As the nation approaches the fiscal cliff, with President Obama and the Republican Congress haggling over how to—and even whether or not to—avoid said cliff, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone that high taxes are something of a Christmas tradition. For it was in roughly 4 BC that a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph made the arduous journey from his current residence to his hometown of Bethlehem to register for a new wave of property and household taxes initiated by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Since it was uncertain just how long it would take for the government to get to his case and assess his forthcoming tax burden, he was forced to take his VERY pregnant wife, Mary, along with him—presumably so he wouldn’t miss the birth.
You might be surprised that the New Testament actually talks quite a bit about taxes—death and taxes to be exact—since the Bible writers were keen to speak to these and many other certainties. Besides the backstory behind the nativity scene, the question of state confiscation of income appears numerous times in the text of Scripture. In all cases, the attitude of the biblical characters is that of resignation and acceptance of the reality of one’s responsibility to pay taxes.
The most famous exchange about taxes came when Jesus’ archenemies, the Pharisees and Sadducees, tried to present Him with a seemingly impossible question to answer well: should one pay taxes to Caesar? If He said yes, the conservatives thought He was selling out the right of the Jews to be sovereign over their own state. If He said no, the liberals would charge Him with being an anti-statist revolutionary. Jesus’ genius answer—that if Caesar’s minted the coin, then you better give it back to its owner—contained a really powerful critique of statism: there are more important things than money. There is your soul, family, and self respect, for example.
Elsewhere, when tax collectors asked the disciple Peter if Jesus paid the Temple tax, Peter could reply yes (Matthew 17:24-27). But unlike the rest of us hapless fellows, Jesus had the unfair advantage of being able to pull off a miracle in order to pay it. He told Peter to go fishing and see what he caught. The first fish he brought up had a shekel in its mouth—paying for both Peter’s and Jesus’ contribution to the commonweal. I’ve always thought this episode was a hilarious send-up of the idea that the state is in control of human affairs.
In Romans, St. Paul implores the Christians not to be revolutionaries and pay their taxes. After all, who’s going to keep the peace if the Roman military can’t buy swords for their soldiers? Don’t be an anarchist, Paul warns his readers.
The biblical wisdom on taxes is: be patient. History tells us that the Roman Empire started to collapse when they had taxed the populace of their conquered territories into oblivion. With no new territories to conquer, the Romans essentially created a tax culture rather than a wealth creation culture. Inflation grew to the point that the Roman denarius was virtually worthless. By the third and fourth centuries, totalitarian measures took effect to keep the State stabilized. And all of the sudden, those Christians who followed Jesus’ teaching that there was more to life than money definitely seemed to be having the last laugh.