Dr. Eller is professor of religion at the University of La Verne, California. His most recent book is Thy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 6, 1981, pp. 506-509. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Jesus took a coin and said, ‘Whose name and picture do you see there? All right then, pay Caesar what is due Caesar!’ Now why would he say a thing like that?
A wandering pilgrim I — a thing of shreds and patches. And midway upon the journey of my life as a humble follower of the Lord Jesus, I found it desirable to improve my station. In the search, I heard that my best bet would be at Caesar’s Palace; so I sought it out.
It was one magnificent layout, making me — a humble follower of the Lord Jesus — feel very much out of place. But my need was great so I summoned the courage to beg admittance.
“Welcome!” the doorman said. “You come right on in.”
“Thank you,” I said, “but you need to know that I am a humble follower of the Lord Jesus.”
“Fine, fine,” he responded. “We love humble followers of the Lord Jesus. Come on in.
“Thank you,” I said, “but I will feel some obligation to make, my witness to the Lord Jesus.”
“Well, bless you,” he said, “that’s just what we want humble followers of the Lord Jesus to do. In fact, we are ready to give you some breaks and help you finance that very witness. Now you quit worrying your head and come right on in here.”
“But that might mean that I would sometimes have to be critical of Caesar.”
“Who isn’t?” exclaimed the doorman. “Now come on in.”
Behind him I saw the tables and the play going on there. I was chagrined and embarrassed. “You are too kind,” I said, “but the truth is . . . well, the truth is that, as a humble follower of the Lord Jesus, I don’t have any money.
“No problem!” the doorman said. “No problem at all! We expect that to be the case with humble followers of the Lord Jesus and are set up to take care of things.” He pulled a roll out of his pocket, leafed off a handful of bills (each bearing the image of a U.S. Caesar), and set me up with a generous stake.
“Do you want a receipt?” I asked.
“Of course, not,” he responded. “What would we want one for? Don’t you understand? Everything’s on the house. We want everybody — and particularly humble followers of the Lord Jesus — to have a good time and enjoy the rewards of their faith. Come on in!”
I came on in. And talk about counting your blessings, I not merely improved my station; I had it made! There was banqueting — all you could eat of anything you wanted. There were wine, women and song (enough said). There were laughter and jollity on all sides. And none of it cost me one red cent. In fact, the Lord was really blessing his humble servant: at the gaming tables I parlayed my stake into a very sizable bankroll. All mine, mine, mine!
As the night wore on, I made it a point to wander back and speak to the doorman. “Praise the Lord,” I witnessed, “who hath blessed us with all spiritual [and material] blessings in the heavenly palaces” (note: Paul had it “places” — but never mind).
“Praise the Lord,” he echoed. “We do want to thank him for his gifts, for we know that all wealth belongs to him. But at the same time, I hope you realize that it was not until you came to Caesar’s Palace that you got yours. God’s wealth through Caesar’s System; right?”
“Right,” I mumbled.
“And there is another consideration of which you may not be aware.”
“As you might imagine, there are a great many no-good foreign Caesars out there who would dearly love to crash our System and steal all the wealth and goodies God has given you. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?”
“I should say not! Why, that would be the same as robbing God himself — after all, my wealth cometh from the Lord.”
“Right. But you need have no fear that this will happen. And why not? Because Caesar’s Armies will blast the bastards to bits if they so much as make a move.
“Are you suggesting,” I asked, “that I owe my wealth to Caesar’s Armies?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t put it that strongly,” the doorman demurred. “Let’s say only that Caesar’s Armies are an absolutely essential part of Caesar’s System and that, without Caesar’s System, very little of God’s wealth seems to get delivered to humble followers of the Lord Jesus. Let me teach you a little trick that will help keep your thinking straight. Before you ever spend a coin or a bill, look at it. What do you see?”
I pulled out a bill (a C-note, I’m proud to say) and saw. “I see a U.S. Caesar,” I said,
“Yes, there’s that; but is that all?”
“Oh, IN GOD WE TRUST!”
“Precisely. And that is just where we have it over the coins of Jesus’ day. Ours is a Christian Caesar who loves humble followers of the Lord Jesus and wants to see them prosper as God intends they should. Our Caesar has no desire to be worshiped. No, God’s wealth through Caesar’s System to the humble followers of the Lord Jesus. That’s our motto. Praise the Lord!”
“Praise the Lord,” I intoned.
With the help of the doorman’s theology, the rest of the evening went all the better for me. It was good to know that my wealth was of the Lord, God’s blessing upon his humble follower through the offices of his servant Caesar. But then, as the great clock in the hall struck midnight, one of Caesar’s officials appeared and called the group to order.
“It now being April 15,” he announced, “I am come to lead you in the ceremony of our annual sacrifice to Caesar. Twenty per cent, please — or whatever amount is called for on your Form 1040.”
I arose in righteous protest. “I refuse to give money to the wicked Caesar and his Armies. I am a humble follower of the Lord Jesus, and I give to God what belongs to God!”
