Shimon bar Sabbae: Patron Saint of Tax Resistance

Today, April 17, 2018 in the United States it’s tax day. Today is the day the government comes calling, and our pocket books better answer.  Today is also the feast of St. Shimon bar Sabbae, the patron saint of tax resistance.

Taxes have been a hot topic ever since humans got together and decided to start civilization. Scripture records that the first city was built by Cain, who was also the first farmer and the first murderer in scripture. Perhaps he was also the first tax collector! Tax collectors are among some of the most shockingly disreputable people that Jesus chose to associate with.

In the Old Testament, even God lampoons taxes through the words of the Prophet Samuel. When Israel pleads for a King, the Lord said to Samuel,

Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.

Samuel then goes to the people and delivers this acerbic message,

This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

The Israelites insisted that they wanted a king, so that they could be like other nations and so that the king could fight their wars. God warned them that taxes and exploitation are the price for nationalism and militarism, but the Israelites went against God’s wishes and made the same choice that we make today. It’s better to have a nation and a military, even if it means paying taxes and making ourselves vulnerable to oppression.

When Jesus came preaching that a new Kingdom had come, the first question that came to mind for his listeners was taxes. Did Jesus really mean a new Kingdom? Did that mean that they didn’t have to pay taxes to other kingdoms? If Jesus paid taxes then that meant that he didn’t really mean that another Kingdom was coming, or at least it meant that he didn’t think his Kingdom was in competition with Rome. If you pay taxes, his listeners wondered, then perhaps you can serve two masters after all.

Taxes were particularly contentious in Jesus’ time because of how exploitative the practice became. Tax collectors would often overcharge individuals (especially poor people), and take the excess for themselves. The poor had no choice but to pay, for if they didn’t then the Romans would come knocking. Tax collectors were thus seen as collaborators with the Roman occupiers, representing Israel’s oppression. There was hardly a better image for the powers and principalities that Jesus came to vanquish than that of a tax collector. What’s more, taxes were often paid with coins that bore Caesar’s image. It would be idolatrous to carry such a coin or to use it. The standard ‘tribute penny’ bore the image of the Emperor Tiberius, and carried the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” To pay taxes meant not only possessing an image that proclaimed Caesar the son of a god, but in rendering this unto Caesar, one gave implicit assent to Caesar’s claims to divinity.

In response to such blasphemy and oppression, many Zealots began a campaign of tax resistance. So when Jesus came and announced the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, many wondered if he agreed with the other subversives of his day.

The Synoptics record that Jesus’ opponents tried to trap him with this question. If Jesus paid taxes then they could denounce him as a fraud; he wasn’t really promising an alternative to Rome. But if he didn’t pay taxes then they could turn him over to the authorities. So they asked,

Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?  Should we pay or shouldn’t we?

In his characteristically clever fashion, Jesus evaded the question. He implied that he did not even have a coin on him by asking if anyone could show him a coin. Thus he shunned graven images, and obviously unable to pay taxes. His accusers produced a coin, which demonstrated that they did carry such images. Jesus then asked whose inscription was on the coin.  The interlocutors looked down at the inscription declaring Caesar to be the Son of God, and reported so. Jesus then replied “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God’s what is God’s.”

This incisive remark is as clever, if not more so, than “He who is without sin may cast the first stone.” What is Caesar’s after all? Certainly not the title “Son of God.” But this title was the entire claim to Caesar’s legitimacy and the legitimacy of collecting taxes. Jesus was not saying “pay your taxes but worship God.” Rather, he was saying that one should honor God alone, and if one does so, then there is nothing left over to give Caesar. If Caesar is stripped of his divinity, then by the logic of the Romans, he would be stripped of his right to taxes as well. Thus Jesus confronted his accusers with their own theology. Do they really believe that God is the only God? If so then why are they holding a coin? Why are they opposing Jesus, who promises to bring about God’s reign? As happened again and again, when they tried to trap Jesus, Jesus trapped them.

