Pay all the taxes, respect, and honor that are due.

In part two of this series, we looked at Romans 13:1-5, which contains often-cited language regarding the Christian duty to obey “authority” (whatever that actually means). The next two lines (6–7) of Romans 13—might be cited as more proof of the obedience and honor that every citizen must deliver to the state. We needn’t scratch too deeply, however, to see why that is an unwarranted conclusion. Here is St. Paul’s command:

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

Before we reach for our wallets or start burning incense to the Supreme Court, it seems reasonable to inquire as to what taxes, what honor, and what respect is due. The rulers themselves might read the above passage as a satisfying homage to their majesties, but the subversive undercurrent of this verse becomes unmistakable when one considers the nature of that state.

After all, the Roman Empire was a society powered by human slavery, ruled by a dictator whose whim was law and whose subordinates were empowered to arraign, try and execute an innocent man all in a few hours. In Roman times—as in modern times—the demands of the sovereign state were nearly absolute.

Indeed, justice might cry out that no taxes are due; that the bloody hands of the ruler merit no respect; and his thefts and murders deserve not honor but punishment. Only a fool feels honored at having been wished “all the respect he is due.”

More than one unsuspecting lawyer has—when disagreeing with a court’s unfavorable ruling—made the mistake of launching his protest to the judge with the words: “With all due respect, your honor.” Not many judges are so slow-witted as to think they are being paid a compliment.

St. Paul’s words are reminiscent of Bilbo’s speech at his birthday party: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. It’s hard to make out whether he is insulting the partygoers or paying a compliment. Just as Jesus’ command to “render unto Caesar” depends on what actually belongs to Caesar, St. Paul’s order to render praise where praise is due is equally conditional.

Did St. Paul tweak the emperor’s nose?

As with so much of scripture, the writings of St. Paul are rich with multiple levels of meaning. It turns out that the seemingly stern apostle perhaps possessed a dangerous sense of humor, quite capable of lampooning the king as in Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

In 66 A.D. Emperor Nero left Rome to compete in the Olympic games and make a musical concert tour of Greece. At Olympia, he competed in the four-horse chariot race. The historian Suetonius, in The Twelve Caesars, reported that Nero stretched the rules a bit when he drove his own chariot with at least 10 horses. Nero was thrown from his chariot during the race, but—being the emperor—he was picked up and put back at the reins. Even with the assist, he was still unable to remain in his seat and gave up the race before the finish. Since he was the emperor, the judges crowned him the winner anyway. Nero generously declared the whole province a free country and gave the judges large sums of money.

This humiliation would have been fresh news when the buffoonish emperor returned to Rome and not long afterward (by most accounts) had the apostle Paul beheaded. It was shortly before his death that the apostle penned his last letter to his young friend Timothy from a prison cell in Rome:

“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. . . . [T]he time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day.” [2 Tim. 2:5; 4:6–8]

St. Paul had briefly used the race-running metaphor in the past when describing the Christian life, here and here, but given Nero’s stinging embarrassment, Paul might have prudently avoided the subject of running races, lest the letter become public (as it obviously did). Instead, the apostle doubled down with words certain to invite comparison with the emperor’s day at the track.

St. Paul says “I finished the race.” Nero didn’t finish. St. Paul insisted that one must “compete according to the rules,” yet Nero cheated. Paul looks forward to his “crown of righteousness.” Nero was also awarded a crown, but one tainted by mockery and embarrassment.

Can there be any doubt that St. Paul combined his bittersweet farewell to Timothy with a biting joke at Nero’s expense? We can wonder whether the letter hastened his execution, but more important is the light it throws on Paul’s writings which refer to respecting and honoring the rulers. If Nero was due respect for merely being the emperor—as Romans 13 is so often read—then St. Paul failed to follow his own rule. It is something to ponder when we consider one’s duty to any ruler or government.

Click for Part 1, part 2, part 3

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