What’s Mine Is…n’t?

by Craig Smith

Millions of people will wait until the last possible moment, filing their tax returns late in the day on April 15th.  Most federal post offices will be open late on Tax Day, many until midnight to accommodate what might just as easily be called National Procrastination Day.

Why do we wait so long?  Part of it is surely that filling out our tax returns is a difficult and dreaded task, something that we naturally want to put off as long as possible. But part of it is that tax time reminds us that what is ours…well, isn’t really ours, at least not entirely.  This is something we’d all like to avoid thinking about, and yet, as Christians, it’s something of which we ought to be living in daily awareness.

Somewhere near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, opposition to him had grown to the point that some people were looking for ways to bring him down.  One popular trap was to get two opposite sides of a debate to ask Jesus a question together so that, no matter what he said, it was sure to give someone ammunition to use against him.  Mark 12:13-17 records one such attempt:

 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement.  They came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?  “Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.”  They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.”  And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.  

 Notice the two groups who asked Jesus this question:  the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Now, the Pharisees you may be familiar with:  they were the religious conservatives of Jesus’ day, convinced that restoring God’s favor on Israel required strict adherence to the Law of the Old Testament.  The Herodians, on the other hand, were Jewish men who supported King Herod who ruled Palestine at the decree of the Roman Empire. In most respects, the Pharisees and the Herodians were bitter enemies.  The Pharisees wanted to see Herod ousted and Israel’s sovereignty restored while the Herodians wanted to see King Herod’s reign over Palestine strengthened and broadened, something which depended on Rome’s power and pleasure.[1]  In other words, Jesus was trapped.  If he advocated paying taxes, the Pharisees would have been able to accuse him of being more interested in appeasing Rome than God.  According to the strictest interpretations, this could have been twisted to show that Jesus was taking what should have been God’s and giving it to a foreign power; a kind of blasphemy that could be punished in Jewish tradition by death.  But if he had advocated not paying taxes, the Herodians could have accused him of being a political dissenter and provocateur, worthy of death according to Roman policy. 

 Of course, Jesus skillfully avoided the supposedly unavoidable trip and they were “amazed at Him.”  But Jesus’ answer here ought to inspire in us more than just amazement.  It ought to inspire in us serious contemplation.

 There are at least two truths in Jesus’ teaching here that bear reflection as we line up to give the IRS its share of our income this month.  The first is the more obvious:  according to Jesus, the government under which we live is entitled to a portion of what we consider “ours.”  This is not merely a convenient way to avoid conflict with the authorities, but a theological principle.  What Jesus is advocating in this passage has its roots in the biblical teaching that all governments operate under God’s authority:

 “By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice.”  (Proverbs 8:15)   

 “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding.” (Daniel 2:21)

 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Romans 13:1-2)  

 Therefore, to honor our governments is to honor the God who ordains them.  This doesn’t mean that we must obey our government when they insist that we do something that goes against God’s commands. On the contrary, the Bible is clear that when such a conflict arises, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  But, as long as what the government asks of us is not immoral, we have clear instruction from the Lord himself that our obedience is required.  So we must pay our taxes and, truth be told, we must do it without grumbling because such grumbling is ultimately lodged against God.  (However, I still think that some complaints about the ridiculous complexity of the tax system are theologically justified!).

 However, there is a second truth in Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians that may easily be missed:  that God is also entitled to some of what we consider “ours”.  Of course, technically, everything we have is God’s and He has the right to any or all of it at any time, but Jesus seems to be getting at something somewhat less radical though much more practical:  just as the government has a right to some of our stuff, so too does God have a right to some of our stuff.  What we have is not ours alone and it is only our self-centered, individualistic worldview that allows us the illusion that “what’s mine is mine.”

 Now, we know what the government wants (assuming we can wade through the relevant clauses of the tax code), but God is a little less black and white about claiming His share.  There are no forms to fill out and no Turbotithe programs to help you figure out His share.  That’s no surprise.  Unlike the IRS that just wants its share, God wants the heart that surrenders His share with joy:  Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7).  And besides, there doesn’t appear to be a set percentage-system in God’s economy.  Though the word “tithe” literally means tenth, or 10%, it is clear throughout the Bible that God doesn’t expect a set portion or even have an ideal maximum.  A tithe is a good starting point, a reminder if you will, that we owe God a portion of all that we have, but the concept of a “tithe” does not encompass all of God’s instruction or expectation in this area of our lives.[2] God understands and sympathizes with our circumstances.  The person who makes $2 a day and needs $2.10 a day to keep his family from starving may not  have a spare 20¢, but the person who makes $400 a day can probably give God more than $40 without it even feeling like a sacrifice.

 And of course, God’s portion doesn’t consist only of finances.  God has a right to all that we own and all that we are.  What we surrender to God’s service and purpose can and should include not only our wealth but also our time, our talent, our energy and our hearts.  Surrendering to God what is God’s will look different for each of us because what God has granted each of us is different.  What doesn’t change from individual to individual is the central truth of Jesus’ teaching:  just as we owe Caesar a share of what we think of as “ours”, so do we owe God a share of what we think of as “ours”.  In other words, what we think of as “ours”….well, isn’t.

 But there’s good news in that realization too:  it’s always easier to be generous with someone else’s stuff!  If we stop thinking of it as “ours”, giving Caesar and God their rightful shares won’t sting nearly so badly and maybe, just maybe, we can even do it without the bitterness that characterizes April 15 every bit as much as the procrastination!

For another take on this topic with some important points about giving to God what is due Him, which influenced the writing of this article, read Jon Cook’s article here.

[1]  This characterization of the Herodians is, to some extent, speculative since we have very little historical data about this group.  They are mentioned only here in Mark and in the parallel account of Mat. 14 and in a Mat. 22:16 where, again, they are described as being aligned with the Pharisees against Jesus.  In spite of this relative paucity of sources, however, it is clear that they were supportive of King Herod and may even have regarded him as the Messiah; cf. pseudo-Tertullian, Adversis Omnes Haereses 1,1.

[2]  My good friend and mentor Craig Blomberg’s book, Neither Poverty Nor Riches:  A Biblical Theology of Possessions is a great in-depth exploration of the biblical teaching on this subject.