Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rendering Unto Caesar?

As a Christian who has spent most of my adult life advocating for tax reform, I am always saddened when pastors interpret Matthew 22:15-22 as giving Caesar unlimited taxing authority. I heard one pastor say that based on Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question—“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”—Caesar could take it all.

I believe that Jesus’ statement, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” is not so much about taxation as it is about giving God His proper place. A Pharisee living during the time of Christ would have understood that everything in existence belongs to God. Therefore, only God can rightfully lay claim to everything we earn and everything we own.

God Owns It All

This is why the Pharisees left Jesus and went away after hearing His answer. Their attempt to trap Him had failed, because Jesus elevated the discourse beyond the realm of taxes, reminding them that one’s primary loyalty, allegiance, and financial obligation are to God. When it comes to rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, the Scriptures make it clear that no earthly government can rightly demand everything from us, since it all belongs to the Sovereign Lord who created all things and for whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16, Exodus 19:5, Psalm 24:1-2, Haggai 2:8).

Using Matthew 22:15-22 as a proof text for the government’s taxing authority seems to miss the heart of what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees. Wikipedia puts it this way: “One interpretation of Jesus’ words was that he was making an analogy—the coin is made on the orders of the emperor and is stamped with the image of the emperor, and the emperor may call on you to give it to him in tribute; by analogy, you were made by God and in God’s image, and you must therefore devote your life in tribute to God, rather than Caesar.” Moreover, if the Pharisees really were trying to trap Him, they may well have expected Him to come out against paying taxes to Caesar.

Wikipedia also notes that Jesus’ interrogators “were unsuccessful in getting Jesus to unambiguously come out either in favor of paying the tribute to Rome or in favor of tax resistance. Advocates for either argument could interpret his words in either way. Time has not resolved this ambiguity, and people continue to interpret this passage to support positions that are poles apart.”

A Biblcal View of Taxation

Because a government’s taxing power can be used for good or evil, it is important to note that not all forms of taxation are biblical or just. Therefore, believers are responsible for holding Caesar to account in this area. Certain passages of the Old Testament—including Exodus 30:15—suggest that taxes ought to be uniform, which is not the case with the graduated income tax—one of the 10 Planks of the Communist Manifesto—currently used in America. Also, since the government’s role is to promote the general welfare, excessive and burdensome taxation is incompatible with a biblical view of government. The Old Testament suggests that oppressive taxation inevitably leads to rebellion (1 Kings 12:1-19).

From the standpoint of Scripture, it can be argued that oppressive taxation is a type of theft—and therefore a violation of the eighth commandment against stealing (if individuals are prohibited from stealing, it would follow that governments are as well). Moreover, taxes that are used to fund entitlement programs/transfer payments may violate the tenth commandment against coveting what belongs to our neighbors.

Is Caesar Equal to God?

Under the Law of Moses, God commands His people to give Him 10 percent of the increase of livestock and agricultural produce; a secular government would hardly be justified in demanding more than that, or even as much as 10 percent, since that would imply that Caesar is equal to God. Yet in America today, the tax rate on the average citizen is far higher than that; two years ago, it hovered around 32 percent, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Paul’s language in Romans 13:7 suggests that the requirement to pay taxes is conditional. He says, “If you owe taxes, pay taxes.” An open-ended interpretation of Matthew 22:15-22 would imply that citizens are obligated to turn over whatever money Caesar demands, regardless of whether they are legally obligated to pay it, and that is obviously not true. Under the U.S. system of government, there is no obligation to pay whatever tax the government demands, but only what is constitutional.

Indeed, one could legitmately ask if followers of Jesus owe taxes to a government that is using their tax dollars to fund immoral or wicked activities, such as mass murder or unprovoked wars of aggression. For instance, would it have been right for Christians living in Nazi Germany to pay a tax specifically earmarked to build the gas chambers where the Jews were put to death?

Stealing Widows' Homes

In America today, the federal government spends trillions of tax dollars on programs and activities that were never authorized by the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps even worse, the Internal Revenue Service routinely violates the due-process rights of countless Americans who have dutifully paid their taxes. I know of hundreds of cases where innocent people were wrongly assessed for taxes they never owed, including Linda Sanders, a single mother whose home was seized by the IRS due to a clerical error. Linda spent 13 years fighting the IRS in court and was denied justice at every turn. Her heartbreaking story is chronicled in her book, Exposed! Tyranny on the Bench.

What happened to Linda—and others like her—is a gross violation of Isaiah 10:1-2: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey,” and Mark 12:40: “They devour widows’ houses…”

A Rouge Agency

In far too many cases, people have been driven to suicide as a result of the vicious enforcement tactics of the IRS. According to author Martin L. Gross, “The IRS has power and privileges not granted to anyone else in America, including the president.” Shirley Peterson, IRS commissioner under President George Bush Sr., called the current tax system “an unwieldy, inefficient, ungodly mess.” IRS employees are granted time off and promotions based on the amount of property they are able to seize from taxpayers. A careless interpretation of Matthew 22 makes it easier to gloss over such abuses.

In 1997 congressional testimony, Houston IRS agent Jennifer Long explained that the agency teaches its employees to use "tactics ... which appear nowhere in the IRS manual... to extract unfairly assessed taxes from taxpayers, literally ruining familes, lives, and businesses—all unnecessarily and sometimes illegally."

A Broken Covenant

Finally, under the system of self-government established by our Founding Fathers, there is no “Caesar” in America. The American people are the ultimate governing authority, and all public servants are supposed to work for us. The U.S. Constitution is the covenant between the American people and our political representatives; public officials who violate the Constitution are defying the law of the land and are thus guilty of disobeying Romans 13:1-2. Where is the outcry?

As Americans, our Christian responsibility to government consists in holding our representatives accountable in terms of their obedience to the Constitution. Tragically, we have failed miserably in this area and have allowed the federal government to usurp vast powers far beyond the limits prescribed by the Constitution. No-knock raids, government seizure of private property without due process, public funding of abortion and obscene art, and warrantless surveillance of American citizens are just a few examples.

As Tim LaHaye wrote in the foreword to Where Are Today’s Daniels, “If the oppression now creeping over the country continues, Christians can blame no one but themselves for allowing the government to become the final authority over us.”


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