April 15 (Tax Day) fell during the Christian Holy Week this year for Americans. And so this week Christians were “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” and “rendering unto God the things that are God’s,” giving Uncle Sam his due and giving God God’s due. Accountants from behind office desks and from behind church pulpits are advising American Christians on their civic and religious obligations.
Last Sunday, along with thousands in Central Texas, I waved palm branches to reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. This ritualized remembrance by fellow Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Presbyterians and others in our city began our Holy Week observances. Then on Monday, like all Americans, I submitted my tax returns. I do it electronically, though many still mail in their 1040s. As I participated in worship on Palm Sunday and civic duty on Tax Day, it occurred to me that the cross and taxes are linked in the New Testament story.
Only days before he was arrested, Jesus was asked a question about paying taxes from “his opponents” who were “looking for some opportunity to seize him” (Mark 12).
“Teacher, we know that you are honest and impartial, because you pay no attention to appearances, but instead you teach God’s way forthrightly. Is it permissible to pay the poll tax to the Roman emperor or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?”
Simple question, right? Don’t all good citizens pay their taxes? There are roads to maintain, school teachers to pay and sanitary water systems to be inspected. But remember the Jews of first-century Palestine were under the domination of an empire that had invaded, pillaged, raped, murdered, subdued and humiliated them for decades. The heavy and ruthless hand of this empire was destroying them. Only a small number of Jews (such as the upper-class Sadducees) who were benefiting from this political arrangement supported their Roman overlords.
Peasant Galileans, like Jesus, understood full well that Rome was the oppressor. And Jesus represented these masses of the poor who had started to call him Messiah, the anointed one, a second David, the coming King. So, no, this was not a simple question about good citizenship that they asked Jesus. Rather, it was about the legitimacy of Rome. And, as Mark’s gospel says, they asked it in order to entrap Jesus who the day before had entered the Jewish Temple to instigate a riotous political protest. And, of course, we know how the story ended for Jesus. He was arrested and executed not long afterward. Jesus was not unique in this sense; he was dealt with by the Romans as they dealt with all political agitators.
In fact, Jesus was one of hundreds of first-century Jews who received the death penalty at the hands of Rome for acts of insurrection. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan writes that what led to Jesus’ arrest and execution was his political protest in the temple. Mark’s gospel says that after Jesus rode into Jerusalem, “he went into the temple and began chasing the vendors and shoppers out of the temple area, and he turned the bankers’ tables upside down, along with the chairs of the pigeon merchants, and he wouldn’t even let anyone carry a container through the temple area” (Chapter 11). As he caused this calamity, Jesus railed that the temple had become a “hideout for crooks!” According to Crossan, this action was not, as is commonly understood, a cleansing or purifying of the temple but, rather, “an attack on the temple’s very existence, a destruction — symbolic, to be sure, but none the less dangerous for that.” Crossan continues: “It is like going into a draft office during the Vietnam War and overturning drawers of file cards. It is symbolic negation of all that office or temple stand for.”
And so the question about paying taxes came after Jesus had publicly called the powers-that-be “crooks,” after he had called for the destruction of a corrupt system. How would he answer their question about paying taxes to what he has implied is an illegitimate government?
But he saw through their trap and said to them: “Why do you provoke me like this? Let me have a look at that coin.” They handed him a silver coin and he said to them, “Whose picture is this? Whose name is on it?” They replied, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them: “Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!”
Notice that Jesus does not provide a yes or no answer to their question. Had he answered truthfully, perhaps he would have been crucified on Tuesday instead of Friday. Instead, his retort is a masterful dodge. He doesn’t advise them to pay the tax and he doesn’t advise them not to pay the tax. Instead, he says that they should discern the difference between the claims of a government and the claims of God. These claims may not be the same and, in fact, they may be in irreconcilable conflict as was the case for Jesus and his followers.
While Jesus’ answer to the question on taxes was a dodge, his decision to enter the temple and speak truth to power was anything but that. It was bold, direct and unequivocal. The crucifixion of Jesus, like the crucifixion of other Jews at that time, resulted from their public statements, their protests, their civil disobedience that called out the powers of corruption, greed and abuse. What led Jesus to do this — even with the knowledge of the likely consequences of taking his message of protest directly to the political and religious authorities? Jesus in the mold of Jewish prophets before him and in the mold of John the Baptist spoke truth to power through word and deed. And he, like they, suffered the consequences.
After his death, his followers took up their own crosses. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down by Rome and Paul beheaded by the emperor as they dared to call Jesus “Lord,” an inflammatory statement given that, according to political orthodoxy, only Caesar was “Lord.” Over the centuries since that time, Christians have followed the example of Jesus. In the last century, Christians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d. 1945, Lutheran pastor and member of the German resistance), Martin Luther King Jr. (d. 1968, Baptist pastor) and Óscar Romero (d. 1980, archbishop of San Salvador) took actions in support of the oppressed and abused that led directly to their deaths. Hundreds of unnamed Christians made similar choices around the world in the modern period and paid the ultimate price.
In recent months in our country, children have been systematically and intentionally torn from the arms of their immigrant parents by government; members of stigmatized groups have been denied fairness in policy by civic institutions; Muslims have been demonized by media harbingers of hate and disinformation; children’s futures have been stupidly mortgaged by tax breaks for the wealthiest, resulting in increased national debt; and government agencies ignore and hide the emergent threat of climate change that will, without immediate action, threaten humanity itself. Christians, and people of other faiths and people of goodwill everywhere, are, like Jesus, taking up their crosses. Their public actions and political statements may be costly for them. As they are asked to take account, many will be willing to pay. Holy Week for Christians is about counting the cost. The tax paid for speaking truth to power can be high. But so are the claims God makes on his followers. And given the promise of resurrection, the return on the payment greater still. Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it.” It’s important to make sure you have a good accountant as you decide what is worth paying.