When Christians discuss the issue of taxation, it doesn’t take long for someone to quote Mark 12:17: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Unfortunately, this quote of Jesus’ is frequently taken out of context as implicit support for the system of state taxation. When, however, we consider these words of Jesus within their broader context, it is very easy to see that this deduction is categorically false.
First of all, Jesus’ statement is in response to a question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Mk 12:14). The question was purposefully designed to entrap him and it was posed by the Pharisees and the Herodians, two groups that were politically conservative (Mk 12:13). The question is designed to force Jesus to declare His politics, essentially, “Do you support the status quo along with the Right wingers, or do you support the Leftist revolutionaries?” Had he answered in the affirmative, it would have been understood as support for the Right, to answer in the negative would have been deemed to be support for the insurrectionists and subversives of the Left.
Fascinatingly, Jesus refuses their false dichotomy by offering a third alternative. Since Caesar’s image is on the denarius, the coin used to pay taxes to the Empire, it already belongs to him; to pay taxes is simply to give the state what already belongs to the state. The implication is not that Jesus supports taxation, but that for most practical intents and purposes, the state is inconsequential. What is of absolute importance are the things of God and what we render to Him. Thus, Jesus deftly shifts the focus of the discussion from matters of earthly politics to matters of the kingdom of God.
This being the case, it is more than a little ironic to hear Christians quoting Mark 12 as they advocate state taxation. Typically, this advocacy is couched in the belief that the power of the state, especially its power to levy taxes, should be utilized to bring about initiatives that are in line with the principles of the kingdom of God, typically those that fall under the heading of “social justice” (e.g., nationalized health care, state-sponsored health insurance, and other programs designed to feed, house, and otherwise care for those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale).
The crux of the issue is that state-sponsored public welfare programs are funded by taxation, and taxation is inextricably rooted in violence. Of course some pay their taxes voluntarily and would do so even if not compelled by the force of law. Others, however, pay taxes only because of the threat of the sword-bearing state. The point is not to question whether taxation is within the purview of the state; after all, taxation, seizure, and conscription are the hallmarks of empire (cf. 1Sam 8). The point is to acknowledge the undeniable truth that the state can only enforce its tax system through the power of the sword, thus taxation is inherently rooted in violence (if you don’t believe that, stop paying your taxes for a while and you will soon feel the physical and economic force of the state’s power). The real question is whether Christians, especially those who claim to be non-violent, should support (in terms of advocacy) a system of violence in an effort to bring about “social justice.”
Unfortunately, I have heard Christians who are very committed to pacifism express their advocacy of state taxation as a means to fund their social justice agenda and ironically, they so do in the name of peace making. But is it really just to hold one person at the point of the state sword in order to bring economic relief to another? Is there any intellectual honesty to this type of “peace making”? Moreover, would Jesus support such tactics? I think not. In fact, He would likely offer a third alternative. When His disciples asked Jesus to send the hungry masses away, did He instruct them to engage the social welfare programs of Rome, or to request assistance from Herod, or even from the Sanhedrin (the ruling council of Israel)? No, He said, “You give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37). And when they expressed their inability to feed so many people, Jesus didn’t suggest that they lobby the various systems of political power, He simply displayed the power of God by feeding thousands of people from apparently meager resources. Unfortunately, like the original twelve, most Christian disciples today are convinced that they are under-resourced and thus incapable of the job of caring for the masses.
The question of paying taxes to Caesar is one of three pericopes placed purposefully together in Mark’s Gospel wherein questions are posed to Jesus about politics and theology (and in that historical setting there was no clear distinction between these two categories). In the first two, the questioners demonstrate their ignorance of both the Scriptures and the power of God (Mk 12:24). In the last, the questioner affirms Jesus’ answer that the greatest commandments are to love God with all of one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself and Jesus responds that the man is “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:28-34). The fact of the matter is, when God’s people love God with all their hearts and love their neighbors as themselves, rather than relying on the state to provide for the needs of their neighbors, God equips and resources His people for this work of love in a demonstration of His power.
Christians cannot be dependent on the state and dependent on the kingdom of God simultaneously. These two entities are mutually exclusive realities; a choice must be made. We pay our taxes to Caesar because the money bearing his image is his to begin with, but we dare not rely on him to bring about the kingdom of God with his sword. Only when we wean ourselves from dependency on the state may we enter the kingdom of God. Only from within the kingdom of God will we be adequately resourced to love our neighbors as ourselves.