Is It Lawful to Pay Taxes?
Tax season is upon us. It is no one’s favorite time. Many in Jesus’ day viewed it with contempt too. They asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not” (Mark 12:14)?
The Tax Setting
The Romans ruled the world in Jesus’ day. They collected a variety of taxes. The poll-tax was in view in our text. It was an annual tax levied in conjunction with the census, instituted in A. D. 6.
For some in Israel, paying taxes to Rome was a moral and religious question. Did a foreign government have the right to tax God’s people? Besides, the Caesars were often immoral and oppressive. The image and inscription on their coins strongly suggested claims to deity. Did paying taxes to them constitute fellowship with such claims and therefore blasphemy?
The Question Setting
Mark notes that Pharisees and Herodians joined in asking Jesus this question (v. 13). These two groups would have viewed this issue quite differently (the Herodians were generally favorable toward Roman rule, unlike the Pharisees). That goes hand-in-hand with their purpose: to trap Jesus. Luke says they were looking to deliver Him up to the governor (20:20). They were evidently hoping He would say no, then they could charge Him with insurrection. But if He said yes, it would in their minds discredit Him as the Messiah, a ruler of God’s people.
Jesus perceived their hypocrisy and rebuked it. He called for a denarius, a Roman coin. He asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They answered that it was Caesar’s. Jesus replied, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 17).
Jesus acknowledged that both government and God have rightful claims on us. We must be respectful of both. Obedience to God does not inherently eliminate obedience to government. Civil government is from God, and we are to be subject to it (Romans 13). If the Jews could use Caesar’s coins and take advantage of Caesar’s provisions, they could and should render proper payment to him. Clearly, paying taxes does not constitute support for everything a government does or stands for. Tax levies cannot be refused on the basis of misuse of funds!
That said, Caesar’s due is limited. Governmental rule never supersedes divine rule over us. Caesar cannot take over God’s role, either by claiming to be His representative (as some Caesars did) or by dictating how we serve God. If government prohibits what God requires or requires what God prohibits, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).