Do you delight in paying taxes? That’s a tough question as April 17 stares us in the face. The income tax deadline looms in the United States as we sort through piles of W-2s, 1099s, receipts, mileage records, various forms, the tax code, and perhaps TurboTax. Jesus commands us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). God has appointed civil government, and Jesus himself paid taxes (Matthew 17:24-27). Obedience should always involve joy. Therefore, paying taxes ought to be a thing of joy for the believer. Certainly, some duties, like disciplining our children, or submitting ourselves to discipline, do not call for giddy ecstasy, but doing God’s will should be our delight even when difficult. Hebrews 12:11 reminds us that: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
What takes away joy in paying taxes? Excessive tax rates, which are evil, make rendering even what is rightfully Caesar’s difficult. On the other end of the spectrum, forty-six percent of American wage earners paid no federal income tax for 2011 (according to the Tax Policy Center). Not paying income taxes also saps us of joy. It’s not only an economic problem; it’s a spiritual problem that is bound up in our tax code. For the forty-six percent, it doesn’t feel like a problem at the moment. Those forty-six percent feel like the kid who just got away without a spanking! In reality, they have gotten away without the joy of knowing true responsibility. We all know what that kid grows to become when he has routinely escaped responsibility and discipline.
Where do we find answers? The “general equity” of the Old Testament is a good place to start. We do not believe that civil laws of old should be enforced today, “further than the general equity thereof may require,” as stated by the Westminster Confession of Faith (19.4). But the “general equity” of the law, or principles that can be derived from the law for application today, should inform the way Christians think about civil law.
One of these general equity principles that we clearly find is that of equity itself. The laws were concise (the Old Testament Law in the Pentateuch looks small compared to the IRS tax code). Leviticus (27:30-32), Numbers (18:21-32, 12:10-11, 12:17-18), and Deuteronomy (14:22-29, 26) lay out a system whereby all wage earners were required to contribute. Just weights and measures were to be used in trade. Tithes, without exemptions or graduated rates, were required so that their governing functions could operate. In this way, everyone would understand that God who governs all had graciously given all of their income and required some in return for the ordering of society. Everyone needed to feel this responsibility in the pocketbook so that they would be able to rejoice in the Lord’s provision. This discipline also served as a reminder to everyone that if they forsook the Lord, they would all pay taxes at far higher rates to ruthless kings of foreign lands (Deuteronomy 28:33).
Our republic would engage in a much more robust and personal discussion of proper taxation if every wage earner contributed in an equitable way. As it is, we have an imbalance in which about half the nation’s wage earners are paying too much, and about half are paying too little. Those who pay nothing are being lulled to sleep. If they paid taxes, they would most certainly pay closer heed to who they elect. Presently, nearly everyone is being robbed of joy that accompanies the discipline and responsibility of rendering to Caesar what is his.
This is not to suggest that Americans should voluntarily open their wallets and send Uncle Sam money any more than to suggest that adult children who were undisciplined by their parents should voluntarily give those same parents money to support ongoing addictive behaviors. What we need is a fair tax code so that all parties would truly understand the nature of taxation.
Taxes also teach a greater truth in a very tangible way, which is yet another reason every wage earner ought to pay.
Jesus framed the whole question of taxation when he said: “Show me the coin for the tax.” When showed the denarius (a Roman coin), Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The Pharisees said, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus said to them: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (from Matthew 22:18-21).
Caesar is due the denarius because his image is on it. We should pay taxes with joy – praying and laboring to see fair tax rates established. As we pay, God also wants each person to remember again what is stamped with his image – himself – and give that to God in faith and obedience. The Lord designed tax season to be a season of joyful spiritual growth. Is it for you?