Now we come to the subject that I’m sure you’re all waiting for: Taxes!!! People love to think about them, talk about them, and—most of all—pay them! With a smile on our face! Right?
OK, you can turn your sarcasm meter off that’s maxxing out right now. Everybody hates everything to do with taxes, with the lonely exceptions of those who directly benefit from the taxation system, like IRS agents and accountants. And of course IRS agents are about as popular as cancer and cockroaches.
But let me tell you something: People today have nothing but love and affection for the IRS compared to how people (especially the Jews) looked upon tax collectors in the 1st century. When Jesus (and the people he dealt with) used a shorthand list of your stereotypically despised sinners, tax collectors were commonly on the list. On the short list I just linked to, the passage in Matthew 21 is my personal favorite, since it links tax collectors with prostitutes as being roughly morally equivalent careers.
Even under a system such as ours, in which we actually have a voice in our government (like the U.S.), people only pay their taxes under threat of a gun. But when Paul was writing this, most people had little to no voice in their government, and the Roman Empire in particular was famous for taxing conquered nations onerously.
But for us as believers, it’s different.
Paul here tells us to pay our taxes. According to MacArthur, “The Greek word referred specifically to taxes paid by individuals, particularly those living in a conquered nation to their foreign rulers—which makes the tax even more onerous. That tax was usually a combined income and property tax.” And the same principle applies here as it did a few verses prior: Unlike unbelievers, we know that the government is an institution created and empowered by God. He’s the One who put the sword in its hand. But that sword—that threat of punishment--is not the main reason why we (as followers of Jesus) obey the government. He tells us we obey (and pay taxes) “not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
What does this mean? How do we apply this?
Well, let’s first examine what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong for you to take legitimate exemptions. If the law’s clear that you can take a home mortgage exemption, then take it. I don’t think it’s wrong for you to hire an accountant to look through your finances to see what you can (legitimately) claim. I also don’t think it’s wrong to vote for politicians who support the tax level you think is appropriate.
What is not right is for you to cheat the system. Being a follower of Christ means that you’re scrupulously honest in all your business dealings, and that’d include your dealings with the IRS. If there’s a question about whether or not a deduction or exemption is legitimate, don’t take it. Don’t hide income when paying your income taxes.
If the law says that you owe something, in taxes or otherwise, pay it. Paul sets out some general rules for us to follow: if you owe taxes, pay up. If you owe revenue (the word refers to things like tolls and fees to the government), pay it. If someone’s position is traditionally entitled to respect or an honorific title, then you don’t buck the tradition. No matter how much I might disagree with a President’s policies or am disgusted by his personal conduct, I stand up when he enters the room, address him as “Mr. President,” and show him respect in my conduct towards him. I show respect towards the position, not necessarily the person holding that position.
I know that in this country, we have a huge rebellious streak. As I’ve mentioned before, this whole nation started off by telling the Mother Country “You can’t tell us what to do!!! More taxes? On tea? Well, we’ll just dump that tea in the harbor!” Mocking and standing up against established authority has a venerable tradition in this country. But when the zeitgeist conflicts with what the Bible tells me, I know which one takes precedence.
Do my speech and my relationship with government reps reflect this truth? Do yours?
Father, sometimes it’s really hard to show respect to people whom I don’t think deserve it. But giving them what they deserve ultimately is your job, not mine. May my speech and money and everything else about me reflect your truth and your standards. By your grace.