Paying Taxes

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 — Week of Proper 28, Year One

Margaret, Queen of Scotland, 1093

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 992)

Psalms (morning) 101, 109:1-4 (5-19) 20-30 // 119:121-144 (evening)

1 Maccabees 3:42-60* *found in the Apocrypha

Revelation 2:9-21

Matthew 17:22-27

In the scene that Matthew gives us, the collectors of the temple tax ask Peter whether Jesus’ followers pay the temple tax. “Yes, he does,” answers Peter. It was an answer that would please Roman authorities when they might be suspicious of the new Christian movement.

There is a second conversation about the ultimate freedom that those who are royal children enjoy. The implication seems to be that Jesus’ followers, as children of God, are completely free and liberated from obligations to lesser authorities.

In Matthew’s sequence, by his next action Jesus seeks to keep the peace. Jesus has Peter catch a fish that will have the coin for the temple tax in its mouth. Peter is to pay the tax so that they would not give offense to the authorities.

The story is not unlike the question elsewhere in the Gospel whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Jesus anwered, “Whose image is on the coin?” Every Roman coin bears Caesar’s image. The wonderfully ambiguous answer: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God.” Every listener would know that all things come from God — the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.

Such answers intend to maintain the ultimate freedom that is ours as God’s children and affirm the absolute claim that God has on us and on all creation. At the same time, they are also practical answers that protected the early church from persecution as enemies of the state.

There have been Christians who have protested the payment of taxes on religious and ethical grounds. Some were jailed during the Vietnam War era when they withheld a percentage of their tax that represented their share for the financing of what they believed was an immoral war. Acts of civil disobedience have generally included a willingness to suffer the consequences of such disobedience.

The early church walked a fine line between its declaration of challenge to the Roman Empire — the fundamental creed “Jesus is Lord” defies the claim that “Caesar is Lord” — and the church’s wish to avoid active persecution. From Matthew’s perspective, paying the hated tax to the Jupiter temple was not a place to draw a line.

Where is that line? For the most part, I am glad to pay taxes because our taxes support so many of the services that are basic to a healthy society. I am blessed to be in a high tax bracket because my wife and I both have jobs that pay us well. We certainly could afford to pay more taxes, and would happily do so if it would relieve the suffering for those who do not enjoy the security that we do. I prayerfully hope our nation is on the way toward providing a public way of insuring health care for all people as most other industrialized countries already do, and I would gladly raise taxes on people like me to underwrite such a benefit.

On the other hand, I opposed the unnecessary war and occupation that the Bush administration launched against Iraq, and the subsequent $800 Billion cost to taxpayers which helped reverse the budget surplus President Bush inherited, sending us into a deep deficit. (The human suffering from that decision to go to war is incalculable.) It would have been much more honest for Mr. Bush and Congress to raise taxes on people like me who can afford it in order to pay for the war rather than to continue to pass the costs to future generations. But it seems raising taxes is even more unpopular than war, so we borrow.

So, like nearly everyone else, I pay my taxes, and I argue about what the best use of our resources might be. I hope for a more progressive tax policy that relieves the poor and lets those of us to whom much has been given be expected to give more. Is there a line for me when the policies of a government might be so abhorrent that I would refuse to pay taxes? I don’t know. Maybe there is. I know that I do respect many who have risked their freedom to raise into public awareness policies that are immoral.

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