This was not the only joke that Jesus made about taxes. The Evangelist Matthew records that Temple tax collectors asked Peter about whether Jesus paid Temple taxes or not. These taxes did not go to Rome, but to ecclesiastical authorities. Nonetheless they were still controversial. Jesus criticized the practice because it often hit the poor the hardest, and caused some women to become homeless and die in poverty (this was what Jesus meant when he accused the Temple officials of “devouring widows’ houses”). Peter had no clever answer for the tax collectors. But when he returned to Jesus’ house in Capernaum, Jesus asked him,

What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?

Peter answered that taxes are collected from others. So Jesus replied,

Then the children are exempt. But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.

The implied critique is that if the Temple really did serve the children of God, then there would not be any taxes. The existence of taxes proved the failure of the Temple to serve. But that is not the only critique in this passage. Romanian Archpriest Fr. John McGuckin notes that this passage is one massive joke by Jesus. The story does not actually say that Peter went and caught the fish, but rather ends with the joke about finding the coin in the fish’s mouth. The fish in question was a certain species of Tilapia, which is known as “St. Peter’s Fish.” This species has a tongue that is shaped liked a coin. So Jesus was making a joke to Peter, saying sarcastically “we must pay our taxes! So go give them Tilapia tongue!” Were Peter to actually do that, it would cause quite the offense!

When Jesus was finally arrested and taken to Pilate, taxes are the first thing his accusers mention. 

We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.

This got Pilate’s attention. And the association of Christianity with tax resistance evidently spread to the early community. It must have become something of an issue, as St. Paul was forced to confront it in his letter to the Romans. As with all of Paul’s letters, he gives rules only when people start acting in contrary ways. So one can only imagine what ideas people had about Christianity and taxes that led St. Paul to write,

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.

Christians living in Rome knew quite well that they were expected to pay taxes by the government. So the fact that St. Paul had to remind them of this meant that there must have been a streak of insurrectionism running through the early Christian community. St. Paul in this section of his letter had to remind Christians that the way of the Zealots, the way of violent revolution, was not the nonviolent way of the cross. Thus, the injunction to pay taxes and to not overthrow the government was prefaced by the remark, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Paul’s vision was not that the Roman government, which ended up executing him and many other Christians, was somehow good or that by executing him the were doing God’s will. Rather, it was that by doing good, by acting with love and nonviolence, one could overthrow and overcome the evil of this world.

Paul reinforced this message by continuing,

Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.

Here Paul echoes Jesus’ clever ‘render unto Caesar.’ Paul begins by saying that we should give what we owe. If taxes are owed then we pay taxes, if revenue then we pay revenue. But he then (in a characteristically Hebraic writing technique) undercuts what he has just said. The only debt, the only thing that we should owe, is love. Furthermore, if one loves, then one has already fulfilled the law. He goes on to say that among all the laws and commandments there is really only one law, “Love one another.” And because of this “Love has fulfilled the law.” But by saying this, Paul gives a wink to his audience. If love fulfills the law, then the tax laws don’t really apply to you and aren’t what you are following anyway. By making this shift in emphasis from law and government to love, Paul throws out the whole question. What does it matter if we pay our taxes or overthrow the government or not? All that matters is love, and we should forget the rest! By saying this, St. Paul both preserved the radically subversive message of Christianity without reducing it to a temporal political program that demanded complete and total resistance. Resistance of a sort was expected; it’s what got Paul killed. But Paul emphasized that resistance for its own sake meant nothing. Just like Jesus, the point was to focus ourselves elsewhere.

Thanks to Paul’s clear-sightedness, Christians managed to strike a balance between paying taxes and proclaiming another King. But the early Church did not interpret Paul’s injunction to pay taxes or Christ’s joke about rendering unto Caesar to be universal rules. Sometimes tax resistance is called for. They say that in life there are only two things that are certain: death and taxes. But just as Christ found a way to get around death, every once in a while his followers manage to get around taxes.

