I’ve been thinking about a comment Jesus made concerning “Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” (Luke 20:25) The reason I am thinking about this is because I just now filed my 2018 tax return. Taking refuge in the IRS filing extension provision I managed to delay the inevitable until October. Actually, I am relieved to once again be square with Uncle Sam.
So what does any of this have to do with matters spiritual? More than you may think. At the very least it brings up one of the great idolatries in our culture. Because we tend to value money more than anything else in this world it is not too far fetched to say we worship it. If what I worship is what I think about more than anything else, then money is God for a lot of us.
As for formal gatherings where this alternative God is praised and adored, every day on Wall Street there is a liturgy that begins and ends with the ringing of bells in a gathering of true believers. In the mega church of money (The New York Stock Exchange) people shout and raise their hands in allegiance to and admiration of money all day long. Every day the evening news tells us what went on in church that day. Bishop Dow Jones and Vicar NASDAQ tell the faithful how the church is doing.
We live in a culture where money and the economy are like a God. We believe they have the power to determine our destiny and define our security. The market and economy can be mysterious entities with spiritual powers to both trouble and soothe our souls. Of course, these things are only true if we grant them the power to do so.
Now lest you think I am totally out of touch with reality, I certainly understand the need to work and earn a living. I am not even opposed to earning a good living. I want to be careful, however, about granting money more power than it deserves. If I consciously or subconsciously give money first place in my life I am in danger of bankrupting my soul.
I think that is what Jesus was really trying to say when he said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” In a way, Jesus was saying that paying taxes is good for us. It helps keep things in perspective. Put another way, Jesus is saying we must be careful not to think worshiping God and adoring money can coexist in a vision of faith. Give Caesar his taxes but do not give him your soul. Give God your soul. Caesar is not entitled to your soul.
This is where things can get tricky. That is because we are tempted to think that next to money, being a citizen of a wealthy nation is good for our security. If we are not careful, even patriotism can become a belief system on a par with faith in God. I think God would have us be good citizens, even patriotic citizens. Just be careful of trusting America more than God.
So are taxes good for people of faith? I am thinking they are good if they help us clarify the distinction between God and nation, things eternal and things temporal. Most of the world’s religions have something to say about a right relationship with money. People of Christian persuasion should know that this is a subject Jesus spoke to time and time again. Paying taxes can be instructive and even reassuring when we remember a few of his words:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)