The Tax Man Cometh
If you want to get into a spirited conversation with someone talk to them about taxes. You could talk about income tax, property taxes, sales taxes, inheritance taxes and the many fees that are taxes by another name. No one likes seeing their hard earned money being taken by someone else. We understand the necessity of many of the taxes but that doesn’t mean we like them.
We are going to see this morning that hating taxes is not something new . . . the people in Jesus’ day hated taxes also. At the time of Jesus Rome had control over Israel. Rome exacted a number of taxes. One of those taxes was a poll tax that required people from 12-65 to pay a yearly tax just for existing. The tax was especially distasteful because the people felt they were being forced to contribute to a corrupt and godless empire.
This discussion in Luke 20 took place in the temple courts. I believe this was during the week leading up to the death of Jesus. The religious leaders are trying to trip Jesus up by asking Him questions which they hoped will discredit him, turn the crowds against him, or give them ammunition they can use to arrest (and ultimately execute) Him.
The first question they asked was “By what authority do you teach?” To their chagrin Jesus turned the question back on them by asking: “By whose authority did John the Baptist teach?” When they refused to answer, Jesus told the parable of the tenants which showed the consequences for rejecting Him.
I don’t know whether the discussion before us happened immediately after he told the parable or took place on another day during the week. I am certain the question was asked by different people. I picture the religious leaders (who hated Jesus) enlisting unknown men to go to where Jesus was teaching. They were given a question to ask in the Question and Answer period.
20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
These “spies” use a common tactic; they starting by flattering Jesus. We are sure they did not mean the words but used them to try to disarm Jesus. The book of Proverbs has good wisdom when it comes to flattery
26:28 A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.
29:5 Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.
Jesus himself said in Luke 6:26 Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.
We all enjoy being flattered but we should all beware in those times. Flattery is not genuine. It is designed to get us to lower our guard or make us vulnerable to something. It is like the teenager who comes up to dad and says, “you know, you are the greatest dad in the world and are always sooooo generous.” Most dads know they should brace themselves when they hear such words because they are “being played”.
I suspect these men said what others were saying. It wasn’t that their words weren’t true, it is the fact that their intentions were not honorable. Don’t miss this fact. It is true that Jesus did not change his message to please the crowd. He told the truth without wavering. He certainly did live consistent with the things He taught. He pointed the way to God with His words and His life.
I can’t help but ask: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could honestly say these things about us? We should not strive for flattery but we should hope to live such a life that the flatterers would have something for which to commend us.
The flattering words were designed to set up one question . . . a question these men were sure would get Jesus in trouble,
22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
The leaders believed this was a “no win” question. It is like asking, “Have you stopped overeating?” If you answer “yes” it means you used to overeat but do so not longer. If you say “no” it means you are still overeating. It is a loaded question because it is designed to trap.
This is what we have here. If Jesus said we should not pay taxes (which would please the crowd) He would be seen as seditious, encouraging people to rebel against Rome. He would be in trouble with the Roman government. If He said they SHOULD pay taxes he would appear to favor Rome and that would be offensive to the people who hated Roman rule. The leaders were sure they had Jesus backed into a corner.
Jesus once again proved His wisdom,
23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?”
25 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
The first thing Jesus does is ask the questioners for a denarius. This was a small silver coin (the amount which was to be paid for the tax) that had the head of Caesar on one side with his name. Jesus asked them to identify the picture on the coin. When they identified the picture as that of Caesar he told them in essence, then the coin belongs to Caesar!
Historians universally say that Jesus’ simple principle: “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” is perhaps the single most influential political statement ever made. It is a principle that has greatly impacted western civilization.
Let’s look at the implications of His words. First, since the image of Caesar is on the coin it belongs to him. Likewise since we are created “in the image of God” we belong to Him. We all responsibilities in life: to parents, to employers, to our spouse, to our church, to various organizations. Jesus points out that when it comes to taxes we have a responsibility to the government. When it comes to the way we live our lives, we have an obligation to God.
Second, Jesus seems to say that when we enjoy the privileges and blessings that come from the state we must also accept responsibility for helping to support the state. In Romans 13 Paul reiterates the principle. Paul argues that God designed the system of government so that society would have order. He then adds,
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Even at this time Rome had brought peace, security and the increase of commerce to Israel. They may have been an extremely secular empire but the Israelites were receiving benefits so they had a “debt” to Rome. If we are going to enjoy police protection, fire protection, running water and a sewer system. . . if we intend to utilize roads and take advantage of public schools, we have an obligation to help underwrite these benefits.
Third, Jesus limits the authority of government. The government could not and must not demand religious-like or ultimate devotion. That kind of devotion is due only to the Lord. This is illustrated most clearly in the book of Daniel.
In Daniel 3 we read the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon erected a ninety foot tall statue of himself. Nebuchadnezzar told the people that when they heard the trumpets they were to bow down and worship the statue or face the consequences (being thrown into a fiery furnace). The three Hebrews refused to bow down. As you remember the story they were thrown into the furnace but were not consumed but instead came out of the furnace unharmed!
These men actually worked for the government. We have every reason to believe they did their jobs faithfully. They were giving to the King what they owed the King. However, when the King asked for worship, he was asking them to give what was owed to God alone.
