October 16, 2011

A Question About Taxes

Passage: Matthew 22:16-17

So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’

It was Benjamin Franklin who said, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." On this subject the humorist Will Rogers said (paraphrased for Canadian content): “The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time parliament or provincial legislature meets.”

According to the Fraser Institute the average Canadian family now spends 41 percent of its income on taxes.  Canadians spend more on taxes than on food, clothing, and shelter combined, and have done so for 29 of the last 30 years.  The disquieting reality is that all ten Canadian provinces are allowing program spending to exceed economic growth.  A farmer observed that in levying taxes and in shearing sheep it is well to stop when you get down to the skin.

Palestine in the first century was part of the Roman Empire; Pax Romana was secured by military might and financed by taxation.  A Roman tax was levied annually on harvests and personal property; there is some evidence that Rome made taxes high for Palestine in that it had been a troublesome place to rule.  This put a heavy burden on the impoverished residents of Jesus’ homeland.  Rome also required that the tax be paid in Roman currency.  The coin presented to Jesus bore the image of Emperor Tiberius; it also had an inscription ascribing divinity to the Caesar.  Many Jews objected to the use of this coin because they considered it a violation of the first two commandments.

Caesar’s interest in the wellbeing of his subjects stopped abruptly at the point of where his power over their livelihood is threatened.  Indeed, the Jewish revolt of the late 60’s A.D.  against Rome was a tax revolt; in 70 A.D. Jerusalem paid the ultimate price for daring to stand up to the Caesar.  Jerusalem was destroyed and the revolt brutally crushed.

So the question to Jesus—Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?—was designed to put him on the horns of a dilemma, he gets gored either way.  If Jesus answers “yes” he stands accused as a Roman sympathizer; insensitive to the plight of impoverished Jews; countenancing breaking the law’s commands.   If Jesus answers “no” then he could be viewed as a rebel fostering sedition against Rome.

1. This question put to Jesus was part of a plot to entrap him in what he might say.  It is not unlike the questions put to political leaders hoping they will stumble over some societal piety; political opponents then use the utterances to demagogue the issue.  In Ontario health care spending consumes 50 percent of total available government revenues—and that percentage is increasing.  Yet no politician will dare speak of some privatization lest they transgress the societal piety of “universal healthcare”.  This question to Jesus is akin to asking a politician running for office “is it time to consider allowing some privatization of health services?

Jesus clearly knows the purpose of their question is to trip him up.  The day this question is posed is the Monday following Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday); the day following Jesus’ rampage when he cleared the temple court of merchants and money changers.  One group of Jewish leaders failed to discredit Jesus with their question “by what authority are you doing these things?’  The leaders regroup and come back at him; this time it is some disciples of the Pharisees along with the Herodians who try to entrap Jesus.

The Pharisees were also stung by the parable Jesus told of the wicked tenants.  The parable was about tenants who refused to pay the landowner the rent they owed; the landowner sent various servants to collect and they beat and killed them; finally he sends his son whom they also kill.  Matthew notes that “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.”

We do not have much historical information about the party known at the Herodians.  Some scholars have proposed they were allied with Herod Antipas—one of Herod the Great’s sons—who had been named king of the Jews by Rome and ruled Galilee.  These were thought to be in support of Roman taxation since they also had a vested interest in Roman rule.  Whatever the case, their plan was to discredit Jesus.

Don’t be surprised that the world often treats Jesus’ followers as Jesus is treated here.  Questions will be asked of you on particular things to discredit the broader message of the gospel.  You know how the Crusades are always brought up to paint Christianity with the broad brush as a religion that promotes warmongering and fanaticism.  I recently watched CNN’s Piers Morgan interview Rev. Joel Osteen, pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church and Morgan hammered him with question after question on gay marriage.  Jesus was treated this same way; in context, the same sort of question designed to discredit.  I think we can learn from Jesus’ answer.

2.  Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?”  I would not say to you that the lesson to be learned is the skill of pointing out the hypocrisies of others.  They had said that they knew Jesus to be a sincere person who shows deference to no one.  These questioners hypocrisy was in feigning deference to Jesus when they meant to do him harm.  The point being that it is good to recognize that some folks mean to do harm with their questions.

I often find that some questions are asked as a cover to accuse Christians of bigotry—i.e., is Jesus really the only way? Such questions are often a cover for the bigotry of the questioner against Christianity—they believe that their pluralistic assessment of religions is the “only way” to think of religion.

