The “give to Caesar” passage of Christian teaching can be hard words for many survivalists. We have so many objections to what modern government demands from the fruit of our labors and outrage at the waste they put it to. But here’s something that might put it in a little different light.
Recently, while working with a group of survivalists the “give to Caesar” passage came up, especially as to how it applies to life today and taxes today. A lot of guys had heard a lot of different things about how it doesn’t quite mean what one would think it means.
I’d not previously heard some of the explanations given. They were interesting, but I learned long ago to double-check claims for myself, especially claims about things written in the Bible. Really – you’d be surprised how often you read a Christian book and those Bible verses cited after some claim or another don’t actually support the point being made if you go look them up.
The reason this debate comes up at all is because there is some Christian teaching about following or submitting to government, yet we live in an era in which we see a tyrannical government ordering us to do and pay for many things against our conscience. If you are a Christian but also object to the tyranny in our time, what is the right thing to do?
With the “give to Caesar” passage, there’s no need to dig into fine points of translation or textual variation when one steps back and looks at the context. The story is found in Luke chapter 20 and Matthew chapter 22. The version in Luke reads:
21 They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 23 But He detected their trickery and said to them, 24 “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
So does this mean the Christian living today needs to pay every last cent the IRS expects?
Before trying to answer, go back and take a look at the context. Let’s look at Matthew because it has more detail on this series of events. The previous chapter (Matthew 21, starting at verse 12) shows Jesus driving corrupt practices out of the temple. When he returns the next day, the Powers That Be object. They demand to know on what authority he’s flushing out their legalized corruption. Jesus answers back to them with a question about authority which would force them to either approve his actions or else reveal their true colors, so they refuse to answer. Jesus follows up with two stinging parables. The first asks them to judge between two sons as to which obeyed his father. The second tells a tale of a vineyard in which the laborers try to seize it for themselves through violence, and asks the powers that be what ought to be done.
The Powers That Be pronounce harshly (and justly) and Jesus quotes their own teachings back at them to simultaneously condemn them and make them look like fools. The chapter (21) ends with:
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. 46 When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet.
The Powers That Be had tried to shut down Jesus and instead came away publicly looking like fools and stood condemned by their own words. Sounds like modern leftists. And what do you think modern leftists would do in response? Put their tail between their legs and give up?
Matthew chapter 22 opens with Jesus hitting them with one more stinging parable as they walk away. And then it says (chapter 22, verse 15):
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said.
Luke’s account (Luke 20:20) puts this as:
So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor.
NOW we get to the part about paying taxes to Caesar. It is question number 1 of several “gotcha” questions they intend to use to get rid of him.
So Do I Need to Pay Taxes?
Now you know as we look at this famous phrase, the question is posed by some really angry, self-righteous, would-be-masters of the commoners (not so different from leftists today holding position of some power and authority, but not enough to outright make you disappear).
The people at that time felt really enslaved by the uppermost government (Rome) and paying taxes to Rome is extremely unpopular. Not so different from how we feel about the Federal Leviathan today.
If Jesus said, ‘Yes, pay the taxes,’ then he’d lose a lot of popularity with the people and could be denounced for not being as nationalistic as one group of his opponents. But if he said, ‘No, don’t pay the taxes,’ then they could turn him over the real power in the land and see him executed for treason.
NOTICE: he does not answer “Yes” or “No.” Let’s put it in modern terms. Today, it would read as:
“Give to the government that which is the government’s…”
So, what do you have that is the government’s?
Well, according to one US Senator back in 2010 or 2011, nothing is yours. I recall the quote on the radio, a quote since memory-holed off the internet. Maybe you remember. He said, “People need to give up this silly idea that they are entitled to their own wealth.” I recall thinking, as I walked across the parking lot to the office where I worked during those years, “Fine. You first.”
Fortunately, things aren’t that bad yet.
I’m not an accountant, but my general understanding is that the IRS expects their cut on every dollar that trades hands. And if barter occurred without dollars changing hands, they expect you to declare the equivalent dollar value from which to give them their cut.
I’m not so sure if they reach into personal production yet. If my chickens lay eggs, am I supposed to declare the value and pay a fraction of that? Does a man need to tally up all that his wife does in the house, calculate an equivalent salary as if he had hired help, and pay taxes on that?
I ask again, what do you have that is the government’s?
Taxes and Conscience
The real tricky passage for Christians today is actually Romans chapter 13.
But again, context helps. This time, it is historic context. ‘Romans’ was written to Christian believers at one of the worst times of persecution in Christian history. (Nero’s cruelty and executions are hard to top.) What did Christians in that day do, and what did they refuse to do?
One thing they were frequently executed for was refusing to pray to other gods, or worship the emperor as god. Obviously, this crosses lines on what God permits. I don’t think I’ll see America in my lifetime demanding that I worship the president as divine. But what about the increasing application of governmental force to make me fund abortions in general? Can I deduct that ratio of federal spending from my taxes?
There’s no easy answer here. As I pointed out recently, a situation in which you must choose the lesser evil is itself an evil situation, and there is no “right” answer.
I’m not going to tell you what to do. But it might be easier if you approach from the other end. Many of us patriots hate the federal taxes because we hate the federal waste and wrongness it is put to. But let’s start local and work our way up.
Do you support your local police force? Their pay comes from taxes. Do you like your local public roads being plowed in the winter? That comes from taxes. Do your kids go to public school? Tax benefit.
How about the state? Do they do anything you like? Highways?
Even at the federal level, do you support the military? The bills they pay at home and the equipment they use at work all comes from taxes.
This is why Romans 13 points to paying taxes. It is the basic means by which governments have operated throughout history. Would you pay taxes to a good government you fully support? If the answer is no, I better not see your kids in the public school I’m paying for despite not having any kids there. If the answer is yes, then it’s not taxes in principle you object to, but the amount and use of taxes our in current government.
(And if you don’t like what your local or state government does with your tax dollars, maybe it’s time to vote with your feet.)
When it comes to federal reserve notes and any business conducted using them, I think it is pretty clear what the government considers theirs, massive tax code aside.
But if I need firewood and have a box of bullets or a box of food stores to trade, and you have wood and need bullets and our neighbor down the street has wood and needs food, what is that cord of wood really worth, in dollars? I have no idea, because a box of bullets is not worth the same as a box of food. But if my family is freezing, a cord of wood might totally be worth a box of bullets to me. I’m glad I live in a Redoubt community where this sort of help happens often.
And the more you produce from your own means, the less $$ you need to survive and the less these tax and conscience questions are a challenge.
Jesus didn’t say, “Pay the tax.” But if he did teach us to give to the government that which is the government’s, then we should strive to not have anything that is the government’s if we don’t like it.
Give to God…
Lastly, don’t forget the other half of that verse, telling Christians to give to God that which is God’s. The authorities of Jesus’ day didn’t follow this line to its conclusion, because they only cared about their “gotcha” question falling apart.
Do you give to God that which is God’s?
“Well what belongs to God?” you might ask. The answer is another question.
“In whose image are you made?”