My children understand taxation. Every October 31, after coming home from trick-or-treating, everyone dumps their candy into one large pile. I begin my fatherly search for Heath bars and other favorites. After I select what I want, they proceed to divvy out their portions.
They’ll have to pay taxes as adults. May as well learn it from me.
Taxes serve important functions in any society. They support the activities of a centralized government for its citizens. Military defense, public services, and infrastructure were financed by such collections.
In my family, the Heath bar tax maintains fatherly benevolence.
But taxes also translate authority into a financial cost. Citizens show respect, gratitude , and submission through their willingness to pay. Taxes represent allegiance to power.
Jesus came to speak about a new kind of a power and call people to a new form of allegiance. It makes sense that the topic of taxes would come up. His answer offered a new way of understanding power. Instead of choosing one authority over another, he presented a third path no one had considered.
Today, technology offers up a new kind of power. Could Jesus’ thoughts on taxes have any application to the power of technology in our world?
Before we explore Jesus’ comments, we have to understand a few things about taxes in general and the specific taxes in question during the first century AD.
We’ve defined technology as anything created by humans to extend the natural capabilities of humankind. If we think broadly about taxes, we can see how they fit into that structure. Taxes enable groups of people to work together for common purposes. They are a simple mechanism to pool resources and apply them to collaborative interests.
The first taxes we know about show up in Egypt around 3000 BC. The details bear a striking similarity to my post-Halloween candy snatch. During the Shemshu Hor (named after the king who enacted it), the king would travel the land, inspect the product of its farmers, and collect a portion for himself.
Like most taxes, these generally provided for the well-being of society. But the first-century Roman poll tax was different.
The Romans enacted this tax specifically toward non-Roman citizens. Conquered subjects of the Empire paid this fee for the pleasure of being ruled by a foreign power. It served as a regular reminder of their bondage and submission.
Jews in particular felt a deep resentment towards this tax. Tertullian referred to it as a “badge of slavery.” Judas the Galilean led a revolt in response to this tax during the early first century. Even the uprising of 66 AD, which eventually led to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, was a response to this tax.
The Roman poll tax didn’t offer benefits to citizens of a commonwealth. It was a reminder and requirement of submission. Allegiance was demanded not given.
If we remember our diagram of God, creation, and his image, we can see how the technology of money and taxation plays a role. The Roman Empire could be thought of as a separate realm created by mankind. Caesar served as its god. Subjected people existed under his authority. The Roman coin, bearing his image, served to represent his authority over his people.
Within God’s realm, Humans bear the image of God to represent his authority over his creation. The coin of Caesar operates in a similar way. Within the realm of Rome, Caesar’s coin bore his image to represent his authority over the Empire.
JESUS ON TAXATION
Jesus spoke with authority. He described a new kind of power. He even talked about riches. His opponents knew the Romans to be adept at removing any threats to their authority. So they tried to use taxes as a way to trap him into making a mistake. They invited him to play a game he couldn’t win.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. — Matthew 22:15-22
Jesus’ opponents understood his message well enough to see that he described a separate realm of authority. He called it “the kingdom of God”. This kingdom seemed to stand in opposition to the one which maintained the roads he walked upon. Generally, kingdoms are notoriously jealous for people’s allegiance.
Their question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” seemed to offer two possible answers. If Jesus said “yes,” he would be seen as supporting the oppressive Romans. He would lose the respect of the Jews. His commitment to the alleged kingdom of God would be called into question. But saying “no” would be direct disobedience to Caesar. That would put a quick end to his career.
But Jesus’ answer reveals an awareness of how various authorities relate. The kingdom of Caesar does not exist as an alternate option to the kingdom of God. The two options are not equal choices for professing allegiance.
Jesus suggests that the kingdom of Rome exists entirely within the confines of the kingdom of God. There is no threat because God’s kingdom exists on a different level. Jesus asks about the image represented by the coin. The answer acknowledges that Caesar has created his own image.
In a sense, Jesus is affirming Caesar’s right to exert his authority over the realm which he rules. We’ve already recognized that God created people to be rulers over his creation. The leaders of Rome were doing just that.
