Friday, April 17, 2015

The Tax Man Cometh

Wednesday was Tax Day, April 15, which for my CPA wife is the end of an insanely busy season. (If you know any CPAs, buy them some flowers or something; it's not unusual for my wife to be working until 1am during the last month of tax season.)

So taxes were fresh on my mind when, driving home yesterday, I heard someone on a Christian radio station talking about how the government was using "my tax dollars" to fund abortions.

Now I have taken a hard-line stance on abortions many times before--I think it is a no-brainer and a major issue for any believer--so you would assume I would be as offended as he was.

But that's not quite the case.

To explain why, let me start with the key text, Matthew 22:15-17:

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. 'Teacher,' they said, 'we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?

Now at the time in Rome, the imperial tax rate for an individual was usually around 2-5%. Obviously this was not a major burden. You might wonder, why were the Pharisees complaining? Why did they think that Jesus might tell them not to pay taxes?

You must understand the situation. As anti-Christian as you may think our modern society is, it pales in comparison to ancient Rome. The Roman Empire was very tolerant of long as you were tolerant back. They took over a country and said, 'Your gods are good by us--let's mix our two systems together.' And oh, by the way--you also have to worship the Emperor as a lesser god. You wouldn't pray to the emperor as you would to the pantheon of gods...however, every day in some way you would be expected to sort of pledge allegiance to the Emperor as a lesser deity. For those who accepted hundreds of gods anyway, this was no big deal--and in their eyes, the peace and wealth of Rome was indeed like a gift from heaven.

The only group who fought against this were the Jews. They refused to worship other gods or abandon their religion. They refused to pay homage to the Emperor, and riots against Rome were commonplace. Indeed, even after Rome allowed them to pay part of their taxes to their own Jewish Temple, they still often refused to pay the other taxes.

The logic they used for not paying taxes is like this:

  1. I earn a certain amount of money
  2. Taxes take some of my money away
  3. My money is being spent on unholy things
  4. I am not supposed to associate with unholy things
  5. Therefore, I will not pay taxes

So what the Pharisees are saying is very similar to our Christian radio host earlier:  it is an outrage that the government uses MY money to fund unholy enterprises!  Our host's logic for steps 1-4 is the same, he just comes to a different conclusion:

  1. I earn a certain amount of money
  2. Taxes take some of my money away
  3. My money is being spent on unholy things
  4. I am not supposed to associate with unholy things
  5. Therefore, I will try and convince the government not to do so

So while they use different actions, the reasoning is the same.

The Jews thought this would trap Jesus. If He said, "Don't pay taxes," then they would turn Him in as an anti-Rome revolutionary; however, if He said, "It's okay," then they would say He supported unholy things.

Jesus flipped it around (as He often does). He replied:

"Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought Him a denarius, and He said, "Whose image is this? And whose subscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

The people left amazed. Why? Why did they not say "Gotcha--you support unholy things!"?

Because look what Jesus said--the taxes were Caesar's to begin with. You should pay Caesar your taxes, because Caesar is the one who provided that money.

This ruined their argument, because now it looks like this:

  1. I earn a certain amount of money, and Caesar's government provides me a certain amount
  2. Taxes take some of Caesar's money back
  3. Caesar is spending his money on unholy things
  4. I am not supposed to associate with unholy things
  5. YOU AREN'T--Caesar is, with his own money.

That is why they left, defeated. Jesus was saying--the money they take for taxes never belonged to you in the first place, so stop worrying about it.

And that is applicable to us as well. As horrible as abortion is (and I'm basically a one-issue voter who will never cast a vote for a pro-choice candidate), it pales in comparison to worshipping false gods. In our eyes, idolatry should be worse than murder.

So just as Jesus did not oppose paying the taxes--even if used for unholy things!--in Rome, so to would He not oppose it here.

More importantly, though, I think often we are missing the main purpose of this passage:

Jesus asks, "whose is this image"...the word image is eikon. This is the word that we usually discuss as icon.

In the New Testament, WE are the eikon of God (cf: Rom 8:29; 1Co 11:7; 1 Co 15:49; 2Co 3:18; Col 3:10). This is a reference to the Old Testament, Genesis 1:26, where man was made as the image-bearer of God for all creation.

So let's look at what Jesus said with a slightly different word choice and you will see a difference:

Whose icon is on this coin?

Caesar's.  [or for us:  Abraham Lincoln; George Washington; Andrew Jackson; etc.]

So give back to Caesar his icons, and give God's icons back to God.

What Jesus is basically saying is:  the government made that money, gave it to you, and took it back. Fine. If you think they are misusing it, then pray for them.

But money is the currency of this world, and it belongs to this world.

OUR currency is to trade in God's image--that is, people. We are to be God's icons.

Jesus' point here, I think, is to say this: you should be a LOT more worried about how you are "spending" the image of God in your daily walk, rather than worried about how Caesar is spending the money he printed.

So to Americans angry about how taxes are spent today, I say this:

  1. Stop saying "the government shouldn't spend MY tax dollars like such-and-such." They aren't your dollars. The government printed them, and before you ever got your first paycheck the law was in place that you had to give it back to them. It's not YOUR money.
  2. Our money may say, "In God we trust," but it's not God whose image is on it. Our money bears the icons of America, not of God.
  3. You, on the other hand, bear God's image and are God's icons.
  4. So:  let America worry about America's dollars--you should be spending your time worrying about how you're using the gifts God gave to YOU.

PS--No, I don't mean that it's okay that the government sponsors abortion. And yes, of course I think we should vote for those who will use the government's money in godlier ways. But it (a) isn't your tax dollars; and (b) shouldn't be all that big a concern for you. You have your own sins to deal with and people to witness to, which are actually of far more importance.

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