Decoding Christmas—The tax-rebel Jesus
December 25, 2015 § 2 Comments
According to Luke, the holy family went to Bethlehem to register in the census decreed by Tiberius. A state-mandated census is all about one thing: taxes. The dates are a little off; that tax went down in the year 6 CE. But the accuracy of the date is inconsequential. The real consequence of that tax was that it led to a tax rebellion that the Romans had a little difficulty putting down.
(Technically under the law, state taxes were illegal in the first place, because the only reason for a tax system was a standing army and a hierarchical administration. When King David orders a census preparatory to a tax to support the new imperial government he was creating, the prophet Gad condemns him—indeed, he condemns himself, realizing his sin (2 Samuel 24). Solomon has no such compunctions, however, for he had to support the new state apparatus and his armies somehow.)
Jesus became a tax rebel himself. I suspect that Luke associated his birth with that revolt because of Jesus’ abiding hatred of the Roman taxation system—and for that matter, even for the temple tax that supported the Quisling government in Jerusalem. For the people of Palestine were double-taxed: they owed a tithe to the temple-state in Jerusalem and they paid poll taxes to the Romans whenever they went anywhere. Finally, the temple-state owed tribute to Rome.
When Jesus was required to pay the temple tax, he had Peter go fishing. When that “fisher of men” came back, they pulled the required coins out of the fish’s mouth; that is, Jesus got some converts to pay it for him. And while he was at it, he had an acerbic comment about the rich and powerful: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? [refers to the Roman toll tax and the tribute owed Rome by the temple-state in Jerusalem] From their children or from others?” (Matthew 17:24–27). “From others,” answered Simon. “Then the children are exempt,” answered Jesus, meaning, of course, the children of God.
When Jesus was challenged to pay the imperial tax, he famously answered, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” knowing full well that his listeners knew they owed God everything—they were to love God with all their heart and all their soul and all their strength (and “strength” included all one’s material wealth)—which left nothing for Caesar.
Jesus also had a special thing for the publicans. Publicans were the Jewish tax farmers who worked for the Romans collecting their tax and who were legally allowed to charge a percentage as their pay for services. However, the system attracted the venal, grasping, and corrupt. The Romans often looked the other way if the publicans skimmed a little extra—or even a lot. Jesus apparently focused special attention on this group with his evangelism because he was all about relieving the economic burden on his people, and the tax collectors were a big part of the problem. Zacchaeus is the model for this ministry (Luke 19).
* From The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Brown
- We guard our world with locks and guns
- And we guard our fine possessions
- And once a year when Christmas comes
- We give to our relations
- And perhaps we give a little to the poor
- If the generosity should seize us
- But if any one of us should interfere
- In the business of why there are poor
- They get the same as the rebel Jesus