I point out to you that Jesus does not think that God is threatened by their question; indeed he demonstrates such in that he himself is not threatened by their question.  Neither does he accept the premise of the question—that the lawfulness (meaning God’s law) of paying taxes to Rome is a matter that is answered with a “yes” or a “no”.  Rather Jesus uses the occasion of the question to say something else; he changes the subject to speak the thing that really matters with respect to the law—as least as far as Jesus is concerned.

I also think that Jesus didn’t say much about the obligation to pay tax in this passage.  To be sure, he acknowledged that taxes to Rome should be paid—“give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperors.” But he raises the question of what really belongs to the Emperor.  Jesus turns a question designed to trap him into a fresh opportunity to assert God’s claim on the whole person of those who for the present must pay taxes to Caesar.

3. Jesus asks to be shown a coin used for tax.  He then asks, “Whose head is this and whose title?” The word the NRSV translates “head” is the Greek word that means “image” or “likeness”.  The Emperor’s image was on the coin. So when Jesus said “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” the question Jesus raises is on what (or whom) is the image of God.

Every person standing before Jesus that day knew the Genesis story: (1:27) So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. What are we to give to God? We are to give our lives.  All other allegiances and duties find their proper place when we give to God the things that are God’s.

One of the great themes of the gospel that Reformation theology underlined is that through faith in Christ the image of God defaced and corrupted by sin is being restored in us.  The effect of the fall is being reversed.  Why do we meet together for worship; study of the scriptures; endeavour to follow Christ and grow in our discipleship?  In all of this the image of God is being restored in us.  Seen from gospel perspective no Government programme supported by taxation can prepare us for eternal life.

In his book The Bible as Improv: Seeing & Living the Script author Ron Martoia described how he went on a run in a mountainous area of Arizona taking pictures at different intervals.  He wrote: “At a thousand feet I had a reasonably good view.  The terrain was beautiful, and I could see a few of the homes surrounding the area where I had begun my run.  As I went another five hundred feet, then another thousand, then another five hundred, my perspective changed.  At each turn of the mountain. I could see more and more of the land I traversed.  I had a much more spacious, higher altitude view as well. ... At the summit, I saw where I had come from, but I could also see entirely different mountains and new housing developments I hadn’t even known existed. A higher altitude ... does provide the setting for a broader view.”

It seems to me that Jesus was calling his opponents to a higher altitude; to a broader view—the view from God’s perspective, so to speak.  Sometimes in the midst of the pressures and demands of daily life the broader vision of life is lost.  It is good to visit the summit from time to time and remember that God’s agenda in our life is the restoration of his own image in us; this is what it means to be fully human, according to the gospel.  The restoration of this image is to become who you truly are created to be.

4. In the BBC reality show Monastery, a group of five men from diverse backgrounds voluntarily join a Benedictine monastery for a span of forty days. The five men don't have to assent to Christian beliefs, but they do have to respect and follow the monks' communal requirements— a strict rhythm of meals, silence, prayer times, and so on.

One of the stories focused on a man named Tony, After some time in the monastery, Tony felt torn: he wanted to keep his job, but he didn't want to lose the peace he was experiencing in the monastery. With two days left at the monastery, he shared his concerns with Brother Francis: “.. Part of me wants to keep the whole thing alive and carry it through. And I know the minute I get out, it will fade.”

Brother Francis: I want to give you something that I think will help with what you've just described …. Vocation is about discovering who you really are and maybe what you should really be doing. And that is what we are trying to do here—discover who we really are. I want to give you this stone, this white stone. We have our Christian name, our family name. But we also have another name, and it's called our "white stone name." Revelation 2:17 says, "Your new name is written on a white stone in heaven." I think our vocation is to find out what that name is, to find our white stone name.

Andrew Klavan is a popular writer of mysteries. In an interview published in World magazine he talked about how his writing interacts with his Christian faith. In the process, he described his conversion to being a follower of Christ:

"My life has been more like one of those Outward Bound programs where they drop you far from home and you have to make your way back with a piece of string and a matchbook. I was born and raised a Jew and came up in that wonderful secular intellectual tradition that teaches you to analyze everything. God kept coming into my life, and I kept disproving him—I was very good at it!

Fortunately, I could also disprove the foundations of my disproof. Eventually I saw that the pillars of the secular consensus—scientism, materialism, rationalism—were all made of sand. Whereas the deeper I went into the experience of God, the more I found…life in abundance."

“Deeper into the experience of God”; “finding our white stone name”; I think these are each a description on the same reality.  It is like holding a beautiful diamond—the diamond is the restoration of the image of God—these descriptors are facets that you can see as you turn the diamond in your hand.

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’