“We know you do,” the official said calmly, “and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Don’t forget what it says on our money: IN GOD WE TRUST. And remember that it is precisely Caesar who gives you a tax deduction to encourage your giving to God what belongs to God. Too bad your contribution couldn’t have been a bit more this year — so the deduction could have been even greater. We aren’t after anything that belongs to God, nor are we in any way discouraging you from giving to him. All we want is enough to continue the operation of the System that gets you the wealth that you can give to God.”
“I don’t care,” I shouted. “I am not only a humble follower of the Lord Jesus; I’m a righteous one. And I say, ‘Hell no; not my dough!’ I pray for PEACE; and I’m not going to give my money for WAR!”
“Your money? YOUR money?” the man said. “I hadn’t noticed your picture on any of it.” The crowd broke into raucous laughter; and in an aside to them, the man went on. “Actually, Caesar staked him — and all the money he has was won through Caesar’s System at Caesar’s tables, while Caesar’s Armies protected the loot. He sure waited until the right time to get a conscience about Caesar, didn’t he?”
But I knew that God was on my side; and I was ready to stand as a humble follower of the Lord Jesus — no matter what the cost. “I refuse to pay, I shouted with all the bravery I could muster — fully expecting Caesar’s minions to descend upon me and cast me into prison, if not crucify me in the likeness of my Lord.
I was ready; but the man took me by surprise. He didn’t even get angry. OK, then, don’t.” He turned to the crowd. “We’ll take it out of his bank account.”
“Not my bank account,” I pleaded, “it belongs to me — and God” (I was quick to add).
“Will you please quit saying that?” the man requested. Then, to the crowd again, “What he is talking about is U.S. currency, bearing Caesar’s image, resting in the First U.S. National Bank, each depositor insured up to $100,000 by FDIC, an independent agency of the U.S. government — and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet he still insists upon arguing with Jesus about giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Is that what it means to be a humble follower of the Lord’?”
Although the preceding tale includes what I consider important observations regarding the contemporary practice of tax refusal, I would never want this story to be taken as my primary statement on the issue. For one thing, I would never base my position on just one passage of Scripture — even though it appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels. Consequently, this story assumes the argument of my article in Brethren Life and Thought (Vol. XIX, spring 1974), “That the World Might Be Judged,” in which I do a serious exegesis of all the relevant Scripture.
Perhaps (just perhaps) one reason why Jesus told us to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar was to say, “Once you have sold your very soul to caesarian [if that’s the word] economics, it little becomes you to get self-righteous about a bit of money. People who live in Caesar’s Palace shouldn’t throw coins.” Consequently, I have the highest regard for Christians who choose to keep their income below the taxable level. They at least take steps toward getting out of Caesar’s Palace before denying their obligation to him.
What is more certain is that Jesus’ statement suggests a very different concept of “money” from that assumed by modern tax-withholders. There is no hint of monetary accumulation as a gift of God, as something that represents my life, my investment of sacred time, energy or “person.” No, it is the “unrighteous mammon” which I would probably be better off without. It is the creation of Caesar, most likely was acquired by my dallying in his “system,” and is more symbolic of its (and his) owning me than of my owning it.
Further, if I do not resist when Caesar comes to confiscate that money for tax purposes, that certainly is not to be interpreted as a show of my personal approval and support of the purposes for which Caesar uses the money. The statement “We pray for peace — Why should we pay for war?” is a nice-sounding slogan but one with very little thought behind it.
My publisher would be as justified in complaining that he is forced to give me author’s royalties out of his profits (even though he disapproves of the manner in which I will spend the money). But of course, that is a wrong way of stating the case. My royalties had never belonged to him or been within his discretion. From the outset (namely, with the signing of the contract), we were partners; and my percentage has belonged to me from the same moment that his has belonged to him. Just so is there an implied contract when a person is a citizen of the United States and participates in its fiscal system. You are not asked to give Caesar your money. No, your share belongs to you; and, as Jesus recognized, there is that share which belongs to Caesar.
But the most impressive aspect of the story to me (because I believe it to be true to the facts) is the very real leniency and humanity of our U.S. Caesar in comparison to most of the other Caesars of our world — and particularly the Caesars of whom Jesus was speaking when he said to give them their due.
It is indeed the case that our Caesar does not ask us to deny the Lord Jesus before we are admitted to play at the Palace tables. (Our going to those tables may be a denial of the Lord Jesus; but that was our decision, not Caesar’s requirement.) Our Caesar grants us remarkable religious freedoms.
And part of that religious freedom is an even more remarkable freedom of dissent. Bad-mouthing Caesar doesn’t even get you thrown out of the Palace, let alone persecuted. In fact, it is quite possible in our Caesar-System to become rich and famous precisely as a defamer of Caesar.
