Easter 2006: Julia Ewen on war taxes

Dear Friends,
It's tax time again. Once more we wrestle with whether to pay taxes or not. Many Friends with-hold at least the portion of taxes that represents the federal government's spending and interest payments on past, present and future wars. According to FCNL that is currently about 40 percent of the federal budget--and growing. When we discuss this Friends' witness with other Christians we often run up against an argument that Jesus told people to pay taxes--and paid taxes himself! Simply asserting that "I have a different measure of the light" is not persuasive to Christians who look to scripture for authority. What can we say to them? A whole lot--if we ourselves have read the scripture and understand its context. It also can help us bridge the divide between Friends who pay and Friends who don't.

There are two stories in the New Testament about taxes. The one most often quoted is the one where Jesus says "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's". It appears in all three of the synoptic gospels : Matthew 22:15-21; Mark 12: 13-18; Luke 20:20-26 .

Indeed there are times(such as when Jesus heals the centurion's servant) he expresses no hostility to Rome: Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7: 1-10. Indeed in Luke's version Jesus says "Not even in Israel have I found such faith. "
In Matthew 5: 43-48 he says to pray for our enemies. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same?" ( v 45). And, of course, one of Jesus's own inner circle is a tax collector! (Matthew).
Those who study Jeremiah may even argue that nations moved by God to invade and occupy Israel/Judah were able to do so because it was God who moved them to it for his own purpose--to reform His People. Similarly they would argue that Rome must be in charge of Judea because God moved the Romans to it. And certainly the Judean power structure is corrupt and badly in need of reform. Jesus himself says that.
So...it must be okay to pay taxes to Rome. Not just okay, practically mandatory!--in Jeremiah, it's those who cooperate with the oppressor who are the "good" Jews, and the ones who resist are the "bad" Jews....
These same arguments were current in the establishment of Jesus's day. And they were probably part of the thinking of the one (put up by Jesus's enemies) who held up the coin and asked, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" 
They were trying to put him in a logical bind: either to deny the prophet Jeremiah who called for submission to the conqueror as submission to God ( worst case scenario, a blasphemy charge and death)--and lose his messianic following (best case scenario)-- or to incite rebellion against Rome, and be subject to treason charges. Jesus sees through their set-up for what it is--hypocrisy. The story is not really about taxes, it is about who shall we believe-- Jesus or the religious establishment? Who has the authority to speak for God, and thus, who is telling us the truth? (It was to destroy Jesus's authority by declaring him a heretic or to dispose of him as political traitor that the question is put, not to resolve a question about paying taxes!) So this IMHO is really a much bigger question than whether we are going to pay taxes to what some Friends perceive as an oppressive and violent government. If we don't settle this question--the authority question--then we will be upon the wrong path!

This story is rather unusual in that it is told nearly word for word EXACTLY the same in all three synoptic gospels! and the stories contexting it within its chapter, and the stories in the chapters immediately before and after are pretty much the same in all three gospels! When you are interpreting what scripture says it is very important to look at the stories placed around it--for they comment upon and illuminate the story upon which you are focusing.

This is in fact how the material is organized--not necessarily in chronological order , or even in order of importance (for all the material is important) but for how the stories will comment upon and illuminate one another other, walking one from the initial premise of the book to the concluding point of the book. Each story is held up to the Light, as if it is a jewel in a golden setting (the stories before and after) for (meditative or rabbinic/scholarly) examination...
In Matthew the stories that bracket the "Caesar story" in the chapter are the Wedding Banquet ("many are called, few are chosen) and the one about the Resurrection: "who shall have the woman (who had been widowed six times and married seven). In Mark the brackets are the Wicked Tenants (who murder two servants and the son of the absentee landowner) and the seven husbands problem. In Luke they are the Wicked Tenants and the seven husbands problem.

The context story that ALL of them have is the seven husbands story. What does possible polyandry in the hereafter have to do with taxes? Probably nothing! But it has everything to do with what/who God concerns himself with. In every instance of this story, Jesus's comment is: " God is the God of the Living, not the Dead!" The themes of the other contexting stories vary a little bit from writer to writer but they generally concern how few of the religious establishment power figures "get" Jesus's message and the authority by which Jesus has the "nerve" to take them to task...This becomes even clearer when you read the chapter prior to the chapter containing the "tax" story and the one that follows it in each of the gospels.

With this context, the tax story is about who has authority over us--Jesus or the religious establishment. Caesar/taxes is a secondary derivative issue if an issue at all. The contexting story (the seven husbands) really consigns the "tax" issue to the realm of the dead--those who worry about paying taxes are missing the point--just as those concerned about the seven husbands in the hereafter are missing the point. They belong to the "dead", not the living, and God is the God of the living.

(Worry about people, not about money, is a consistent theme of Jesus. "Consider the lillies of the field...Consider the birds of the air..." We all know the Rich Young Ruler story... and the admonition to "lay up treasure in heaven"...and to "serve God and not mammon--for we cannot have two masters...and that Jesus says his kingdom is "not of this world"....)

