A Taxing Question

Does anyone like paying tax?! I don’t think so! It’s that time of year again when tax returns have to be in and we start to grumble about giving away our hard-earned money to the government. And (say some), it’s not as if the Government spend our taxes very wisely. How many hundreds of millions of Euro have been wasted on tribunals or should have been saved rather than spent trying to artificially prop up the economy? The list of financial mismanagement is a long one, and we hear about it in the media every day.

But actually, taxes are a good thing if we think about it. It’s nice to get in our cars and drive on a tarmacadamed road! It’s good to know that the Gardai and Defence Forces are there to protect us and the Fire service and Ambulance Service there to rescue us. It’s comforting to know that there are fully equipped hospitals waiting for us when we get sick and schools for our children to attend. So we might after all begrudgingly admit that taxes are a good thing, even if sometimes the government (allegedly of course) doesn’t use our tax money very wisely!

I read this story recently (I don’t know how true it is). A Little Boy in the United States wanted $100.00 badly and prayed to God for a whole week, but nothing happened. So, he decided to write God a letter requesting the $100.00. When the Post Office got the letter addressed to God they forwarded it on to the Whitehouse. The President was very impressed, touched and amused so he instructed his aid to send the boy $5.00. He thought $5.00 would be a lot to the little boy. The boy was, indeed, delighted by the money. He sat down and wrote a thank you note immediately, which read: Dear God, Thank you very much for sending the money. However, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it through Washington and, as usual, they kept most of it as tax! (From Bucket of Surprises by John and Mark Stibbe)

In our gospel reading for today (Matthew 22:15-22), two groups of people, the Pharisees and the Herodians try to trick the Lord Jesus by asking Him a question about paying taxes. This is just an incredible situation, because the Pharisees and the Herodians hated each other, and yet here they are working in alliance against the Lord because their contempt for Him was even greater than their contempt for each other! The Pharisees, were the Nationalists, they hated the Romans and they were fiercely loyal to the idea of an Israel free of all oppressors. They also liked power and the support of the people, so they wanted to get rid of the Lord Jesus because He was eroding their support among the people by showing what Hypocrites they were. The Herodians were the collaborators. They supported the Romans and Herod Antipas, the King put in place by the Roman authorities. So these unlikely allies get together to try to trick the Lord Jesus. They say to Him:

“Teacher … we know that you tell the truth about God’s will for people, without worrying about what others think, because you pay no attention to anyone’s status. Tell us then, what do you think? Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?” (Matthew 22:16,17).

You can just imagine the smug look on their faces once they had finished asking this question. They really think they have got Him this time. If the Lord Jesus said that it was wrong to pay taxes to Caesar the Emperor then they could have Him arrested for rebelling against the authorities. If the Lord said that the taxes should be paid then they would call Him a collaborator with the Romans and He would lose popular support. So what did the Lord do? How did He respond in this seemingly impossible situation?

He says to his questioners:

“Show me the coin for paying the tax” (v.19)

It’s funny isn’t is that the Lord didn’t even have a coin on Him. He chose to be poor, He didn’t need wealth. Here is the King of the Universe and He has humbled Himself so much that He asks them to hand Him a coin so He can make His point . The coin in question was a Denarius, a Roman coin that was worth a days wage for a labourer. So, they hand Him the coin and then the Lord says to them:

“Whose face and name are these?” (v.20)

On the coin would have been written “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the deified Augustus, chief priest.” There was also a relief, a side-on picture of Caesar, not unlike coins in the UK today with the picture of Queen Elizabeth II on them.

So probably sensing that the trap they thought that they had set for Jesus was unravelling before their eyes, his accusers reluctantly answer that it is the Emperor’s face and name on the coin.
So then the Lord Jesus answers them by saying:

“Well, then, pay the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay God what belongs to God.” (v.21).

The Lord Jesus completely avoids the trap that was set for Him by showing that we have a “Dual Citizenship” . We belong in two Jurisdictions. We are citizens of our country here on earth and if we put our faith and trust in Christ, we are also citizens of Heaven. We have a passport with a Harp on the front (if we are Irish) and if we are a citizen of God’s Kingdom, then we have a passport for Heaven.

The simplicity and obviousness of Jesus’ reply is very clear; the coin was just a coin, it was no big deal. If Caesar the Emperor wanted it as tax, give it back to Him! But there is something else we learn that is very important too. The Lord said that we should not only give to our Government what belongs to them, namely the taxes that we owe, He also says that we should give to God what belongs to God. What was He talking about when He said this? Well, just as in the same way that the coin had Caesar’s image on it and so it should be given back to Caesar, so we have God’s image stamped on us and so we should give ourselves to the One who made us in His own image and likeness.

In Romans 13:7 we read:

Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and import duties, and give respect and honour to all to whom it is due.

And in 1 Peter 2:13, 14

For the Lord’s sake, accept all authority–the king as head of state, and the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish all who do wrong and to honour those who do right.

It is important therefore that we are good citizens in the country that we live. We should pay our taxes, because we enjoy the benefits that those taxes pay for. We should obey the laws of the land be upstanding members of society.

In some ways it might seem that God has a harsher tax regime even than that imposed by the recent Budget. Our government may have many tax rates, levies and stealth taxes, all varying year by year. God only has one rate. 100%! In other words, the Lord Jesus is telling us to be loyal to our country and our government, but be totally committed to God. Remember what He said elsewhere:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
(Matthew 22:37-39)

That is what God requires of us. Yes it sounds difficult and (excuse the pun), taxing. In fact it is impossible in our own strength. So we need to ask for God’s help to love Him and God’s help to love each other – something far more exciting than any tax return …

———————————-
Sources of help:

Justin Meek in sermoncentral.com
Michael Green, “Matthew For Today”, Hodder & Stoughton, 1989, p.212
Life Application Bible, New International Version, Kingsway, 1991, p.1691

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