Render unto Caesar…

Recently (Dec. 1st) the Wall Street Journal ran an article on how Pittsburgh is considering a new tax on college students.  In the article it mentioned students complaining that this tax would be taxation without representation, and that it was unfair and illegal. I started thinking through our American heritage of taxation. While I can honestly state that I am not up to date on legal code, it would appear to me that if the elected officials voted to add a tax without enough public opinion to dissuade them otherwise, it would then pass into law and be completely legal. IF this were to happen, then rendering unto “Caesar” (i.e. – the governing authority) would be proper in this instance. The history of exempt students can be traced back more than two centuries to Boston where “only the governor, lieutenant governor, clergy, schoolmasters, and anyone connected with Harvard College—including students—were exempt” [1]. So the precedent for exempting college students is a longstanding American tradition. The unrest that caused the Revolutionary war was not from being taxed in and of itself, but the fact that England was imposing a higher “royally imposed” tax structure in which the common people had no local appeal or voice as opposed to their community collection systems. This case in Pittsburgh does not fall into that bracket unless the students do not fall under the local governance and voting system (which many possibly may not, being from out of town, or out of state), literally giving them no voice in the matter.

So how does that line up with this Biblical mandate Christ set forth? With my recent schooling I wondered what my reaction would have been if it were to affect me, and it brought to mind Christ’s words when He said,

“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” | Matthew 22:21

While I do not like paying taxes (much like the Jews in Christ’s day), the real issue is not my own personal feeling on the matter, it is what God has called us to do. The tax rate in the 1st Century was between 1-3% [2],  which is in keeping with Christ’s coin that Peter found in the fish, the denarius [3].  God holds us responsible to live peaceably with all men, Romans 12:18 and to be respectful and supportive of the government that God has placed over us, 1 Timothy 2:1-2. Paul is clear in Romans 13:3-8 that God is the one establishing authority, and ultimately our response to them is a reflection of our response to Him.

It is interesting that the Jews complained of a 1% tax; I would gladly take that over the 10-35% taxes that can be found today. But we all tend to be complain about whatever authority is imposing rules upon us. Which gives even greater meaning to Paul when he states:

“For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” | Philippians 4:11-13

And even after this life, I think that there is a semi-hidden comfort when we  read the broader context of Matthew looking for Christ’s interaction with taxation:

“When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?”  He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” | Matthew 17:24-27

There appears to be a veiled message indicating that when all is said and done, and we are under the lone rule of God our Father. He will remove all of these human restrictions and give His sons complete freedom. However, until that day we need to honor Him in respect to those to whom He has granted authority over us.


[1]  Menand, Catherine S.,, “The Things That Were Caesar’s: Tax Collecting in Eighteenth-Century Boston.”

[2], “Taxes in the Roman Empire.”

[3] A denarius was equal to a days wage.


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