Wise Words from a Wild Wonder Worker, IV: God and the IRS, In That Order
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” the Pharisees ask Jesus, intending to ensnare him in a dangerous political controversy. You can see how it’s a cruel and cunning trap, can’t you? Roman tyranny was a sad and despised reality for first-century Jews, and the question about whether and how much to cooperate with these hated alien interlopers was a lively debate for Jesus’ contemporaries.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers yes, he will get himself into all kinds of hot water with Jewish liberals who abhorred any kind of collaboration with Rome, even a simple head tax which probably went toward decent roads, police and fire protection, and bread for the poor. Roman taxes, they said, enable Roman despotism; how can you even THINK of paying them?
That’s what happens if Jesus says yes. If Jesus answers no, he’ll be in big trouble not only with the Roman authorities, but also with Jewish conservatives who believed that the only way to survive under the thumb of the most muscular superpower the world had ever seen was to go along and get along. “We have roads,” said the conservatives. “We have a police force. We have all these great weapons of mass destruction to protect us from the barbarians. Of course we must pay our taxes.”
So there’s Jesus between a rock and a hard place, between the devil and the deep blue sea, between Churchill and Hitler like Vichy France, to pile up the clichés. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” There is no way out of this one. If Jesus says yes, he’s a quisling and a collaborator, and if he says no, he’s a Brutus and a traitor to Rome.
“Are you for or against a balanced budget, Mr. Boehner?” asks Matt Lauer on The Today Show. Do Americans love baseball and apple pie, Matt?” “Well, then, what taxes will you raise or what programs will you cut to make it happen?” But they always duck and dodge the question, because every answer will get them in hot water with somebody.
Jesus is between a rock and a hard place, but what he doesn’t say is “I’ll get back to you on that, Matt.” He’s shrewder in the media glare than our current politicians, perhaps because he is the Son of God, or maybe just because he has more experience with political antagonists.
He says, “Show me a coin, Matt.” A Pharisee obliges by handing Jesus a small silver coin minted with the image of Tiberius Caesar. The inscription reads, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus.” You can see how such a blatantly blasphemous coin would drive loyal monotheistic Jews crazy with righteous rage. Son of the divine Augustus indeed!
The only use for this small silver coin was the payment of Roman taxes. You couldn’t use it to buy a loaf of bread or a bottle of Mogen David or a Snickers Bar at whatever passed for the Jewel Osco in first-century Jerusalem. All you could do with it is hand it over to the Roman IRS every April 15. So the Pharisee who produces this coin has just shown HIS true colors and indicted himself as a quisling taxpayer to Rome.
Graciously, Jesus refrains from pointing this out to the crowd, thus protecting the reputation of the obliging Pharisee who impetuously hands him the coin before thinking through the implications.
“Whose image is on the coin?” Jesus asks the Pharisees. “Caesar’s,” they’re forced to admit. “Then render back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he says, “and render to God what is God’s.” He doesn’t say “Give Caesar what belongs to him.” He says, “Give BACK to Caesar what’s already his. RETURN to Caesar what you received from him in the first place. It’s his. Let him have it.”
But then of course he goes on: “If you give to CAESAR what belongs to HIM, then it stands to reason that you ought to give to GOD what already belongs to GOD.” In a satisfying little coda to the story, Matthew tells us that the Pharisees were so stunned by his slick dexterity on the set of the Meet the Press that they left him alone for a while.
This is why it’s so much fun to be a Christian: Jesus is just so good. With one slick move, he puts both God and government in their rightful places. As someone put it, “In his superb reply, Jesus both dignifies and delimits the state.” British historian Lord Acton says, “The words of Jesus gave to civil power a sacredness it had never enjoyed and bounds it had never acknowledged.” Jesus gives government both its God-given holiness, AND its rightful boundaries.
Jesus dignifies government. He gives it its rightful place in the conduct of human affairs. Jesus is the best friend the IRS has ever had. True, the IRS doesn’t have many friends, but still…
I had a libertarian friend who was fond of wearing a lapel button which read “Taxation is theft.” As you can tell, he believed in minimal government. But his button always confused me because he’d earned his Ph.D. degree from Michigan State University, and when I say ‘earned,’ I use the word loosely, because Michigan taxpayers provide a significant portion of the funding for the state’s public universities. It’s possible he never paid a dime, but instead received a stipend, during six years of the highest education that’s available.
Jesus, Friend of the IRS. You’ve heard the story about the pastor who received a call from the Internal Revenue Service. “Hello, Reverend Smith? This is the IRS. Could you tell us if Samuel B. Jones is a member of your congregation?” “He is indeed,” says the Reverend Smith. “Did he donate $10,000 to the church?” “He will,” says the Reverend Smith. You see how God and the IRS can work together for the betterment of both church and state?
Jesus dignifies the state. But of course he also delimits it. He tucks state authority beneath the larger canopy of God’s superior power. Everybody understands that even a strapping superpower like Rome is a pipsqueak compared to God.
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” says Jesus, eluding the Pharisees’ clutches like Cam Newton on one of his patented scrambles in the backfield. There’s the long heave! Bam! Touchdown, Jesus!
