Poll tax, salt tax, and crown tax! Wherever they went, along major highways, at city gates, or along quiet country roads, the Israelites encountered the tax booth. The main symbol of foreign domination, and that which most stirred their indignation. Foreign taxation was nothing new to them, but the unscrupulous dealings of the Roman tax-farmers and collectors ignited their fiercest hatred.
These Herodians derived their royal revenue from property and income taxes, import-export duties, crown lands, and a duty on everything bought and sold publicly.
But even before Roman days, the Jews had paid custom duty, income and property taxes, poll taxes, and duty on salt. And even a mysterious tax called crown money under the foreign rule of the Persians, the Syrians, and the Ptolemies.
Yet heavily as this must have weighed upon a poor and mainly agricultural population, the Jews also paid religious dues.
Every town charged taxes for maintaining the synagogue, elementary schools, public baths, roads, and city walls and gates, as well as to aid to the poor. But the Rabbis administered their taxation with kindness, and for the good of the population. Few modern, civilized countries have attained such great public welfare in education, health, and charity.
But the Romans applied taxes with a systematic, relentless cruelty.
Through their own peculiar indirect taxation, farming them out to the highest bidders among Roman knights, the only members of the Roman Senate and magistrate allowed business dealings. These were the real publicans, who often sublet the taxes to still other publicans, usually slaves, or members of the lower classes in the conquered nations.
Everyone wanted to make money off the poor — even the tax farmers!
And each adding their own cost to the total collected, along with any costs incurred during the collection itself! So shameful were their dealings, that the Jews would not interact socially with these tax-farmers and collectors, who often placed inflated value on property and income. And to make sure none evaded taxes, the Romans regularly took census, a terrible crime according to the Rabbis.
But according to Jewish law, were they required to pay all those taxes?
In far-off Rome, Cicero described the publicans as “the flower of knighthood…and the strength of the republic” or as “the most upright and respected men”. But in Palestine, the Rabbis ranked them harlots, heathens, highwaymen, and murderers.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” was not only a question posed to test Christ, but often on the lips of all Israelites. (See Luke 20:19-26.)
And in the midst of that debate, a man whom most of the authorities considered inconsequential, spoke words of wisdom. ” Give to Ceasar what belongs to him. And give to God what belongs to him. Money doesn’t belong to God’s kingdom, but to this earth. Spiritual things are what matter to Christ. “Pay your taxes,” Christ instructed.
Christ tells us to pay the government our dues, which we do with earthly coin. But F.B. Meyer, in Through the Bible Day by Day, reminds us that rulers have no claim on our conscience, faith, or love. “These bear the mint-mark of God,” he says, “and to God they must be rendered.” We are stamped with God’s image and belong to him. And must, therefore, give him our selves, our lives, our very beings.
“It’s your heart I want,” Christ says. And If he has that, he’ll have your wallet as well.
What have you fixed your heart on? Have you given Christ your whole heart, or does a part of it still cling to earthly treasures?
Sketches of Jewish Social Life chapter 4, by Alfred Edersheim; in the Public domain.