The Gospel reading at mass this morning was the story of the tribute coin. In his homily, our priest used the standard interpretation of this story: Jesus endorses paying to Caesar all the taxes that Caesar says are due, and, by extension, Jesus instructs us to pay our taxes as good Christians. In Matthew 22, Scripture says the Pharisees (with Herodian witnesses) wanted to trap Jesus with the question, “Master … is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Where is the trap?
We have a strong hint in tradition. If Jesus said it was permissible to pay the taxes, he would risk alienating his followers. If he said it was not permissible, then he would be guilty of sedition, with the Herodians as reliable witnesses. This choice implies some sort of problem in paying the taxes. Some translations even say “… Is it legal …” Well it was certainly legal under Roman and Herodian law. The trap was that it was illegal under Jewish, or Mosaic Law. Taxes in general were illegal, and paying a tribute or a tax to a foreign potentate an even more flagrant illegality under Mosaic Law.
Under Mosaic Law, the tithe took care of all community needs, both sacred and secular. The tithe provided for the religious needs of the nation as well as those we would today call civil. And the tithe was owed to God as rent for the bountiful land that he made and still legally owned. So the tithe, properly set up, was not a choice, it was a legal tenant/landlord obligation.
So when Jesus said (paraphrasing now) “Pay Caesar what you owe him and also pay God what God is owed,” He slipped through the trap. The Pharisees and Jesus’ followers all knew what he meant: You owe Caesar – nothing! And you owe God the tithe, the rent of his land, which takes care of, among other things, all the civil needs that Caesar purports to provide.
The ending of the story puts a neat bow on the package: the Pharisees “were unable to catch him out in anything he had to say in public; they were amazed at his answer and silenced.” (Luke 20:26)
Certainly this would not have been their reaction if Jesus had just endorsed the Roman tax system. Jesus did not instruct us to pay our taxes. If we want to pay them, fine. If we feel coerced to pay them, fine. But Jesus did not endorse paying them.
God did set up a system that works very well, if we would only pay attention to it and let it guide us.