Jesus so far has really not said anything to support paying taxes--but he has also said nothing to support NOT paying taxes! Let's look now at what our "jewel" has to impart to us:
First, they ask him to choose one of two unacceptable choices: (1) pay taxes (2) don't pay taxes. (Boy! Do I identify with this dilemma! If I pay taxes, I seem to cooperate with an oppressive waging of war; if I don't pay them, then money that would have been spent for "good things" like schools, roads, hurricane relief, social security...etc...gets diverted to pay for the wars anyway!--and therefore injustice toward the poor increases... (And I can get penalized financially or jailed or both, depending on how I resist.)

But God/Jesus is not limited by human choices. Jesus restates the problem in a way that puts God, not government, in charge:

He asks, "Whose image is on this coin?"
Why was Caesar's picture on the coin? It was used to pay his troops and bureaucrats, to remind them from whom they received their pay--and therefore to whom they owed their loyalty. Symbolically, by receiving the coin, you enslaved yourself to Caesar. Symbolically by accepting the coin in trade transactions, you were a collaborator with your own oppressor. But you either had to do that to pay your taxes (you were required to pay taxes in Rome's coin) or you had to get the tax collector or money changer (who charged a big fee) to convert your Hebrew money to Caesar's money, thus making your taxes more expensive.

And Caesar styled himself a god. Any Jew who touched such an image-marked coin was ritually contaminated and had to go through a cleansing ritual before entering the Temple. (Hence Jesus's problem with having money changers in the Temple--a false god and contaminated people were inside the Temple--a metaphor for what was happening in general to the land and the people... but I digress). By even handling the money you were already Caesar's man to some degree or other. Yet Jesus doesn't seem concerned in taking the denarius ( a whole day's wages for most ordinary people--the coin used to pay Caesar) and holding it up. (What God touches/blesses is not unclean--see Paul re meat and idols, and Acts--Peter and the blanket full of unclean things) and , repeatedly in the OT, God can break his own Torah when necessary to accomplish his loving intention...thus Jesus answers the Jeremiah- based critics and affirms his own authority--which is the main concern of the context)

The image on the coin is the image of a "dead" or "false" god, Caesar. Those who "belong" to Caesar by virtue of having this coin are also as "dead" as the image on this lifeless metal. The "dead" do not have control over the" living", and God , the God of the Living, concerns himself with the "living", not the "dead". ("Let the dead bury the dead"...) What concerns God. therefore, is not whether you hand over to Caesar a coin that came from Caesar anyway, "dead "thing belonging to the "dead".....

So what does concern God?
"And to God what is God's"...
What concerns God is your "living soul" (Genesis 3...Adam became a "living soul". Adam--*adama*, earth--humankind, the earth are therefore what concerns God).

Every Jew also knew the scripture that human beings are "made in God's image, a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor". We are the image of God, and we are the "answer" or "correspondence" to Caesar's coin. Caesar is not entitled to the "coin of God" bearing his image: Not to our soul, not to our body, not to our freedom of choice.

We can act in freedom by choosing to redefine the problem, as Jesus did. Where payment or nonpayment of taxes don't have anything to do with anything...We don't owe Caesar anything. We might owe a tithe in our 'coin" to God, just as if we were paying the Temple Tax ...but what does God consider a sufficient tithe?

There is a story in Mark 12:41 about the widow's mite. A poor widow went to make a sacrifice at the temple...and all she had was a mite (the tiniest coin, so small you couldn't make change from it and it was worth next to nothing...like a penny today) Jesus said she had given just the right amount--everything she had! When we have paid our "tax" to God, we may wish we had dealt with Caesar, because God demands everything we have--our entire loyalty, all our love, all our effort to be put into his service...Caesar is satisfied with merely an annual coin or two and just not rising up in armed rebellion. Love is optional with Caesar. With God it is not...

When we further context all of this material with the entirety of Jesus's teachings, he says his kingdom is not of this world, and that it is now here in and among those who hear and do his teachings. He belongs to God and so do we. That is where we live--among the Lord of Eternal Life, with the "living", not in Caesar's world among the "dead".

"Let the dead bury the dead..."

When people bury the dead, they sometimes put objects, including money into the graves. It is gesture, a goodbye, a renunciation on our part, getting ready to rejoin the living and live life. The dead remain dead and do not really enjoy what we have put in their graves... The money that we put into Caesar's "hand" is like the money we put into the hand of the "dead" when we bury them...he can put it to right use no more than people who are dead in their graves.

Wouldn't these coins serve better to buy food for the poor? Perhaps. But Caesar's coin is "no good" in God's kingdom...it will not "buy" the "bread of life" or the "living water", will it? Of what use is it to those who belong to God?

We might just as well bury it along with the false god whose image it is, and the " animated corpses" who serve him...We continue to live despite having put those coins into the "hands" of the "dead"...We have moved on to life, they have not.

This brings us to the story about the Temple Tax. (Matthew 17: 24-27 This story is not so much quoted as the others, but it really does context the Caesar/tax story.

People usually read it as an authorization for the church--especially a state church--such as the Church of England--to levy a tithe as a government collected tax--or just to authorize tithes as a requirement. Jesus MAKES it an issue about government/sovereignty of HIS kingdom vs any earthly authority, including the Temple.

