April 15 is not a date that usually appears on the Christian calendar. It is tax day, the deadline for filing personal income taxes. Is there a biblical and historical precedent for paying taxes?
To the surprise of many, the Bible has a lot to say about taxes. Moses took a census and levied a poll tax of a half shekel per person (Exodus 30). The district governors serving under King Solomon collected a quota of provisions to supply the king and his court. Neighboring kingdoms also brought “tribute” to Solomon (I Kings 4:7-28).
In the message of the prophets, we hear a call for just taxation. Often, the government collected “the king’s share” of the harvest before the family’s portion could be gathered and stored (Amos 7:1). Prophets like Amos protested against an unfair system that would “trample on the poor and force him to give you grain” (5:11).
In the King James version of the Gospel of Luke, the nativity narrative begins, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (Lk 2:1). The NIV says, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.”
Many historians say that such a census or enrollment was taken for the purpose of taxation. Caesar Augustus is thought by many to have been the most brilliant tax strategist of the Roman Empire. During his reign, the responsibility for collecting taxes was transferred from the central government to the cities. This strategic move collected taxes more thoroughly.
In order to provide retirement funds for the military, Caesar Augustus also instituted a tax of 5 percent on all inheritances. Later, both the English and the Dutch referred to this tax as precedent in developing their own inheritance taxes.
What did Jesus teach about taxes? Jesus tended to be proactive about taxes and tax collectors, many of whom had a reputation for corruption and deceit. Jesus befriended Levi, also called Matthew, and this tax collector became one of the Twelve Apostles.
Jesus also took special interest in Zaccheus, a short man from Jericho described as “a chief tax collector and wealthy.” When Zaccheus committed to following Jesus, he pledged to give half of his wealth to the poor, and if he had cheated anyone, he vowed to repay them “four times the amount” (Lk 19:8).
There are two primary encounters in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus directly addressed the issue of taxes. When Jesus and the disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax asked Peter, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” Peter replied (Mt 17:24-25). Then Jesus instructed Peter to take a four drachma coin and “give it to them for my tax and yours” (17:27).
Later, as the Pharisees conspired with the Herodians to entrap Jesus in his own words, they asked Jesus, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Lk 22:17). Jesus, perceiving their “evil intent,” asked them, “Why are you trying to entrap me? Show me the coin you are using to pay tax.” They brought him a denarius. Then he asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus clearly instructed them on paying taxes: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Lk 22:18-22).
Through the years, tax formulas and forms have become more sophisticated. In a democratic society, people of faith have an opportunity to work proactively for a system of taxation which is fair and just, a system which does not, in the words of the prophet, “trample the poor.”
People of faith have both a civil and spiritual responsibility to pay taxes. In writing to the believers in Rome, Paul summarized, “If you owe taxes, pay taxes” (Rom 13:7).
When you complete your tax forms and submit them to the state and federal governments, you are participating in an act that has historical and biblical precedent. You are also fulfilling a responsibility that was affirmed in both the teachings and actions of Jesus.
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.