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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 22:15-22

The Taxman Cometh


A Nation in Rebellion

Since the opening salvos across that small bridge in Lexington, MA, the history of our country has been marked by conflict over taxes. John Hancock whose initial signature dwarfs the others signers of the Declaration of Independence was as much a tax dodger as he was a statesman. By the time Jefferson read his composition before the delegates in Philadelphia, Hancock personally owed the British crown thousand of pounds of uncollected taxes.

The very first armed protest of the new nation was over taxes and whiskey. Alexander Hamilton whose portrait appears on every $10 bill persuaded Congress to pass a tax on all forms of whiskey to pay of the debt from the war. In western Pennsylvania where whiskey substituted for money, the farmers took up arms. Anyone who dared pay the tax found their still riddled with bullets the next day. Tax collectors were tarred, feathered and run out of town. President Washington was only able to put down the rebellion by granting amnesty to the the leaders.

In his first inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln tried to sound a tone of reconciliation with the Southern states who had seceded. He did not mention his own party's demand to end slavery in the territories. He even went so far as to give support to a constitutional amendment to protect slavery in the southern states. However, on one issue Lincoln was quite clear. The Southern states would be required to pay a tariff on all imported goods. It was either taxes or war.

I never have taken the time to investigate the rational that all those good Christians used to justify their armed revolt against the established civil authority over and against Jesus' own direct instructions on the issues of paying taxes. Jesus is very specific in his response. Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and give back to God what is God's. Jesus does not offer any qualifying instructions. He does to say to the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians,

“You only need to pay the taxes that you consider important to the state” or,

“You only need to pay the taxes that you will get caught not paying” or

“You only need to pay taxes if you make more than 10,000 talents” or,

“You only need to pay taxes if you are one of the little people who does not have a New York City lawyer defending you.

The words of Jesus cannot be easily dismissed by arguing that people have a right to fight against unjust taxation. No one felt more unjustly taxed than the Jews. Some Jews even believed that the Law actually prohibited the payment of taxes to a foreign government. In Deut we read

"be sure to appoint over you the king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite." (Deuteronomy 17:15, NIV)

One radical community, the Essences, refused to even carry such a coin because it had the graven image of the Emperor. They were a small but very devoted group that hid their own writings and the writings of Scripture in the caves of Qumran that have now come to known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Jesus publicly humiliated the men who came to question him by asking for the coin. None of his disciples had one. Either the disciples of the Pharisees or the Herodians had to provide it. It would be like a group of ministers asking Jesus if it was ok just to read the articles in Playboy and he asked them to produce a company. Imagine the look on the minister face who hands it to him!

Others believed that by paying the tax they were giving money away because the citizens did not receive any benefit from it. The tax simply transferred money from Jewish to Roman coffers. The tax was so unpopular that the rabbis had to issue a specific admonition against not paying it.

...do not seek to evade poll tax, lest they discover you and deprive you of all that you posses (Pes. 112b)

The rabbis were very pragmatic. It was better to pay a little than to lose it all.

Jesus' response is closer to the rabbis but is not laced with the self preservationist theme. He used the words “give back.” The Greek word that Matthew records has the sense of returning to the other person what was originally his. The implication is clear. The coin is Caesar's coin. It belongs only to the Emperor and cannot be claimed by any other government or person. Jesus' answers both acknowledges Caesar ownership of the coin but also God's ownership of every human live. Our lives are not our own. Our talents are not our own. Our time is not our own. And our money is not our own. All that we have belongs to God.

While the basic teaching of this story should quickly dispel anyone from organizing a tax revolt and heading into the Idaho wilderness, we need to dig a little deeper before we can apply it to our lives. Given the sparing between the two presidential candidates, I believe that this is an important issue. Both candidates have proposed tax cuts and tax increases. This slight of hand is good politics. The tax cuts make great sound bits and convince the American voter that the tax increases are more palatable. This is very important because ever since the Reagan Revolution most but not all political candidates who have proposed tax increases have seen their political aspirations brought to a screeching halt. However, I would like to move the debate beyond the “Joe-the-plumber” focus.

Joe the plumber is really a guy named Sam who works as a plumber but is not a member of any trade union nor is he licensed. He stated to Sen Obama that since he wanted to buy a plumbing business that makes $250,000 a year, he would have to pay additional taxes under the senator from Illinois' tax plan. Now if Joe, er, Sam thinks that he can make $250,000 after expenses doing plumbing, then I am trading in my Bible commentaries for a pipe wrench and a set of sockets. But that is not the most critical issue in Joe, er, Sam's line of reasoning. I believe that the plumber from Ohio has a “What's in it for me approach?” that must be reoriented to a “What's in it for our society?” That type of reasoning is in keeping with the dictum of President Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.” My approach is also more consistent with the prophet Isaiah

20 “Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
he who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere youth;
he who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
21 They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the works of their hands.
23 They will not toil in vain
or bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord.

Isaiah 65:20-25

Traditionally the passage has been limited in its interpreted to refer strictly to the hereafter, however, I am not certain that Isaiah himself would have done so. The prophet saw a new Israel taking shape in the present world and in the one beyond. A nation that would care for its young and aged; its homeless and hungry; its powerless. Isaiah called his nation to live out that vision in their everyday social-political lives. Remove the personal piety filters from your eyes when you read the first prophetic book in the Old Testament and you will learn that the prophet's message connected Israel's idolatry to its unjust and inequitable political laws.

The rich became richer at the expense off the poor. This was never God's intention. In the book of Deuteronomy we read that God establish an every third year tithe specifically for the care for the poor. We should remember that ancient society did not enjoy expense accounts that could be deducted or capital depreciation or charitable deductions. They did not have Schedule C. The IRS had not yet created Schedule A or B. The tithe was 10% of gross earnings. The book of Deuteronomy also established the Year of Jubilee that served as the basis for our bankruptcy laws. Every fifty years indentured servants were freed, debts canceled and property was returned to its originally family. It was suppose to be a time for the entire nation to wipe the slate clean and start again. We do not have any historical record that Israel ever celebrated it but they also never removed it from their ancient manuscripts.

Isaiah told the nation that because it had abandoned these laws and trusted in their military alliances and economic wealth God was going to strip them naked and lead them into captivity. Isaiah was so convinced of this pending judgment that he paraded around the city bare naked for three years (Isaiah 20:2) The entire nation was also obligated to pay whatever taxes imposed by the monarchy.

During the past 28+ years of debating the pros and cons of tax cuts, evangelicals forgot that the federal budget is a moral document. It shows what we care about. It reflects what we value and hold dear. How can we read

the poor man called, and the Lord heard him

Psalm 35:6

he raises the poor from the dust
and raises the needy for the ash heap

Psalm 113:7

He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God

Proverb 14:31

and continue to reduce the budget for programs that are designed to

... establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity...

We need to ask more of our political candidates than “How much are you going to save me in tax cuts?” We need to hold our politicians accountable to providing for the poor not through handouts but through effective programs that equip them to overcome the severe economic obstacles that block their path. It these programs require that we pay more in taxes than we should respond with grateful hearts because God has blessed us with the resources to help others.

Charity alone cannot address the needs of this nation or the difficulties of the world. Taxes draw upon the resources of the secular community that has turned a deaf ear to God's laws. They serve as a valuable life line for the destitute, disadvantaged and downtrodden. Our constant pleas to reduce our “tax burden” must sound like clanging symbols in God's ears.

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