In the story,somebody asks Peter if Jesus pays the Temple tax. Peter immediately says "Yes", probably because they could possibly arrest Jesus for defying the Torah given authority of the Temple to rexceive support for the priests. Because Peter has said what he said, Jesus is sort of a priori committed by Peter to do it. But first he says to Peter, " Who pays tolls or tribute (which is what taxes really were in those days)? Do the children of the king pay or do others?" Peter says, of course, "others". "Then the children are free", says Jesus.

In this he refers to God as the real "sovereign" (thus canceling Caesar as king) and thus setting his own authority as the son of the king above that of the Temple. By using "children" he includes Peter--and all who follow him--within this authority not to pay the Temple tax. But "so as not to offend them" Jesus says we--you and I , Peter-- will pay this tax.

He directs Peter to catch a fish and in the fish's mouth is a coin worth enough to pay the tax for both of them. Even though Jesus doesn't have to pay it, he does so, because Peter has committed to it in his name. Because Jesus has made the commitment in his father's name, the father/king supplies the money, even though he doesn't have to.

(The chain of authority runs two ways, from Peter to Jesus to God and from God to Jesus to Peter!)

So, yes, taxes can be paid. Tithes can be paid. God will even help you pay them if you don't have the money. But not because you really owe anything to anybody--other than God. It is a choice you make when you pay taxes or tithes. But you can just as morally choose NOT to pay. Taxes and tithes are an issue only because authority is an issue. In and of themselves, they are not important...

Having made our choice, to pay or not to pay, though, we must, like Jesus, acknowlege that we did it by choice, and not because we had no choice! And there are consequence to choices.

Even Jesus is not spared consequences for choices--which lead him to the cross.
The stream of events that flows from our paying taxes --or not paying them--includes bad things--an increase of injustice from war spending--or good things--money IS spent from the tax budget for things that do benefit the poor(not as much as we might like, but some is) and if we don't pay, less money is spent on the poor in order to pay for war spending...
We have to accept the fact that life--paying or not paying taxes included--is not neat and clean.
And take responsibility for our choices--and their fall-out--good and bad together.

The biggest danger, though, lies in getting confused about who in charge of things: Caesar? The religious establishment? or Jesus/God? And that confusion can happen whether Caesar is involved or not (hence the story about the Temple Tax)....

In fact Caesar is probably the smaller problem. Jesus talks very little about Caesar, but inveighs a great deal against people in the religious establishment: people who like to appear to be good while in fact committing injustice and evil, people who acquire money and power at the expense of those they are supposed help and protect, people who live motivated by fear, greed, selfishness, addiction to power, instead of love and concern for others...

When we get that right, then we will know when to pay taxes and when not to. Neither is wrong. Neither is right. In and of itself. It is like the Torah admonition not to pick grain on the Sabbath ( Matthew 12:1-8). Yes, scripture says not to do it. But scripture also says that we can pull an ox out of the ditch if he has fallen into it on the Sabbath... "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" . Thus the he issue about taxes is not simply about paying or not paying. It is about why we are paying--or not-- about being responsible for our choices, and about who we are letting run our lives, our souls!

Further, tax time is therefore not the test of how committed we are to the Peace Testimony. (Plucking grain when we're hungry is not a test of how well we keep the Sabbath!) The Peace Testimony can support our decision not to pay taxes. (The Torah can bless our choice to fast on the Sabbath rather than pluck grain). But that does not mean that a decision to pay taxes is necessarily a decision against the peace testimony. (It is not against Torah to pluck grain on the Sabbath when one has no prepared food to eat.)

Do we by making a huge deal out the tax issue raise "Caesar" to a far higher level of significance than "Caesar" really rates--since we don't belong to him anyway? If so, we have lost the point of tax resistance. Isn't it to illustrate our choice of sovreign? If we do it to "make" Caesar do what is to our liking, we may "give him power" that he does not really have, and we may be disappointed in expecting a particular result....We may be treating a "dead thing" as if it were living, treating a false god as if it had any authority over us or anybody or anything...

If by paying taxes we are doing so from fear of what "Caesar" might do to us for not paying taxes, are we also raising "Caesar" to much higher level than he really rates? Caesar being "dead," and all those who afford him sovereignty over their thought and actions being" dead" also... To those who believe in the Resurrection and Eternal life, even the threat of death is not real effective. How can Caesar, powerless as a corpse, "make" us "do" anything, including paying taxes. Those who resist taxes as an intrusion on their freedom are perhaps belaboring a moot issue...We are free already, being children of the real king... and "dead things" having no power over the "living"...

While faith without works is dead, and the fruits do identify the faithful, to focus excessively on works (paying or not paying taxes) and not on the One Who is Sovereign, puts us right into the box that Jesus's enemies tried to put him in. By his example, we can take a step back, and Friends can stop focusing on who pays taxes and who doesn't pay taxes, and get down to the fundamental issue...To whom do we belong? Whose coin are we?
Julia Ewen (revised 22 April 2006)