Are taxes higher today than they were in the day in which Jesus lived? Or, are taxes higher today than ever?
Death and Taxes
It seems the only things we can be sure of in this world are death and taxes. Both are sure to come, but for the child of God who has been born again, of course there’s a lot more to this world, but today it seems that taxes are higher than they’ve ever been, so what did the ancients of the past pay in taxes? Did it approach the 30 to 40% range that many individuals are paying today? Was it worse in Jesus’ day, or is it worse today? During Jesus’ day there were tax collectors who were Jews and these tax collectors were more despised than the Roman occupiers. The Roman Empire extracted at least 1% from all of the nations they ruled, so every man was required to pay, at minimum, a 1% tax on their annual income, and so it’s hard to fathom that the Jews were upset at having to pay a tax to their Roman occupiers. The tax rate today might have sent them into a revolt in their own day, so if they only lived today, what would they say? For us, taxes are just a way of life, but for the Romans, taxes supported the weight of administering the Empire, so just like today, death and taxes were two things that were certain, but there were more taxes than just the 1% income tax.
In addition to a personal income tax, those who lived under the control of the Roman Empire also had to pay taxes on whatever they imported or exported, but for most of those who lived in Judea at this time, very few were impacted. It was the merchants who had to pay the bulk of taxes on whatever they brought into the country or whatever they exported out of the country, so taxes included much more than just the 1% personal tax. For example, they were required to pay taxes of 1/10th on all grain shipments and 1/5th on all fruit, wine, and olive oil, which were the main crops of the day. What made it even more difficult to pay taxes was the fact that the Jews had to pay a publican or tax collector and in Judea, and these tax collectors were Jewish, and so these Jews were despised even more than the Romans. It wasn’t as though the Romans choose a Jew based upon their merit but rather these men would bid to become the tax collector, and the highest bidder won, so the official Roman censor, who was responsible to Rome for collecting the revenue, sold the rights to certain rich Jews who then not only collected taxes, but in some cases, extorted taxes from their own people. Notice it was “extorting” taxes, meaning that the publicans often resorted to extortion in in order to extract as much money as possible, with them keeping the amounts over the prescribed amounts that Rome demanded. In other words, they taxed them more than they should have, and if they resisted, the Roman authorities would quickly come in and arrest the tax avoider, but these men took more than they were legally allowed too and took advantage of their position. The fact that the tax collectors were associated with Rome made them even more hated, which is all the more shocking because Jesus associated with them (Luke 18, 19). In fact, Jesus often dinned with tax collectors, breaking the traditional manner in which tax collectors were ostracized by the Jews.
To show just how radical Jesus’ ministry was, as He touched and healed lepers, touched the dead and raised them to life, and spoke with women, even a Samaritan woman (John 4), He know would call a tax collector (Matthew) to be one of His 12 disciples. Shocking at that was, He even dined with them and spoke with them and had no regard for their occupation, but looked at their heart. On one occasion, it says, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). What the Pharisees failed to see (perhaps choosing to not see) is that they too were sinners in need of a Savior. They looked down on everyone, even Jesus, so when Jesus spoke with, and in one case, dinned with a tax collector, they grumbled against Him, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2), but so were they!
Jesus on Taxes
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus was never against paying taxes. He was not a rebel in the sense of disobeying the laws of the land. When Jesus and the disciples “came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax” (Matt 17:24)? That was a good question, wasn’t it? Perhaps Peter didn’t really know, but he answered, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? 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 17:25-27). Clearly, Jesus paid taxes to those to whom it was due. This shows that Jesus was not a tax dodger but He obeyed the laws of the land.
In order to get Jesus to stumble and to try and trap Him, the religious group thought of asking Him whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. If He said no, they’d report Jesus to the Roman authorities for breaking the law, but if He said yes, then they’d accuse Jesus of supporting a pagan nation which is holding them in bondage. It appeared that there was no way Jesus could answer this without getting into trouble with the Roman authorities or the Jewish people, so “they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not” (Mark 12:14)? Of course “Jesus, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him” (Mark 12:15-17). They were left speechless because He was right (of course!), and thus, they had no way to accuse Him of evading taxes or supporting the Roman occupying forces.
The taxes then were much cheaper than they are today, but of course, we have more governmental services than in Jesus’ day. Today, there is a tax for just about everything, so the taxes in Jesus’ day, although they seemed to be high, were in fact some of the lowest tax rates ever. The Bible teaches us to “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1), which means, “one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom 13:5), so “you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13:6-7).