Church and state support each other
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
The Good News for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 20, 2002
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Death and taxes both seemed certain at the end of Jesus' life. In the final days before his arrest, he engaged in several controversies with his opponents. One after another, these conversations prepared the road to Calvary. The topic under discussion in the Gospel for next Sunday (Matthew 22:15-21) is taxes. The Pharisees hope to trick Jesus into rebelling against the state.
Christians generally pay taxes without thinking much about it. In the United States our churches are not-for-profit organizations exempt from most taxes. Contributions to churches garner tax deductions. But as members of a Christian community, we all pay taxes. Even priests pay income tax every year.
St. Paul encouraged Roman Christians to pay taxes. He argued that civil authorities are God's servants, so to cooperate with them was to cooperate with God. "You should pay taxes," he writes. "Pay to all what is due them -- taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" (Romans 13:6-7).
The First Letter of Peter also encourages its readers to respect civil authority. "For the Lord's sake, accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. ... Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor" (2:13-14, 17).
Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, the collectors of the temple tax cornered Peter with this question: "Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?" Peter answered, "Yes, he does." Jesus spoke approvingly with Peter about the incident and dispatched him to the lake, where Peter would catch a fish with a coin in its mouth. "Take that and give it to them for you and me," Jesus said of the required tax (17:24-27).
Typically today, the Catholic Church does not argue about the idea of Christians paying taxes, but we do take a stand on the fairness of taxes. For example, in 1991 the United States Catholic Conference stated, "The current tax code fails to reflect the real costs of raising children and offers inadequate help to families with children. We welcome proposals to reform the tax code to help families cope with the high cost of raising children. ... We continue to support an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit to assist poor, working families. This pro-work, pro-family provision needs to be enhanced and supported as an important contribution to tax fairness" ("Putting Children and Families First: A Challenge for Our Church, Nation, and World," VI B3).
It is not surprising, then, that in this debate with the Pharisees, Jesus comes out with a rather non-controversial statement: Pay the tax.
This tax was required of all citizens. It helped them live in peace and assured them certain rights. It consisted of a denarius, or the wages received for a day's work. Because Judea was under Roman governance, the tax had to be paid with a Roman coin, one bearing the image of the ruler.
The Pharisees instigate a discussion about this tax, not as a pacific disclosure of opinions, but as a plot to trap Jesus and make his arrest easier. They drag along the Herodians, who probably favored the tax. The Herodians supported Herod Antipas, who remained in power because of gathered taxes. By bringing them along, the Pharisees used a pro-tax lobby to stack the deck in their conversation with Jesus. The Pharisees themselves probably thought no more about the tax than Jesus did. But there were nationalists who opposed Roman rule and the tax that came with it. If Jesus proved to be of their number, there could be trouble.
Jesus sees through the hypocrisy of the question and mercilessly cuts through the setup. But his advice is not rebellious. "Pay the tax. The coin bears the image of Tiberius Caesar. It's his coin anyway."
But then Jesus turns the tables on his opponents. "By the way," you can almost hear him slyly add. "Pay 'tax' to God too. Give back what belongs to God." Jesus has a one-track mind. He can't enter any conversation without thinking about the omnipotence of God and all that is owed to the creator.
Next week's passage is often used to justify the separation of church and state. Jesus had nothing so grandiose in mind. If anything, there's a parallel between church and state. Each supports the other, and each deserves its due.
Father Paul Turner is the pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron.