the topic is not fruitful. Instead of asking whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar and railing against those who disagree, perhaps we should ask different questions. Since we are meant to commit everything to God, how do we best render it to God? What have we failed to render to God, and how can we correct that?
So this year, and those afterward, let’s not be distracted by those who would trap us with questions about rendering to Caesar. Rather, let’s ask them (and ourselves) why we are paying so much attention to Caesar, when it is Christ whom we serve. Perhaps in doing so we might illuminate the ways in which the Church can better fulfill her calling, and thereby render Caesar irrelevant.