This idea is re-affirmed and expanded later by the apostle Paul. In Rom 13:1, he makes the startling claim, “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.“
By placing the authorities of this world within the realm of God’s authority, Jesus (and Paul) create a third option. Allegiance within the kingdom of Rome doesn’t threaten God because God is above it. Live faithful to worldly authority, understanding that such authority only exists within the rule of the kingdom of God.
There are times when allegiance to earthly rulers contradicts heavenly power. This is an entirely different (and generally rare) scenario. Other passages address this as the exception rather than the rule.
Let’s summarize. The technology of taxation made the authority of an alternate kingdom concrete in the lives of its subjects. Jesus directs his followers to use such technology in allegiance to that kingdom. Such usage does not violate allegiance to his own kingdom.
THE KINGDOM OF TECHNOLOGY
With this framing of the issue, we can discuss some of the current kingdoms of technology we live among.
Many of us take part in various online social media kingdoms. In doing so, we offer them a sort of allegiance. We enjoy the benefits they offer. We give valuable currency (usually in the form of personal information) in return for what they provide. They set the boundaries of our experience within their realm. Their authority over us is virtually (pun intended) absolute.
More and more of life is lived in these kingdoms. A few weeks ago a friend of mine let me know about attending the first virtual reality baptism he had heard about. The first publicized virtual reality wedding occurred in 1994 in San Francisco. The couple met online, but married IRL (in real life). However, their virtual reality wedding represented a celebration for their most significant community: their online friends.
The book and movie Ready Player One describes a world where a virtual reality overtakes the real one. School, commerce, professions, and social interactions take place in a virtual world which is far preferable to the one on earth.
As we encounter these (and more to come) situations, Christians will have many questions to consider.
Is a virtual reality baptism valid? Are online communities as powerful as in person ones? Do we have words of wisdom for a culture flirting with moving their lives into virtual reality? Do we sacrifice allegiance to God by submitting ourselves to online institutions?
Each of these questions requires thought and prayer. There are no simple answers. But perhaps Jesus’ answer to the taxation trap creates a framework for engaging them.
Any realm we create on earth exists within the realm of God. We have the capability (and indeed the calling) to create our own spheres of authority. We may even create images to manage such authority. We may submit to others’ spheres of authority. We may gather as communities within specific realms of power.
We must understand that all realms exist under the authority of God. When we do, we are free to engage and participate without compromising allegiance to our Creator. We may render to Facebook the things that are Facebook’s. As long as we don’t stop rendering to God the things that are God’s.
If I kill an avatar in a virtual reality, have I committed murder?
This framework allows us great freedom, but also requires that we consider our behavior in virtual worlds. There are no realms of authority outside of the kingdom of God. Earthly powers do not exist as alternate options outside of God’s realm. Because of that, our behavior in any realm still takes place under the authority of God.
While playing a video game, you may shoot your friend as part of the game. You have killed him, but this isn’t much different from defeating him in chess. You are playing a game, not living life.
But what happens when the living of life is moved online? Or when all of our virtual lives are gamified? If the living of life is a game, what does that mean about my behavior?
What counts as murder? What counts as adultery? What about hate speech, envy, pride, anger, or lust? How does sin translate into a virtual world?
If there is no world apart from God’s world, these are important questions. Our souls are not divided into separate components for interacting with virtual people and interacting with real people. What we do with one surely affects what we do with another.
A PATH FORWARD
Perhaps beginning with the end is the solution. Jesus’ answer about taxes depends on his final exhortation: “Render to God, the things that are God’s”. Once again, worship forms the background for any interactions with separate kingdoms.
I suspect people will increasingly face thorny questions of virtual ethics. We must address those together, in the power of the Spirit and the context of worship. Online allegiance does not negate faithfulness to God. But neither does it offer a place where what happens doesn’t matter.
Long before the modern era, people created technology to assert power in various realms. The questions themselves aren’t new. As always, our calling is to live faithfully in whatever realm we find ourselves while remaining devoted to the God who created us.
If we can pay taxes to Caesar and honor God, surely we can find a way to wear a VR headset and do the same.
Father to five; husband to one; helping Christians engage thoughtfully as they follow Jesus Christ.
Pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, CA since 2007. Graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for Oracle Corporation as a Senior Product Manager designing software solutions.