Benediction Online

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Taxes and Spirituality

On the face of it it seems like a simple solution; "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."  But how do you work out which is which? If, as the psalmist says, “The Lord is King” then surely everything belongs to God and nothing to the emperor
Yet the idea of everything belonging to God tends to take us back to that picture of God as a man with a white beard who thinks of this world as his territory while we are just tenants. That’s a very different picture from God the Spirit who flows in, through and around all created matter. Spirit is not the “owner” of territory but the energy that creates the territory itself. So God is the essence of creation so everything does not belong to God but is of God.

Which doesn’t mean it belongs to Caesar either.  Nothing actually belongs to Caesar. Just like nothing actually belongs to you or me. It is all gift. It is all God.

So what then is due the emperor?

The trick question which turns out to have a trick answer was about taxes. Jesus was living in Palestine which was occupied by the Romans. They taxed the citizens not to improve the Palestinian roads or to provide education but to pay the costs of the occupying forces and to make Rome richer. And the tax collectors were notoriously on the make so you might end up paying a lot of tax which never went further than the tax collector’s own pocket. No-one was pleased about paying taxes to the Romans.

The Romans actually allowed the Jews to mint and use their own money although Roman coins had to be used for paying tax. No self-respecting religious Jew would have the occupier’s tax money in his pocket.  So when Jesus asks for a tax coin and they manage to produce a denarius he is exposing these Jewish leaders for the brown-nosers they really are. They of course wanted to get him into trouble with the Roman authorities by tricking him into saying no they shouldn’t pay taxes, but he has once again turned the tables on them and exposed their own hypocrisy.

Now, if it is all God and nothing is due Caesar, should we stop paying taxes?

I don’t think so. Our taxes are our contribution to the common good. Now, of course, we can argue from here to eternity about what exactly the common good is and how to achieve it. Is it better to have regulations aimed at protecting people and environment or is it better to allow companies to take care of their social and ethical impacts themselves? Does it enhance the common good to have military bases in other countries or should we spend less on the military and more on education?

Questions of how our money should be spent for the common good are resolved through the political process. If we are to be good stewards of creation, cherishing and nurturing all that brings life, and caring for our material world, then we will be concerned about how we use our money, not only our household money, but how we as a nation spend our corporate money.

I know that it’s tempting, in these times when political decisions seem to be made not by “the people” but by corporations and the 1% who have more money than they know what to do with, it’s tempting to opt out. I know that it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether or not we vote, or who or what we vote for. Yet our moral imperative is to seek the common good and to use our resources wisely in ways which bless not just ourselves but the whole of creation. Which means doing all that we can to ensure that our taxes are used wisely. And that means being informed and active citizens. I encourage you to vote in two weeks. The California Council of Churches has provided a guide to the propositions which are on the ballot and there are some copies available on the ushers’ table or you can find it on their website. The League of Women Voters also provides an independent assessment of the propositions. I encourage you, as part of your practice of stewardship to think and pray about how you will use your voting power.

The Pharisees and Herodians asked a question about taxes, but Jesus’ answer had nothing to do with taxes. The coin had Caesar’s image on it; we are made in the image of God.  He is essentially saying, “This has Caesar’s image on it – give it back to Caesar, but give to God that which is made in God’s image.” Stewardship is not just about money, nor even about “time, treasure and talents.” Stewardship is about living in every area of our lives as if we really are made in God’s image and as if we really believe that God’s Spirit is in and through and around all things.

This is where the rubber hits the road.

Spirituality is not about feeling good, though it certainly can feel good. Spirituality is about living as though we really are God’s beloved, made in God’s image, and intended to live as the children of God.  Which is exactly the same as stewardship.

Stewardship of our money means knowing that all we have is to be used wisely in the furtherance of God’s reign. It is easy for us humans to want to hang on to money or to use it to get all the stuff or all the experiences it can buy. But that is not living as though we are the children of God. The children of God, when we are at our best following the example of Jesus, practice an ethic of restraint. Instead of spending everything we can and maxing out our credit cards, we aim to live simply and within our means. We don’t compete with each other for who has the smartest clothes, the newest car, the biggest house or the most stuff – instead we live within our means so that we can be generous with all that we have been given. The early church sold their stuff and pooled all their resources so that they could look after the needs of the poorest among them.

God’s gifts are not for hoarding. Remember the parable of the talents? The guy who took his money and buried it so that he wouldn’t lose it was not a big winner.  God’s gifts are for using in a way which is consistent with the gospel imperative to love God with all of yourself and your neighbor as if she were yourself.

We tend to think that spirituality and church are in one pocket and money and politics in another, and they should be kept apart. But this gospel reading where we see Jesus talking about taxes in a highly charged political situation is an important corrective. Our spirituality manifests in the way that we handle our resources and in the way we use our political power for the highest good of all beings.

Is the budget of this country, this state, this county and ethical one which seeks the common good and provides for those who are vulnerable at the same time as ensuring that there will be a planet of our children and grandchildren to enjoy? And what about our own budgets – do they reflect gospel values?
If not, it’s time for us to take stewardship seriously.


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