Which brings us to St. Shimon, whose feast it is today, April 17. Shimon lived in Persia in the fourth century. At that time, tensions between Persian Christians and Persian Zoroastrians were on the rise. In the 330s and 340s, the Persian king Shapur II began an offensive against the Roman Empire. Given that the Romans were Christian, Persian Christians were viewed as resident enemies. Then as now, it is tough being a religious minority!

Shapur decided to impose a hefty tax on Christians. This was meant to penalize them for their Christianity, as accusations of subversion came forth. The tax also may have been to encourage abandonment of Christianity, and certainly helped to fund the war effort against the Roman Christians. What better solution for fighting the Romans than making resident Christians pay for the war effort against their fellow Christians?

As the presiding bishop of Christians in Persia, Shimon was tasked with collecting this tax. But Shimon knew that such a tax was unjust and would only be blood money. So he launched a nonviolent campaign of mass war-tax resistance.

Obviously, this was not received well by Shapur, so he demanded that St. Shimon and the rest of the Christians pay, otherwise he would kill them. Remarkably, St. Shimon refused to retaliate to these threats. Just a century later, some Christians in Persia would resort to terrorism in response to a similar situation. But St. Shimon refused violence. He refused to fight. Instead he chose to suffer nonviolently. Death was his protest. Shimon accepted the death penalty and was martyred. By rendering unto God what was God’s, his very life, he showed the king that there was nothing left over for his coffers!

The hymnography of the Church plays with this theme poetically,

Choice silver that is tried in the earth: a portion of the heavenly treasure, which is desired by the angels, and by the prophets and apostles, and by the honored martyrs, Christ gave, in his grace, to the faithful Church: the venerable Mar Simon, he whose neck was sliced for the sake of the law of the love of God. Come, all you peoples, in awe and love, and in songs of the Holy Spirit, let us honor the day of his commemoration. He is indeed an unassailable rampart for our people.

Shimon’s martyrdom is called silver, a “heavenly treasure” rather than an earthly tax. St. Shimon is the tax, the “choice silver” given by Christ to his Church. In disobeying the law, St. Shimon followed “the law of the love of God.” This is the law that St. Paul implored us to follow. By following the law of love and rendering his life unto God, St. Shimon showed us the true meaning of a faithful life.

Today it is important to remember St. Shimon and what he lived and died for. As we pay our taxes today (or decide to engage in some war tax resistance ourselves!) we should ask ourselves which laws we truly follow.

This past week, the United States dropped a series of bombs on three sites in Syria. Currently, it is estimated that those strikes cost over $100 million in taxpayer money. What’s more, Patriarch John X, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and Patriarch Joseph Absi, who are all Patriarchs in Syria soundly condemned America for the attack. Patriarch Kirill likewise spoke out against the attack and called Pope Francis to discuss condemning the attack. Who knows how much tax money paid by American Orthodox Christians today will end up building bombs that will again strike Syria this next year, to the protests of the Church. It is a sobering reminder that even in a country as supposedly Christian as America, sometimes the revolutionary nonviolent faith that worships a man accused of tax resistance is not compatible with supporting our nation. I imagine that St. Shimon loved Persia. I imagine he even happily paid his taxes most of his life. But when the time came, when it was clear that he  had to choose between national loyalty and his faith, he chose civil disobedience. Let us a sing a hymn of exaltation to St. Shimon today, the choice silver tried in the earth! And maybe, if we are feeling a bit bolder, we can do more than sing to him. Perhaps we can sing with him, in the words of the old American folk tune,

Tear up those income tax returns
They’ll buy no bombs with what I’ve earned!

Why should I buy a war machine
To kill some child I’ve never seen.
Don’t bail me out, don’t pay my fine
Your cash can kill the same as mine
There’s no one’s blood I want to spill
And I’ll not pay a war lord’s bill.

Tear up those income tax returns
They’ll buy no bombs with what I’ve earned!

The men who plan for blood and strife
Demand your money or your life
My faith in God is not for sale
That’s why I’m here locked up in jail.
Between these bars I see blue sky
I know that some day you and I
Can live in peace and without war
And that’s the day I’m working for.

Tear up those income tax returns
They’ll buy no bombs with what I’ve earned!