Paying Taxes (Matthew 17:24-27 and 22:15-22)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

In Jesus’ day, Jews paid taxes both locally to the Jewish temple and to the pagan government in Rome. Matthew records two separate instances depicting Jesus’ view on paying these taxes. The first incident is recorded in Matthew 17:24-27, where the collectors of the temple tax ask Peter whether Jesus pays that tax. Jesus, knowing of this conversation, asks Peter, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” Peter answers, “From others.” Jesus responds, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The second incident, concerning the Roman tax, is found in Matthew 22:15-22. Here the Pharisees and Herodians want to entrap Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus knows the malice in their hearts and responds with a cutting question, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” When they hand him a denarius, he asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They respond, “The emperor's.” Jesus ends the conversation with the words, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Our true citizenship is in God’s kingdom, and we devote our resources to God’s purposes. But we give to earthly powers what is due. Paying taxes is one of the bedrock obligations we as citizens or residents undertake for the services we enjoy in any civilized society. Those services include the work of first responders (police, firefighters, medical people, and so on), as well as the social nets in place to assure justice or aid for the poor, the aged, and others in need. The Roman Empire was not governed primarily for the benefit of the common people, yet even so it provided roads, water, policing, and sometimes relief for the poor. We may not always agree on the type or extent of services our governments should provide, but we know that our taxes are essential in providing for our personal protection and for the help of those who cannot help themselves.

Even though not all of government activity serves God’s purposes, Jesus does not call us flout the tax requirements of the nations where we reside (Romans 13:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12). Jesus is saying in essence that we do not necessarily have to resist paying taxes as a matter of principle. When possible, we should “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18; Hebrews 12:14; cf. 1 Peter 2:12), while also living as lights shining in the darkness (Matthew 5:13-16; Philippians 2:15). To work at our jobs and to refuse to pay our taxes in a way that brings dishonor to God’s kingdom would be neither peaceable nor winsome.

This has direct applications to work. Workplaces are subject to governmental laws and powers, in addition to taxes. Some governments have laws and practices that may violate Christian purposes and ethics, as was true of Rome in the first century. Governments or their employees may demand bribes, impose unethical rules and regulations, subject people to suffering and injustice, and use the taxes for purposes contrary to God's will. As with taxes, Jesus does not demand that we resist every one of these abuses. We are like spies or guerrillas in enemy territory. We can’t get bogged down in fighting the enemy kingdom at every stronghold. Instead, we must act strategically, always asking what will most further the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Of course, we must never engage in abusive practices for our own benefit. (This topic is also discussed under "Luke 19:1-10; 20:20-26" in Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.)