I’ve had a grueling week. I spent much of it huddling over our kitchen table, preparing our taxes. When you’re self-employed as we are, taxes are a complicated business. We have income from four different sources, each of which must be meticulously documented in terms of expenditures and income.
And above all, we are honest in our tax filings – painfully, brutally honest. The reasons for this are twofold: 1) we’re honest people and 2) I figure I already have a big-government bull’s eye on my butt because of what I write, so why draw attention to our finances by doing anything fraudulent? I scrupulously document everything, tally all the numbers and present the stack of papers to our tax preparer. She, in turn, checks our figures, waves her magic wand over her computer, produces finished documents, which we sign. Then she sends everything off to the IRS.
Of course, this procedure is no more painful for us than it is for hundreds of millions of others. I cannot fathom a single person in this nation who enjoys the process of filing and paying their taxes.
I suppose it could be argued this procedure is biblical. It’s also nothing new. Render unto Caesar and all that.
As it was in the days of Jesus, taxes today are an instrument of fear, manipulation and revenge. The tax collectors of Jesus’ time are still around today, collectively known as the IRS. And, just as in Jesus’ time, they are as roundly loathed, probably more than any other subset of bureaucrats in existence.
It’s understandable, of course. No one likes having money yanked out of their bank account to be spent on projects or entitlements of dubious worth. But fear is a great motivator. We’ll render unto Caesar in the vain hope of being left alone by said Caesar.
The conflict many people of faith feel about our government is an old one. The Jews of Jesus’ day were just as conflicted about paying taxes to their Roman overlords as we are conflicted about paying taxes to a bloated, unconstitutional government.
Just as it has always been historically, the rendering of taxes unto Caesar (or Washington) is a forcible act. If we don’t pay our taxes, a number of escalating punishments will happen, culminating in seizure of all our assets and imprisonment, with our children possibly being handed over into foster care. In short, our compliance to pay Caesar is enforced at the point of a gun.
Yet government is, and always has been, a fact of life. Sometimes government is beneficial (such as when it is restrained into constitutional limitations); more often, it is tyrannical. But it’s always there.
When Jesus was challenged by the Pharisees about his obligation to Caesar, his resulting actions and words (“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”) have come down through the centuries interpreted in many ways. Progressives Christians interpret this passage to mean, “Shut up and pay your taxes, since it is for the greater good when the government takes and redistributes your assets.” Conservatives Christians interpret this passage to mean, “Pay as little as you can because the government is funding things which are profoundly at odds with your beliefs.”
Both views are correct. Unquestionably we do benefit from some government-funded things, notably national defense. But equally unquestionably, this nation as a whole would enjoy a tremendous moral and fiscal benefit if the government would restrain its expenditures to what is specified in the founding documents.
Taxation is the engine of what is dividing our nation and pitting its people against each other – the “haves” versus the “have nots,” the taxpayers versus the entitlement takers, those who want publicly funded abortion versus those who are against it, and on and on.
Yet we cannot tease apart taxation. We are not permitted to pay taxes on only the things in the government that we support, and leave unpaid the portion of our taxes that support loathsome things. It doesn’t work that way. So what should we do?
The answer for most of us is, we’ll pay our taxes; but we’ll grit our teeth while doing so. Some people even make out their checks to the “Infernal Revenue Service” or other acts of frustration.
People of faith live with a dual tension. We are citizens of two worlds: one earthly, the other heavenly. We are citizens of America, but also citizens of heaven. By paying our taxes, we are submitting to a flawed and imperfect human rule.
But in some ways, the very reluctance to pay our taxes does provide one benefit: It prevents us from regarding government as God.
Many of those who don’t mind paying taxes have replaced God with government. They see government as the solution to most earthly problems. They want more and more funding to help the poor and downtrodden, without realizing that government funding never ultimately helps. They simply cannot fathom how people can possibly get by without government help.
Those who dislike paying taxes still regard government with suspicion. They see private enterprise and personal responsibility as the solution to most earthly problems. They want less government funding for the poor and downtrodden because they know it leads to eternal dependency. They cannot fathom how people could possibly welcome such help because they know what kinds of strings are attached.
I’ll leave you to guess into which category our family falls.
Nonetheless, as Jesus so profoundly demonstrated during this holy week, the taxes we pay to an ungodly Caesar are a mere trifle compared to the “tax” Jesus paid at Calvary. How small, how insignificant, how utterly trivial are my complaints about paying Caesar when I consider what Jesus paid for me.
Despite the tension and frustration with my week of rendering unto Caesar, I wish you all the peace that comes from rendering unto God as we celebrate the sacrifice of our Savior.