Each time I’ve returned to the States from a trip to the continent of Africa (several times), or from the country of India (twice), or from a host of other countries around the world (often), I’ve come back with a renewed appreciation for the comforts and freedoms of America. It’s not an uncommon response for those who travel, especially to the majority world.
Ever since those first sojourns, I’ve approached Tax Day with a different attitude, one marked less by annoyance and more by gratitude. When I pay my taxes, I do it with conscientious thankfulness for what my country provides for me. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was not wrong when he said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” I thank God I live in one every year when I submit my 1040.
With our taxes we get safer roads and safer food and safer travel, cleaner water and public education and free libraries, protection at home by our police and protection abroad by our military, provision for our hungry and sick and elderly, provision for those in other countries who are hungry and sick, and we get an elected government and the rule of law. None of these are small things, or to be taken for granted. The person who does needs to get out of the country for the first time or again.
No doubt there are many and good arguments to be had on who should be taxed and how much, how our taxes are to be spent, or how well they are actually spent. Indeed, some modern-day prophets seek often to remind us that budgets are moral documents, and they are. That we can even argue sharply about such thing in open society is a luxury that our taxes provide for and protect.
For all the gratitude we might feel on tax day, however, there’s a deeper truth to keep in sight. Tax day is not just an opportunity to support our country as one of its own, it is also a day to remember who else we belong to.
Jesus points this out by a not too subtle inference. In a story beginning in Matthew 22.15, some Jewish leaders seek to set Jesus up against the Roman emperor, and get him in trouble with the secular law-system of his day. They ask him a tax question. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” He tells them to get a coin. They bring him one, and he asks “Whose likeness and inscription is on it?” They say “Caesar,” and Jesus simply says give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. In other words, pay your taxes.
In our day, if Jesus were posed the same question, he might say, “Get me a dollar bill...whose picture is on it?” We’d say “Washington” to which he’d reply, “Give to Washington what is Washington’s, and give to God what is God’s.”
Thus he begs a deeper question, one that is much more important: What is God’s? What is God due?
When Jesus asks whose likeness is on the coin, he uses a word from which we get in English, “icon.” This word ‘likeness’ is rich in theological meaning, going back to the beginning of the Bible when humankind is made in the image of God, in God’s ‘likeness.’ (Genesis 1.26-27) We are walking icons. Jesus, a good Jew well-versed in the Torah, would not have missed this connection in his own question.
If Caesar has a share of our money because his likeness is on it, God has a share of us because God’s likeness is on us. While some coins might belong to Caesar, humans belong to God. If we give the government some money at tax time, Jesus seems to be implying that we ought to give of ourselves to God all the time.
So for every American, April 15 can be a day at least for gratitude. Especially for people who believe in God, it can also be a day of sober reflection on whether or not we are giving God of our very selves, of our very lives, reflecting his image as well as as we can for God’s image is on us. In this way April 15 can be a day also for consecration.
Ben Franklin among others noted wryly that “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." St. Paul tells us that Jesus takes the sting out of death. Turns out he can take the sting out of taxes, too.