"If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all." ~ Virginia Woolf
Christ?s Teaching on Taxation (and Why Nobody Got the Joke)
Exclusive to STR
February 25, 2009
If religion is the opiate of the people, then faith in government is the religion-substitute of today's believers in the welfare-warfare state. And if the state is god and its worship is part of the new faith: Vox populi vox dei! Off with our heads!
While I am not a Christian, I admire many of Christ's teachings and practices. Consequently, I am embarrassed and mystified when people who claim to wear the mantle of Christianity are so reluctant to speak plainly and with confidence about Christ's teachings on the issue of taxation. Sadly, this is true even when Christ's avowed followers also claim that they are speaking as libertarians.
Christ Speaks About Taxes
Christ's most obvious statement about taxation occurs in the Gospel of Mark ( 12:13 -17), with corresponding statements in Matthew ( 22:15 -22) and Luke ( 20:20 -26). I will quote from Mark (New American Standard Bible):
And they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him, in order to trap Him in a statement. And they came and said to Him, 'Teacher, we know that You are truthful, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?' But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, 'Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.' And they brought one. And He said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?' And they said to Him, 'Caesar's.' And Jesus said to them, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.' And they were amazed at Him.
This famous passage is obviously about taxes, but what does it mean? While pregnant with meaning, it is also cryptic. But is it any more puzzling than other statements made by Christ in similar circumstances, when he was 'tested' by his opponents? The answer is 'no!' Christ was in the habit of making puzzling statements whenever he was cornered by his critics. More importantly, our awareness of this idiosyncrasy provides the key to the most humorous and interesting solution to the puzzle of Christ's words.
How Christ's Contemporaries Interpreted His Words
To ferret out the meaning of this passage, let's do two things. First, let's take a look at how Christ's statements about taxation were interpreted toward the close of the Gospel of Luke. There, his teachings were cited in front of Pilate as proof that Christ was a criminal. Second, to gain some real insights into Christ's teaching, we will take a closer'and more humorous' look at Christ's encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians.
In the Gospel of Luke (23:1-2), one of the chief accusations leveled against Jesus in front of Pilate was that Christ had forbid the payment of taxes:
Then the whole body of them arose and brought Him before Pilate. And they began to accuse Him, saying, 'We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.' And Pilate asked Him, saying, 'Are You the King of the Jews?' And He answered him and said, 'It is as you say.' And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, 'I find no guilt in this man.'
This passage makes it clear that Christ's contemporaries interpreted his words as a prohibition against paying taxes to Caesar. Oddly, Pilate did not ask Christ to confirm or deny the accusation. Instead, he asked only if Christ was the king of the Jews. We can only speculate about why Pilate avoided the tax issue. Maybe he felt that Christ's claim to be a king (as opposed to Herod Antipas) was more important than the tax issue if not an indicator of madness, which might explain why Pilate said that he found no guilt in Christ. Any discussion of insanity, however, would be anachronistic, so I'll drop it right now.
A Closer Look at Christ the Comedian and Trickster
Now that we have confirmed that Christ's contemporaries interpreted his statements as 'anti-taxation,' we can begin the much more interesting discussion of why they held this opinion. It is important to remember that Christ's enemies were constantly trying to ensnare him with trick questions about religious practices that he appeared to be violating. Their purpose was to either (1) lure him into making statements that were in violation of their laws or (2) repudiate or contradict his own actions or statements so as to dishearten his followers. As a reminder, here are a few well known examples:
- ' The story (from a disputed passage in John 8:1-11) about the woman who was caught in adultery and was about to be stoned to death, where Jesus advised: 'He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.'
- ' The story (Mark 2:23 -28, Matthew 12:1-8, Luke 6:1-5) about whether it was lawful for the disciples to pluck grains on the Sabbath. Hint: the answer was 'yes.'
- ' The many stories about Christ healing people on the Sabbath, such as the time when he healed the man with the withered hand (Mark 3:1-6, Matthew 12:9-14, Luke 6:6-11), healed the woman with the infirmity (Luke 13:10-17), healed the man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6), and healed the man at the pool (John 5:2-16). In each case, Christ justified his apparent violation of the Sabbath laws.
Now that we have reminded ourselves that Christ was repeatedly being challenged by various 'authorities,' we can examine the passage about taxation with a bit more insight. For convenience, here's the relevant portion of text once again:
But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, 'Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.' And they brought one. And He said to them, 'Whose likeness and inscription is this?' And they said to Him, 'Caesar's.' And Jesus said to them, 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.'
I believe that the statement contains both humorous ridicule and a meaningless poke at his critics. First, Jesus was clearly ridiculing his accusers when he led them to assume that the presence of Caesar's likeness and inscription on the coin proved that Caesar held a title of ownership to that coin and that the tax should be paid. One might just as well claim that the picture of a Quaker wearing a blue hat on every box of Quaker Oats oatmeal 'proves' that the Quaker owns every box of oatmeal that features his likeness on it. Likewise, the image of George Washington on a U.S. quarter dollar does not mean that George owns every such coin or that we should pay taxes because of it. It seems obvious that Jesus was making the same kind of joke with reference to the denarius. I can almost hear the laughter. Can you?
Further, the statement 'Render to Caesar'' is completely circular and therefore conveys no actionable information whatsoever. If a man named Tom and a second man named Bill were both claiming ownership of the same bicycle, would it really help to resolve their dispute if a judge in a court of law declared that what was Tom's was Tom's and what was Bill's was Bill's? I don't think so. Again, Jesus was clearly playing games with his opponents'delivering a meaningless poke that successfully confused them.
It's Time to 'Get' the Joke
In instance after instance throughout the Gospels, Jesus posed delightful verbal traps for his opponents, and I see no reason to think that he was doing anything less regarding taxation. I would even go so far as to say that it would be out of character for Jesus' statement about taxes not to be another example of his cleverness. Such an approach clearly denies any obligation of Christians to pay Caesar, and Jesus' contemporaries understood it in exactly that way. Why don't we? Why do so few of his followers acknowledge the good-natured humor in Jesus when he posed as a stand-up comic in this instance? The answer may tell us more about the caliber of his followers than about the message of Jesus.
Finally, I am not the only person who has developed this line of argument. I remember that I first began to suspect the humorous nature of these Gospel passages in the late 1980s, and I began to share it with others. Several years ago on the Internet, I noted that other people also had interpreted the relevant passage in a similar way. We are not the first, and we will not be the last. So why not abandon the idea that the Gospel story about the denarius was an attempt by Jesus to teach us about the separation between the physical world and his spiritual kingdom (i.e., that the things that are rendered to Caesar, such as the coin, are of this world and that Jesus' concerns lay elsewhere). Such a teaching may indeed also be implicit in his words, but I think that the most satisfying interpretation is that Jesus was having a good laugh at the expense of the Pharisees and Herodians. The only shame is that too many people still don't 'get' his joke after two thousand years.
Christ's Teaching on Taxation (and Why Nobody Got the Joke)