Taxing Issues (Luke 19:1-10; 20:20-26)
In this sermon on Luke 19 from The High Calling, George Cladis discusses how Jesus invites us to new life that involves all of ourselves, including our work. We are encouraged to invite Jesus into our workplace and make him part of what we do at work.
All along, Luke has identified Jesus as the one who is bringing God’s rule to earth. In chapter 19, the people of Jerusalem finally recognize him as a king. As he rides into town on a colt, crowds line the road and sing his praises. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38). As we know, God’s kingdom encompasses all of life, and the issues Jesus chooses to discuss immediately before and after his entry to Jerusalem touch on taxes and investments.
Zacchaeus, the Tax Collector (Luke 19:1-10)
As he passes through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus comes upon a tax collector named Zacchaeus, who is sitting in a tree to get a better view of Jesus. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says (Luke 19:5). The encounter with Jesus profoundly changes the way Zacchaeus works. Like all tax collectors in Roman client states, Zacchaeus made his money from overcharging people on their taxes. Although this was what we might now call “industry standard practice,” it depended on deceit, intimidation, and corruption. Once Zacchaeus comes into the kingdom of God, he can no longer work this way. “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much’” (Luke 19:8). Exactly how — or whether — he will continue to make a living, he doesn’t say, for it is beside the point. As a citizen of God’s kingdom, he cannot engage in business practices contrary to God’s ways.
Render Unto God What is God's (Luke 20:20-26)
After Jesus is welcomed as king in Jerusalem, there is a passage in Luke that has often been used wrongly to separate the world of work from the kingdom of God: Jesus’ saying about taxes. The teachers of the law and the chief priests try to “trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor” (Luke 20:20). They ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. In response, he asks them to show him a coin, and immediately they produce a denarius. He asks whose portrait is on it and they reply, “Caesar’s.” Jesus says, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25, NIV).
This reply has sometimes been interpreted as separating the material from the spiritual, the political from the religious, and the earthly and from the heavenly realms. In church (God’s realm), we must be honest and generous, and look after the good of our brothers and sisters. At work (Caesar’s realm), we must shade the truth, be driven by worry about money, and look out for ourselves above all. But this misunderstands the sharp irony in Jesus’ reply. When he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he is not sanctioning a separation of the material from the spiritual. The premise that Caesar’s world and God’s world do not overlap makes no sense in light of what Jesus has been saying throughout the Gospel of Luke. What is God’s? Everything! Jesus’ coming into the world as king is God’s claim that the entire world is God’s. Whatever may belong to Caesar also belongs to God. The world of taxes, government, production, distribution, and every other kind of work is the world that God’s kingdom is breaking into. Christians are called to engage that world, not to drop out of it. This passage is the opposite of a justification of separating the work world from the Christian world. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (taxes) and to God what is God’s (everything, taxes included). For a more thorough discussion of this incident, see the section on "Matthew 17:24-27 and 22:15-22" in Matthew and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.