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Posts Tagged ‘tax’

In the Gospel of Matthew there is a fishing story where a coin is found in a fish’s mouth. Who doesn’t love a story like that? Trout season starts March 31, this kind of story might cause us to examine a fishes mouth very carefully while removing the hook.

This isn’t the only time Jesus talks about fishing. We shouldn’t be surprised since he did spend a lot of time hanging out with fishermen. I can almost picture a scene where Peter and Andrew argue with James and John about the best ways to fish the Sea of Galilee. And then they try to pull Jesus into the discussion to settle the issue.

Back to the story about the coin in the fish’s mouth. In some ways it starts like a bad joke. “So, a tax collector, a fisherman, and Jesus walk into Capernaum. And the tax collector said to the fisherman…”

We know how this story goes. But the punchline is not that the coin is where Jesus said it would be. The punchline is that his ability to perform such a miracle affirms his announcement that the Kingdom of heaven is near. The punchline is that citizens of the Kingdom of heaven are not subject to the same duties citizens of the state are subject to. But it also insists that in this Kingdom there is no room for offending the state over something like taxes.

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The tax code states clearly that in order to maintain exempt status, churches may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements) any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” This is known as the Johnson Amendment.

Presently, there is a bill underway (H.R. 172) that would allow churches to identify with a political party and to encourage others to support the political party. The stated intention of the bill is “to restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment.”

Before conceding this is a good idea, one should consider the danger of the church identifying with a political party. Alignment with a political party is compromise no matter what government we are talking about. A church that aligns with government ceases to be the church. Before thinking this is a good idea we should consider the ease with which we could divide according to political philosophies. It is dangerous to gather in the name of American politics and convince ourselves if we mention Jesus we are doing the right thing. It might make things easy to mingle with those who are like minded as if we were just another caucus, but we do not gather as democrats or republicans. We gather as the people of God.

As far as free speech, the church has always been a people who say things we are not supposed to say. And we have said these things to people we are not supposed to say them to. We are not inclined to request permission from the state for things we must say. This is true whether or not we are granted the right of free speech.

We already struggle with the way power works and our desire for a piece of it. Even before the proposed repeal, too many of us have been tempted to attach to partisan preferences and join the empire. It is already too easy to think this is where the power lies. It is already too easy to think that working alongside the empire is the best way to get our message out. I am not hopeful that a repeal of the Johnson Amendment benefits the church at all.

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Each time I send in my quarterly taxes I can hear the Beatles singing in the background. “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street, If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat, If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet. Don’t ask me what I want it for, If you don’t want to pay some more. Cause I’m the taxman…” It makes me want to cast my line in the lake and hope to catch a fish with the coin I need in its mouth.

At the same time, I hear a question asked Jesus “Do we pay taxes or not?” This reminds us that politics were alive and well in first century Palestine. The fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this episode reminds us that the gospels have an interest in politics as well. And Jesus was right in on the political discussion. This is good for us to be reminded of. Especially those of us who want to believe religion is private and separate from politics and that Jesus only talks about spiritual things.

Considering the song his mother sings during her pregnancy, I suspect her lullabies may have been a little political as well. If that is the case then it is no surprise that when Jesus began ministry he began with a political announcement. A new kingdom is here!

The context we are given for Jesus birth is Caesar’s decree. At his death he is charged as a rival king. And then in between he is asked the question “Do we pay taxes or not?” There is simply no way to avoid the idea that to follow Jesus puts us in a political story.

Caesar has coins stamped in his image. Jesus asks for one of these and says something along the line of “Caesar can stamp his image on as many of these as he desires. But do not let Caesar stamp his image on you. You do not belong to Caesar.” Jesus wants to be sure we do not confuse God with Caesar. We are in a political story. And following Jesus complicates politics.

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April is nearly over.  In the middle of the month I hesitantly sent off a check to the United States Treasury.  As frustrating as that was, I pay taxes all the time.  I fill up with gasoline at 379.9 a gallon, much of it taxes.  We go out to eat for my mom’s birthday, six percent is tax.  Every check stub reveals that I am paying federal tax, city tax, state tax, social security tax, and other taxes that I am not able to identify.  I wonder if I should be grateful that someone graciously takes these taxes out automatically instead of making me go out on pay day to pay each of these taxes in person.

I am reminded that Jesus was once asked about taxes.  “Is it permissible to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?  Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?”  We know his response, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

What is interesting about this episode of Mark’s Gospel is that no one really seems very interested in taxes.  The questioners hope to trap Jesus that they might be able to raise suspicions about him.  If only the authorities could have him arrested or the multitudes would turn on him.

On the other hand, Jesus seems to suggest that there are bigger things to worry about.  Things, like taxes, that are of such importance to Caesar that he puts his likeness on it and demands it back as payment are not of the same importance to Jesus.  He doesn’t even carry the stuff (as implied by the fact he had to ask for one).

Jesus seems clear that Caesar can have this stuff.  But he seems equally clear that we must not be caught giving away the big stuff.  Do not give away anything that matters, no matter who is asking for it.  Do not give away anything that belongs to God.

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