Summary: Does our faith permit us to disobey the government or to evade taxes? Are Romans 13 and Acts 5 incompatible? How can we sincerely and creatively live as citizens of two kingdoms? What is the underlying principle that governs our choices?
[Sermon preached on 4 November 2018, 24th Sunday after Pentecost / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Some years ago, we needed to get a little home renovation done. I asked someone for a quotation. When he had given me the price, he added: “That’s without a receipt. If you want a receipt, I will have to add 22% to the price.” Why was that? Because without a receipt, the guy wouldn’t have to pay tax. Officially, that money would not exist in his bookkeeping.
In many trades, it seems to be common practice rather than an exception to evade taxes whenever possible. Even many Christians seem to be quite comfortable with the idea of doing business without receipts, without paying tax.
In today’s readings from the New Testament, Jesus and Paul have a clear message concerning the obligation to pay taxes. But paying tax is not the main issue. They are just examples—case studies, if you wish—concerning obedience and submission to the authorities: to the state, the city, or the church. The underlying principles go much deeper than the question of whether we pay our taxes or not.
Both Jesus and Paul could actually build a compelling case for not paying taxes. When addressing the question of temple tax, or “two-drachma tax”, Jesus asks his disciples the generic question of who should and who should not pay tax. Should the children of the king pay taxes? Of course not, they are exempt. Why? Because they are his children. Since the temple tax was imposed by God, and since Jesus is the Son of God, he should not have to pay the tax, strictly speaking. And yet, Jesus decided to pay anyways. Why?
“So that we may not cause offense…”
In other words: Let’s not fight and argue, and maybe even go to court over an issue of money—five to ten euros. It’s not worth it. Jesus calls us to avoid offending others, including the authorities, if it is just a matter of money. It may cost us a bit more. But on the other hand, the miracle of the fish shows that, in the end, it is God who provides. Everything belongs to him, whether it is in our wallet or in the treasury of the king or the temple. Case closed.
The situation in Rome is different. Here, the tax was imposed by the Emperor. Some Christians considered that paying tax was simply their duty, and they thought no more of it. But to others, it felt like betraying their true king Jesus Christ. For them worshiping king Jesus implied that they had to boycott everything even remotely connected with Emperor worship. And that included paying tribute tax.
So as far as paying tax is concerned, Paul and Jesus had the same message: “If it is just a matter of money, don’t unnecessarily offend others. Just pay what you are due.” But in both cases, paying tax was not the real issue at stake. It was one concrete application of a general principle. That is why in Romans 13:1–7 Paul addresses the larger issue of submission to the governing authorities.
In essence, Paul says this. You are under the authority of the Roman government. The Roman government is God’s servant, appointed by God, and under the authority and supervision of God. The Emperor is accountable to God. Therefore, if we pledge loyalty to God, we must also submit to the civil authorities. In other words: disobedience to the Emperor is disobedience to God.
Paul’s argumentation leaves many of us all with very mixed feelings. We can see many cases and areas where such arguments apply without any problems. In traffic, for example, you must observe the traffic rules of the country and the traffic signs precisely. If you speed or drive through the red light, the state has the right to fine you or to take your driver’s license. No problem there. Laws are primarily imposed on us in order to provide protection and security and to make life smoother and better. So far, so good.
But think of a country like North Korea. There, it is forbidden by law to gather for Christian worship and to evangelize people on the street. People are compelled to worship their great leader, Kim Jong-un. As a Christian, does the obligation to obedience apply there also—without any question marks or exceptions? When the law compels Christians to act against the ethical principles and guidelines of the Bible, should they obey?
It seems that, in Romans 13, Paul says “Yes”. If we follow his logic, Kim Jong-un is God’s minister, appointed and authorized by God, so it seems. And yet, our conscience says “No”. So where does the problem come from? Why do the Bible and our conscience seem to crash on this issue?