WHAT ABOUT TAXES?
Matthew 22: 15-22
According to a story, God was sitting in Heaven one day when a scientist spoke to him looking Heavenward: “God,” he said,” it looks like we don’t need you anymore. Science has figured out a way to create life out of nothing. In other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning!”
“Is that so!” said God, amused. “Tell me about it.” “Well,” the scientist said, “we can take dirt and form it into a human likeness and give it electronic controls for movements.”
“Well that’s interesting. Show me!”
So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil.
“Wait a minute!” God objected. “You have to get your own dirt!”
Of course we can’t really imagine dirt being able to form a moving person! But we are always thinking about what is God’s and what is ours, especially when it comes to possessions and money. As we come closer to November 4th, I have yet to see a candidate campaigning for higher taxes! Since the days of the Roman Empire, when Caesar enacted the famous Census that we read from Luke chapter two every Christmas, Jews, Christians, and others have railed against being highly and forcibly taxed. Even in Caesar’s day, plenty of people thought what he spent tax money on was extravagant- he had extravagant palaces and wealth enough to, as the saying goes, “pay a king’s ransom if necessary.” Even the puppet King Herod, who did what Rome asked, had palace after opulent palace of opulence. “Waste” is what some call it; “Pork” is what others call it. Some would even say that one of their greatest wastes was in over engineering their buildings and infrastructure. The Roman Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the remains of the Circus Maximus can still be seen over 2000 years later! Talk about over-engineering! Hadrian’s Wall is visible in places all over Europe, and the Roman Aqueduct system of water transportation is still visible as well. The Appian Way is still traveled as part of the amazing Roman Highway system that is a marvel to modern historians. So today, and in Rome, there is pork, there is waste, and there is opulence; but in the mix of our benefits from taxes are things that are for the public good: roads, bridges, police protection, fire protection, public schools, the beach, and parks to name a few benefits we enjoy. When driving around Orlando I am aware of which roads are provided by tax dollars, and which ones aren’t as toll booths appear every few miles on some of them. What would our beachside be like without a bridge over the intercoastal waterway? And what if it were a toll bridge? Yesterday I needed to get from Flagler Avenue in New Smyrna Beach to a home just north of the Ponce Inlet lighthouse. There had been a death, and I hoped to get there quickly. I could see the lighthouse from New Smyrna Beach, but unless I left my car and took the water taxi, I couldn’t get there without an 18 mile trip up US 1 to the Dunlawton Bridge and back down to the lighthouse. No toll bridge or government bridge exists between that short span of water. You see, there are plenty of places where we take government funded projects for granted until you see what life would be like without them. Smart use of tax money; yes we need that. But taxes do many good things that bring on grumblers who enjoy the services. Of course we know in our day, as in Jesus’ day, some people are not as careful with money if it’s not theirs. We also know that greed and desires to be re-elected make people lose their sensibility.
It is likely that taxes affected Jesus very little; he did not seem to own anything from land to a house; yet he is asked about taxes in a question that seeks to trap him. We can tell that things- material things- did not matter much to the one who preached “store up treasure for yourself in Heaven, and not here where moths can eat it and thieves can steal it.” Jesus is always asking his listener’s to consider the spiritual world over the physical world. “Live in the world but not of the world he once preached. He lets them know that there are some things that we must do and pay since we are physical beings; we need food, sleep, protection, and water. One day we will just need him—“living bread”—instead of daily bread. One day, taxes, rent house payments, or car payments will be left behind. But for today, Jesus gives his answer like this: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; (pause) and render unto God the things that are God’s!” Words on a page don’t jump out as clearly as that. He knew the question he was asked was a trap. “If he argued against paying the tax, [the Herodians who are Zealot Nationalists, and the Pharisees who resented the Roman rule but generally put up with it] could accuse him to Pilate of anti-Roman activity. If he supported the tax, he would lose some of his supporters who opposed taxation. You will note that he himself did not have a coin. True religious people, there in the Temple Courts, would not have carried in Roman coins; they would have exchanged them for Jewish Shekels. But these “officials” [Herodians and Pharisees] produced a Roman coin on which the inscription read: ‘Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.’ Here, in the most holy space in the holy land, Jesus’ adversaries produced a coin that violated the dictates of their own religion!”[INTERPRETATION, Matthew, John Knox Press, 1993, p. 253.] No wonder Jesus saw them as hypocrites. Jesus answered in a way that would not trap himself, but trap his questioners. In his own mind, however, did he not acknowledge that for us to live in this world takes money, taxes, and physical structures? In his own mind, was he not remembering the times he himself sought food, water, and shelter? He too knew what physical needs were. Yet in his own mind and ministry he was more on the Kingdom things, that is, on spiritual things? He set a balance for Christian living. In studying this passage, John Calvin wrote that “Christ declares that it is no violation of the authority of God, or any injury done to his service, if, in the respect of outward government, the Jews obey the Romans.” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol. XVII, p. 44.]
Over the years, one of my friends recognized when I became too upset about a subject to think straight. He called it getting “wrapped around the axle.” I’ve gotten wrapped around the axle about forced mandates for fire alarms in the church and the forced removal of doorstops; I’ve been distracted by derogatory journalists who continue to write destructive things about our denomination too. People driving slowly in the left lane get me bothered too, but that’s another subject! Jesus sounds like he wants me, and you, to focus on first things first; to do what needs to be done to live on earth; but spend more energy and focus in preparing ourselves and others to live in this world the way Jesus lived: caring, sharing, healing, and praying. We have too much on our plates when it comes to the Kingdom of God, to let taxes wrap us around the axle, filling our hearts with anger and our minds with details that will not go with us when we die. Certainly we, like our Lord, should work for justice and ethical practices while we are here. But at least as important: let us work on that which saves our souls and the lives of others!
(Let us pray, using verses 1, 2, & 4 of the hymn in the bulletin, “Let There Be Light, Lord God of Hosts.”)
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 18, 2008