Read: Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
How we pay for the costs of living in a civil society has always been a contentious issue. Who will pay for public safety and health, education, and the common defense? Prior to the nineteenth century, much of the income needed to support public services came from tariffs on goods, wealth taxes, or property taxes. Property taxes themselves are a form of wealth tax that often fall most heavily on the middle class because their single largest asset is usually their home. The idea of an income tax came about as governments needed more money to fight wars, and it became possible to calculate how much in wages people earned.
Ostensibly to encourage more capital formation, taxes on the profits from selling investments (usually held by the wealthy) are sometimes much lower than taxes on the earned income of the less wealthy. Some economists raise the point that the current mix of income, sales, and property taxes is so structured that many poor people pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than the wealthy.
The Israelites paid their tithe in order to support both the priests and the poor around them. Thus, there seems to be a biblical precedent that taxes are necessary to support the common good. Jesus did not fall into the trap of saying that taxes are bad. But what will Christians in this generation say about a faithful way to share the costs of public service? What will we say about how much in public services—from health care to good education—are needed to support the common good?
Almighty God, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name. For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, p. 822)
Larry Benfield is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas.