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Jesus on Taxes

Love is the answer. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Stupid is as stupid does. Ever notice how a profound or witty phrase loses its oomph after a while? Familiarity weakens its power. Jesus’ responses to his critics can fall into this category, as many of them have been absorbed into our collective consciousness over the last two millennia. Take a minute though, for a fresh look at Matthew 22:15-22.

Sometime during his last pre-death week on earth, probably Monday, Jesus spent the day teaching in the temple. Three chapters of Matthew’s gospel are filled with those teachings. At one point the Pharisees, who were doing mental contortions trying to “entangle him in his talk,” collaborated with some Herodians to come up with a real poser.

“Tell us…,” they said, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” This was a hot button issue of the day, with complex political implications, and whether Jesus said yes or no, he would be criticized by one group or the other.

“Show me the tax money,” said Jesus. (Notice he had to ask for a coin to look at.) When they brought him the coin used to pay taxes, he asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?” Of course, the coin was stamped with an image of Caesar. And then follows His judgment on the matter, which we’ve heard so often that we probably have no idea how completely jaw-dropping it must have been to its first hearers.

“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard that, the Pharisees and Herodians tucked tail and went home. Jesus had walked right out of their trap with His wise reply.

I love the implications of Jesus’ answer. Yes, pay your taxes. It’s not a big deal, obey the law of the land and don’t obsess over it. Don’t waste time and energy on your own mental contortions trying to figure a way for it to be okay NOT to pay your taxes because the guys in office are crooks or the law is unconstitutional. Just pay the man the money and get on with the more important business of life.

Here’s the main thing…once you’re done rendering to Caesar, what other rendering is there to do? Right. Render to God the things that are God’s. In the story, that sounds like a throwaway ending to Jesus’ sentence, providing rhythm and balance. But it’s the most important concept in the whole passage. What things are God’s? All things. He made everything, He owns everything, the cattle on a thousand hills and all else. He bought me with a price (simultaneously setting me free…) and so I am His, too. How do I render myself to my Savior? Here’s the verse I use for a guide:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. Romans 12:1

My body and my life are His. I will climb up onto the altar, and let him do with me as he pleases. Notice that I am a living sacrifice, so I’m able to climb off the altar…and often it takes all my determination to stay there when a soft sofa, a cup of tea, and a fluffy novel would be so much more comfortable. But I truly believe it IS my reasonable service to sacrifice my will to His, so my energies go to discovering and carrying out that service. I pay my taxes, but I don’t let it distract me one moment longer than necessary from the rendering of my life to my God.

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