Rev. Jeff Bacon
October 18, 2020
Let’s join our hearts together in prayer. Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, may our taxes be faithfully paid and wisely spent, guided by your will for us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as having said, “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He was at least fifty percent correct. In this world, death is a certainty. But, while we have lots of taxes, taxes are far from certain. There’s all kinds of taxes and all kinds of rules and interpretations governing the calculation and payment of taxes.
I read a great little poem about Death and Taxes: Tax his cow, tax his goat; tax his pants, tax his coat. Tax his crops, tax his work; tax his tie, tax his shirt. Tax his chew, tax his smoke; teach him taxes are no joke. Tax his tractor, tax his mule; teach him taxes are a rule. Tax his oil, tax his gas; tax his notes, tax his cash. Tax him good and let him know, after taxes he has no dough. If he hollers, tax him more; tax him ‘til he’s good and sore. Tax his coffin, tax his grave, tax the sod in which he lays. Put these words upon his tomb: Taxes drove me to my doom. But even then, he can’t relax; They’ll still be after Inheritance Tax.
In our gospel reading this morning, the Pharisees send their disciples along with some Herodians to entrap Jesus. The Pharisees are religious leaders who know the Hebrew Bible inside out. They don’t object to the concept of paying taxes. In Exodus, God declares to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord … Each one who is registered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering.” The Pharisees are OK with taxes, but they object to the coins used for the tax that refer to Caesar as divine; a violation of the first and second commandments. They walked a fine line between religious objection to the coin and not inciting refusal to pay the tax. The Israelites support the Pharisees’ religious objection to the tax because the tax supports the brutal Roman forces that oppress them.
The Herodians, on the other hand, are followers of Herod Antipas, who was named King of the Jews by Rome. The Herodians support paying the tax to Caesar in allegiance with King Herod. So, the question posed to Jesus is a trap: Jesus will be arrested for sedition if he argues against the tax and will be hated by the people if he supports it.
The tax in question is a specific tax on harvests and personal property determined by registration in the census, a kind of head tax like the one Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to pay at Christmas time. The tax was instituted when Judea became a Roman province in the year 6 CE, and it could only be paid in Roman coins, most of which bore the image of Tiberius Caesar and an inscription claiming his divinity. Despite their flattering words, the Pharisee’s disciples and the Herodians are not seeking instruction or dialogue about the need to pay the tax – they’re trying to trap Jesus in their ironical flattery.
A few years ago, students at Harvard University were asked to make a seemingly straightforward choice: which would they prefer, a job where they made $50,000 a year (option A) or one where they made $100,000 a year (option B)? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Everyone should take option B. But there was a catch. In option A, the students would get paid twice as much as others, who would only get $25,000.
In option B, they would get paid half as much as others, who would get $200,000. So, option B would make the students more money overall, but they would be doing worse than others around them. What did the majority of people choose? Option A. They preferred to do better than others, even if it meant getting less for themselves. People don’t just care about how they are doing; they care about their earnings in relation to others. It’s a very self-centred financial orientation, it’s not very charitable; and it’s a symptom of the perils of wealth.
The Christian apologist, Tertullian, writing early in the third century, said, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image which is on man.” The Roman coin pictured on the front of our bulletins today is of a denarius, marked with the image and inscription of Caesar. It was the coin used for paying wages and for paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus cleverly acknowledges the need to pay taxes to Caesar, but differentiates our obedience to civil authority and our heavenly obedience to God. In a complex world of competing loyalties our ultimate loyalty is to God whose image is on us.
Chuck Swindoll in his book, Growing Strong, says that our generosity in doing God’s will is not necessarily measured in dollars and cents. He says that some gifts are beyond monetary value: “Mend a quarrel, dismiss suspicion, tell someone ‘I love you’. Give something away anonymously. Forgive someone who has treated you wrong. Turn away wrath with a soft answer. Visit someone in a nursing home. Apologize if you were wrong. Be especially kind to someone with whom you work. Give as God gave to you in Christ, without obligation, or announcement, or reservation, or hypocrisy.”
Jesus devoted more of his teachings to warnings about the perils of wealth than to any other subject. Sixteen of his 38 parables are concerned with how to handle money and possessions. The Bible offers about 500 verses on prayer, almost 500 verses on faith, and more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. Jesus isn’t saying that it’s bad to own things, but he warns us to be careful not to let things own us! The worship of money is probably the most widely practiced religion today.
An international study based on information gathered in 39 countries and published in the journal Social Indicators Research concluded that the more people make, the more they want, so happiness keeps eluding them. The study said, “Neither increasing income at the individual level nor country level were accompanied by increases in subjective well-being.” Researchers found that rapid increases in wealth resulted in less, not more happiness. A lot of people think that “If only I had a million dollars, I’d be happy.” But it’s not true.
It’s a lesson that John D. Rockefeller, Sr. learned. He drove himself hard to be a success. He became a millionaire by the age of 23 and by the age of 50, he was the richest man on earth. Then at 53 years of age, Rockefeller developed a serious illness which caused the hair on his head, his eyebrows, and eyelashes to fall out. Even though he was the world’s only billionaire and could have almost anything on earth he wanted, he could only digest milk and crackers. He became frail and shrunken. He couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t smile, and nothing in life meant much to him at all. Doctors predicted that he would die within a year.
One night, however, as Rockefeller struggled to fall asleep, he came to grips with his life. He realized that he couldn’t take anything with him into the next world. The next day he embarked on a new way of living. Rather than growing his money and possessions, he began to give them away to people in need. Establishing the Rockefeller Foundation, he channeled his fortune into hospitals, research, and mission work.
At age 53, Rockefeller was given a year to live. By learning to live, he altered his life so dramatically that he eventually lived to the ripe old age of 98. Rockefeller once said that “I have made millions, but they have brought me no happiness.” Rockefeller was a brilliant and generous man with many gifts. His financial gifts brought happiness to many, including himself – when he gave them away.
Money can buy a bed, but not sleep; books, but not wisdom; food, but not appetite; fine things, but not beauty; a house, but not a home; medicine, but not health; amusements, but not joy; security, but not peace, comfort, but not hope; obedience, but not love; travel to everywhere, except to heaven. True wealth is measured not by the costly things you have, but by the things you have for which you would not take money. Everything of true value flows from love, not money.
Ultimately, we must support both church and state. In our democracy, we notionally render to Caesar what is due to Caesar and pay taxes to support the common good. Hopefully, government will assess the issues facing our nation fairly and compassionately, and spend our tax dollars wisely. It’s in this political reality that we give thanks for the Holy Spirit in us and among us, guiding us in the Way of Jesus through a complex world. Thanks be to God. Amen.