The Gospels note two occasions where Jesus addressed the issue of paying taxes. The “Render to Caesar” narrative is best known, but it is better understood after considering Jesus’ earlier instruction regarding the payment of taxes. Unlike Jesus’ somewhat ambiguous “Render to Caesar” pronouncement, his first teaching on the subject of taxes was given with a full explanation.
Does not your teacher pay the tax?
In this first instance, the collectors of the temple tax approached St. Peter at Capernaum to ask him about paying the half-shekel tax that was required from all male Jews over 20 years old. They wanted to know: “Does not your teacher pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? 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.” Matt. 17:24–27
Jesus makes two contrasting points. First, that Jesus—and by extension—his disciples, do not owe the tax. It does not apply to them, but that is not all there is to it. Jesus then tells St. Peter that they will pay it anyway, so as “not to give offense to them.” Plainly, Jesus rejected any moral obligation to pay the tax, but only recommended the payment (by a miracle no less) to avoid compromising his mission before the time he chose. Even then, it was for appearance’s sake only, for Jesus never suggested that the other eleven apostles should pay anything, seemingly because only Jesus and Peter had been implicated in the incident. (Note: It appears that Peter may have been mistaken when he told the tax collectors that Jesus had paid the tax).
This is a theme that will appear repeatedly in the New Testament: that Jesus came first to save souls and only secondarily to reform human institutions. Forced taxation is frequently unjust, but Jesus had no intention of leading a tax revolt. Instead, Jesus told Peter to pay the tax; likewise, many New Testament letters say the same, as does the Catechism, which teaches that peaceful “submission to authorities and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes.” CCC ¶ 2240
Everywhere, it seems, we are told to pay our taxes, but only Jesus explains why: we pay the tax so as “not to give them offense.”
Up Next: Rendering to Caesar