And it is true that Caesar will even help this dissent along. He gives tax exemptions to churches (which they ungraciously claim as some sort of “natural right” that Caesar is obliged to recognize), even when they preach that Caesar is of the devil (which he, at least in part, is). Any of our radical Christian magazines that specialize in denouncing Caesar can stay in business only because of government subsidies in the forms of tax exemption and below-cost postage rates. When I was invited to a Mennonite college to speak on peace and simple living (neither of which is Caesar’s favorite topic), I had to sign a formal, legal contract — because my honorarium was to come out of federal grant money. Our Caesar does help finance dissent against himself — a truly amazing thing, when you think about it.
Moreover, Caesar deliberately sets up means and channels for dissent and works hard to protect them and keep them open. (Be aware that our legal and judicial systems are as much “of Caesar” as is the military.) We have free and open elections, with campaigning not only allowed but encouraged on the part of all kinds of parties, candidates and viewpoints. Under one Caesar, the government even helps finance the campaign of the Caesar destined to unseat him. And following the election, dissenters of all stripes are guaranteed access not only to the public media but to officialdom itself. As with few other Caesars in history, ours is committed to the freedom of dissent. If the Christian peace witness (as the witness of the Communist Party) seems to be having but little effect, it can be only because it is not winning much in the way of public support and not because of any particular opposition on the part of Caesar.
Then there is the notably mild response when dissenters actually defy and break Caesar’s Law (law, it must be said, which was properly arrived at through democratic procedures and not as arbitrary decree). Our Caesar is generous in granting conscientious exemption from military service. And again, that is not a “right” that Caesar has to grant; very few of the Caesars of this world ever have recognized it. It is to his credit that ours has done so. And regarding tax refusal, it would be expected that any Caesar would get quite nasty about that. Ours does not. He calmly and gently goes about collecting his tax in his own way. And even if balked in that effort, he usually ignores the situation rather than raising a row. Compared with the run of Caesars, ours is wonderfully tolerant of dissent and wonderfully gentle with dissenters.
I am not saying that this is the total picture of our Caesar; but it is a true picture of one side of him. However, it is one that Christian peace dissenters are rarely honest enough to admit, credit or appreciate. They feel that their cause depends upon painting Caesar as evil as possible. So when Caesar becomes lenient about tax-withholding, what do we do?
We move in to take advantage of his very leniency, to use his own leniency against him. Very generally, among our forerunners in all segments of the Christian peace movement, the policy was to use all legal avenues for protesting war and expenditures for war (and to speak much more respectfully of government than we are inclined to do). However, when it came to letting Caesar take what he claimed as his, the word was to resist not and to obey Jesus’ instruction about Caesar-imaged coins. Then, rather suddenly in our day, the opinion has changed, and there is a popular cry (“popular” in the peace movement, that is) for us to withhold taxes. But why the switch? Is it that we are all that much more wise, brave and dedicated Christians than were those who came before us? Of course not; it is because we have discovered that, with our lenient U.S. Caesar, tax refusal is a safe and comparatively easy form of witness — no real risk, no fear, no cost. In God we trust? No, we trust in Caesar’s leniency.
When, to test him, the Pharisees were going to make Jesus say whether taxes to Caesar should be paid or withheld, withholding would have been the Zealot option (as Jesus and everyone else would know). That Jesus said “Pay” probably indicates that he saw withholding as an act of defiance and rebellion that could be counted upon to incite Rome to violence and lead to anything but peace.
In our day, of course, the situation is quite different. But what changed? The signification and intention of the act of withholding? No. Of course, it is Caesar who has changed. Our U.S. Caesar, very shrewdly, has seen that, by refusing to react as though withholding were defiance and rebellion, he can thwart the whole action more effectively than he ever could by trying to put it down. But is this change to the credit of the withholders? Does it suggest that Jesus now would change his counsel and make withholding the Christian (rather than the Zealot) option? I’m sorry, but I can’t follow the logic of that one!
I wonder, in the present situation, whether our encounters may not come off more as a witness to the leniency of Caesar than to the courage of our Christian convictions. Among our fellow Christians and the American public, does tax-withholding recommend the cause of peace? Or are our actions more likely to appeal to Caesar-hating rebels than to true peacemakers? It is plain that our job of painting Caesar as the beast is made all the more difficult as long as he persists in responding as kindly as he does.
I am not saying that Caesar is acting out of anything like Christian motives; but I wonder whether he does not actually come off better than we do in remaining silent before our slanders, in turning the other cheek, in forgiving our defiance of his law. As humble followers of the Lord Jesus, we, of course, know that we are the innocent party and Caesar the guilty one, in the matter of tax payment as in all others. But is the relationship all that clear in the eyes of the observing world? When, for whatever reason, Caesar chooses to quit feeding Christians to the lions, are we called upon to bemoan that fact and step up our hatred and defiance in an effort at provoking him into showing his worst side?
I propose that we take a good look at the character of the actual witness we are communicating and consider whether Jesus might not have known what he was talking about when he suggested that we give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
Those inclined to argue that Jesus now would advise us precisely the opposite of what he did in the New Testament — this on the basis that, regarding both tax demands and military activity, our U.S. Caesar is so much worse than his Roman one was — these people should be warned against reading Martin Hengel’s little book Victory Over Violence. The facts would only cause embarrassment.