This blog is a result of reading the unsettling replies of Zen Master Chao-Chou, while thinking about Jesus. Both of them were quick on their feet, and witty in their wisdom.
The Question about Paying Taxes
Here’s an episode from the Gospel of Mark chapter 12
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
The questioners were sure they could trap Jesus into looking like a Rome-lover (making him unpopular with patriotic Jews) or a dangerous radical (making him a legitimate target for the Roman administration). At first Jesus’ solution looks simply like a bit of smart repartee that got him out of a tight corner. But if we give it a little more consideration, it looks more profound.
Firstly, we should note that questioners were pushing Jesus towards a refusal of tax payments. That’s certainly the drift of their preface – “you don’t kow-tow to people in power”- encouraging Jesus to oppose the Emperor. This is interesting because it shows that Jesus’ preaching about God’s kingdom had political overtones.
Then we can recognise that “true Jews” would see the Roman denarius as the kind of “graven image” forbidden in the 10 commandments, and therefore never use it. Here, Jesus casual request shows that his questioners are not “true Jews” as they readily provide the coin.
Next, we can see that Jesus’ question is carefully worded: whose image and title are on it? His questioners give him the answer, the Emperor’s, which allows Jesus to advise giving the Emperor what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to God. But what belongs to God? Jesus’ audience, prompted by his language would have remembered the creation story in Genesis which teaches that men and women were created in the “image and likeness of God.” Jesus was reminding his questioners that the image of God is stamped on every human being, who therefore “belong to God.”
This is a stunning reply from a citizen of a country under foreign rule. It suggests that rather than becoming too tied up in the details of oppression – the Romans were taxing them for the privilege of being ruled by them – people should turn towards the source of liberation: they belong to God whose kingdom is even more extensive that that of Rome, and they should behave as citizens of that kingdom. Sure, this might involve actions as dangerous as tax evasion, but these would flow from an active assertion of divine citizenship rather than from a reaction to Rome’s imperialism.
It is quite clear that Jesus’ reply is not, as the protestant reformers taught, proposing a neat division between secular and religious realms. If ultimately the person belongs to God then the Emperor ought to walk carefully: the lives of people do not belong to him. And of course, all human beings, conscious of the divine image stamped on their lives, should hold their heads high in the face of emperor and all oppressive rulers. Jesus’ teaching is not an evasion of concrete action against oppression, but rather the basis of it.
I want to dedicate this blog to the members of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, about which I wrote two blogs back, in recognition of their principled opposition to oppressive rule in their own country.