“What should we do?”

Monday, September 24, 2012 — Week of Proper 20

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 985)

Psalms 80 (morning) 77, [79 (evening)

Esther 4:1-17 or Judith 7:1-7, 19-32

Acts 18:1-11

Luke (1:1-4); 3:1-14

And the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.” Luke 3:10-14

John the Baptist declares a religious pronouncement: “Prepare the way of the Lord, …bear fruits worthy of repentance.” One might expect that his next words would focus on religious topics — return to prayer, be faithful in worship, study and heed the scriptures, live a moral and upright life. Well, he does urge a certain attention toward moral deeds, but they are all deeds of economics.

John tells them to live personal lives of simplicity and generosity — “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

He speaks to the officials, demanding that they completely change their methods of business and to “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” That is practically a demand that they go out of business. Tax collectors and toll collectors lived on the “honest graft” that they collected above and beyond the actual taxes and tolls that they had to return 100% to their superiors. It was a corrupt and abusive system that favored the rich and exploited the poor.

For many Jews, the notion that John might have anything other than condemnation to say to members of the Roman occupying army might be scandalous. But he tells them simply not to abuse their powers.

Economics, economics, economics. That’s the opening message from the first prophet in centuries. That was frequently the message of the ancient prophets as well.

It would be interesting to speculate what economic commands John the Baptist might give to us today. “What then should we do?”

We live in an economy that has some similarities to first century Palestine. Wealth was concentrated then. According to William R. Herzog, II (Parables as Subversive Speech) the top 2 percent of the population controlled between 50 and 67 percent of the annual wealth. Our circumstance are more encouraging. The top one-percent only earns 16% of the U.S. annual income, but they do control 35% of all wealth. The lower 40% of our population owns less than one-third of one-percent of American wealth. What would it mean in our society for those with two coats to share with those who have none? What form of sharing and generosity would it take for everyone to have food and a coat — a level of basic security?

And tax collecting is very interesting in our country. Mr. Romney was quoted recently saying something I’ve heard repeated over and over as a scandalous truth — nearly half of Americans pay nothing in Federal Income Tax. I don’t think John the Baptist would be impressed with that charge.

A fourth of that group are elderly, retired, or disabled, many on fixed incomes collecting Social Security and Medicare. Quite a few are retired military, collecting the benefits they have earned. (We call them entitlements.)

The majority of them simply don’t earn enough money to pay federal income tax. But they do pay taxes. Most of them pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than Mr. Romney does. The working poor remit Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes amounting to 15.3% of their salaries. They pay sales taxes and motor-fuel taxes — and pay a much larger percentage of their income than the wealthy because they don’t have the luxury of saving.

So many of our tax breaks are out of reach of many if not a majority of Americans. Capital gains taxes and mortgage interest deductions favor those wealthy enough to buy and hold stocks or to purchase a home. The “step-up in basis rule” lets inherited wealth pass along with lower or no taxes. Retirement savings are taxed at lower rates, and a charitable deduction is not the same for those who are too poor to itemize or in a low bracket. In Arkansas, because we take income taxes from very low wage levels and because our primary tax is sales tax (a very regressive tax), our poorest citizens pay twice the proportion of their income in taxes rate as do our wealthiest.

I can imagine what John the Baptist might say about the American tax system, and it wouldn’t be pretty. What is the 21st century equivalent of “brood of vipers”?

How might we prevent the abuse of power? How might we repent? How might we create an economic system that insures basic security and a fair opportunity for all? I think it starts with a strong commitment to the common good and to the infrastructure that serves all people — food and shelter, excellent education, abundant living wage jobs, care for children, access to health care, good public transportation, fair economic policies, safe streets, a healthy environment, access to museums and parks and other public enhancements — the economic things that make for abundant life.

“What then should we do?” If John the Baptist were speaking to us, if he addressed the economics of our day, what would he say?

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