Later in Daniel 6 a new empire had come to power. Daniel was a high ranking official. The emperor made a law that said no one could pray to anyone but the king for the next 30 days or they would be thrown into the lion’s den. Daniel went home and had his regular prayer time with the Lord. He was arrested and thrown into the lion’s den. Once again, he was kept from death.
In Acts 5 the apostles were told they could no longer tell other people about Jesus or they would face the consequences. They went out and started preaching to people about Jesus. Their explanation for their “civil disobedience” was simple: “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)
The point is that when the government tries to take authority that belongs to God we must obey God rather than men. God is the ultimate authority and our first allegiance is to Him. Let me expand on this as I draw out some practical lessons.
Lessons to Be Learned
First, Christians should be good citizens. Because we understand the place and purpose of government we should serve the purposes of the government to the best of our ability.
- We should pay our taxes
- We should vote in elections
- We should serve on juries
- We should obey reasonable laws
- We must respect the authority and position of government officials. Christians should not be slanderous or disrespectful to government authorities even when they disagree with or must oppose them!
- We should not take money from the government that we are not qualified to receive. Just because we can get money (by playing the game) it doesn’t mean we should.
- We should write our officials and make our opinions known
- We should be informed on the issues of the day
Second, Christians should not have blind loyalty to the government. Part of our responsibility as believers is to stand for Biblical values in our country. Our ultimate allegiance is to the Lord.
This has certain implications. First, we must never obey the state if it requires us to do something that breaks a command of God. Let’s say the state called on us to murder other members of our country (like the Jews in Germany during World War II). God would call us to respect life even if it meant we would lose our own lives in the process.
Suppose someone told you that you needed to falsify documents. You would need to refuse because God tells us not to lie. Or maybe your friends say they want you to be part of their “swinging lifestyle”. Again you would refuse because the Bible says you should not commit adultery.
We must not obey the state when it asks us to do something immoral. If the state told me that I had to perform same-sex weddings, I would break the law and refuse. There was a story not long ago about pharmacists who were fired because they refused to dispense the abortion pill. These pharmacists felt the pill was dangerous and they felt it was immoral. They refused to obey their employers.
Now, by the same token, if someone (say in a pulpit) told us to persecute people who engaged in homosexuality or had an abortion, or been convicted of a crime, or had tattoos or anything else we also must not obey. We can disagree with someone’s behavior, we can even know that it is sinful, but we must not be hateful toward the person.
Some of the most important changes in history have come about because people engaged in what is called “civil disobedience”. We are watching examples of such disobedience around the world right now. Citizens are rising up in protest of the abuses and excesses of the government. They have been told to go home and they refused. Some are paying a huge price for their stand. There are times when standing for what is right is more important than obeying the law. There are times when justice can be done only when people are made aware of the injustice of what is currently taking place.
We gained our freedom as a country because our forefathers broke the law and took a stand against British rule. It took the civil disobedience of many in the civil rights movement to awaken a country to the injustice of making some people second class citizens. Sometimes standing for what is right is unpopular. Consequently when we engage in civil disobedience we must be prepared to be thrown in jail or worse (like the disciples). The delicate balance in any act of civil disobedience is to stand for what is right and true without becoming a thug.
Our third principle is this: our responsibility to God is great. We must not forget that this passage is not simply about citizenship, it is about our responsibility to the Creator of the Universe. God has given us life and we owe Him.
The Lord has the right to give direction for our lives. It is right to honor Him and to worship Him. Half-hearted devotion is inappropriate. The Lord deserves our total devotion.
There will never be a reason for us to revolt against the Lord. We may rebel against earthly authorities because they are corrupt or unjust. The Lord has proved His faithfulness throughout our lives. He is consistent and right in all He does. We know from experience that when we have done what He told us to do, we have known His blessing. When we put our hope in Him we have had the strength to survive even the most horrible of trials. When we truly seek Him, He has always been faithful to welcome us. When we sincerely ask for forgiveness, He has restored us to fellowship. We have no right or reason to rebel against Him, He is just and good.
Practically we owe God
- Our worship. We should bow our hearts and lives before Him.
- Our love. We should be devoted to Him and long for Him.
- Our gratitude.
- Our trust. He deserves the benefit of the doubt even when we don’t understand what is going on.
- Obedience. We should submit to His authority and do what He says
- We owe Him the place of priority in our heart and lives
If we are honest with ourselves most of us will recognize that we are not giving God what we owe Him. We rebel against his authority day after day by refusing to do what He has told us to do.
This text gives us guidance on how to relate to the government. But even more importantly, it reminds us of our responsibility before God. We are called to show respect for His authority. I hope this text challenges you like it does me. I am led to examine my own heart and to bow in repentance before the Lord of Creation. I find myself asking not only, “Am I being a good citizen?” but also, “How can I do a better job of giving God the honor that is due Him?”
My hope and prayer is that as we prepare our taxes and figure out what we owe the government we might be honest in our dealing. We can largely take care of our obligation to the state by writing a check. Our responsibility before God will not be satisfied so easily. To fulfill our obligation to the Lord, we will need to give Him our life.