But of course on Stewardship Sunday, it’s the second half of the equation I’m more interested in: “Render to God the things that are God’s, ” says Jesus. And you know what? It all belongs to God. As surely as those little silver coins are minted with the image of Caesar, so your very visage is stamped with the image of God.
It’s God’s face we see when we look into each other’s eyes. Your humanity, your intelligence, your creativity: it’s all because your visage is stamped with God’s very image. God’s face, God’s grace, God’s love, God’s extravagant generosity: it’s in the blood of your veins, it’s in the fibers of your muscles, it’s in the marrow of your bones, it’s in the rhythm of your pulse, it’s in the synapses of your brain.
Without the face of God, you cannot be you, you cannot be anything. Even atheists couldn’t atheate without the creative purpose of God way back when at the beginning of time.
So pay your taxes loyally and cheerfully so that government can do the good things government is charged with doing, because you live in the greatest country in the world.
And as for what’s left over, at least 10% goes unselfishly to charitable causes from which you should expect no direct benefit. For most of us, 10% should be a floor, not a ceiling. That’s where we should start giving, not stop giving, unless you’re a school teacher or a cop.
We don’t expect you to give it all to the church; other charitable causes deserve your philanthropy. If Northwestern University transformed you from a clueless 18-year-old into a sophisticated banker or engineer or doctor, you need to give some of your money to Northwestern University, even if they already have $7.1 billion, which is more money than God.
Education is a good thing, so give your money to the University of Chicago, even though THEY already have $6.5 billion, which is also more money than God. Beauty is a good thing, so give your money to the Lyric Opera or the Symphony. Public Television is a good thing, so give some of your money to Ken Burns so he can tell us about the Roosevelts, who, by the way, practice what I’m preaching. Reliable health care is a good thing, so give some of your money to Community Health Clinic. Sheltering the homeless is a good thing, so give some of your money to Night Ministry. God is a good thing, so give some of your money to the church.
There are many worthy recipients of your charitable giving. But the Stewardship Committee calculates that if you will give the church 3%, we could put an adequate budget to bed by Christmas. Median household income in Wilmette is somewhere between $120,000 and $135,000; that’s the lowest of the three towns most of our members come from. Do you know what our budget would be if all of us gave 3% of $130,000? It would be about $2.5 million.
That hasn’t been happening around here recently. I wanted to know how we as a congregation stacked up to other Protestant churches across the country in congregational giving, so I conducted my own personal, unscientific, rather random survey of about 15 Protestant congregations that are similar to our congregation in size or in socioeconomic demographics or both.
In two important measures of congregational generosity–giving per member, and giving as a percentage of median household income, we are last or near last. I even tried to do us a favor by assigning to the Kenilworth Churches not the Kenilworth median household income, which is astronomical, but Wilmette’s, the lowest median income of the three towns most of our members come from, but even that didn’t help much.
Now, I asked myself, “Why is that?” Are non-denominational churches less generous than denominational Christians? Does denominational loyalty increase congregational giving in, for example, Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations? I don’t think so: most denominational Christians are ambivalent at best about a denominational identity that you wisely eschewed from the beginning of your existence.
Besides that, prior generations of this congregation have been extremely generous; how much do we have in our endowment? $12 million? No generation should live off the generosity of other generations. The federal government lives off the generosity of future generations by racking up an obscene national debt that will have to be paid off by our grandchildren, and many congregations live off the generosity of dead people. Both of those funding strategies are unseemly. So I don’t think you are less generous than these congregations I have compared you to.
Or maybe our giving per member figure is so low because we really don’t have the 2,814 members we think we have. Maybe we have more like 1600 members. If we use that figure for our membership, then we shoot up four places from 14th place to 10th place. Maybe we should find out where those 1200 people went and track them down and invite them back, or, alternatively, invite them to join a church they can feel good about.
Or maybe Kenilworth Union families are atypical of the average families who live around here. Maybe our families don’t earn $122,000 a year. Maybe a lot of us work for minimum wage. But you know what? You don’t look like you work at Subway. So I doubt that’s the reason our giving as a percentage of household income is so low.
You know what I think? I think this congregation looks relatively less generous because over the last few years, for multiple reasons that are nobody’s fault, this congregation has become a less compelling target for your generosity. I’ll bet you’re still giving away at least 10% of your income; you’re just giving it somewhere else.
So as I said in a recent newsletter: how about we make deal? If the leadership of Kenilworth Union Church promises to do whatever it can to make this church indispensable–indispensable!–to your family’s life, will you promise to make it a central target of your philanthropy?
I heard a great story this summer. A woman from Newport News, Virginia, says, “When I was ten, I found a wallet. There wasn’t any money in it, but I knew how these things worked. I couldn’t wait to return it and get my reward! All day I called the number from the brown leather wallet. Finally, my dad relented and drove me to the owner’s address. Once there, we found a modest military housing unit with a torn screen door. As we stood waiting on the front porch, my dad took three $20 bills and tucked them into the wallet. Turns out my reward was getting to see one of life’s true heroes in action.
Now, do you think that with an example like that, that ten-year-old girl is likely to grow up to be kind and generous human being? What lessons in generosity are you teaching your children.
You christened your baby here. You walked your daughter down the aisle here, and handed her over to the love of her life. Your loved ones are farewelled here. Your soul soars here, lifted aloft by the music or a prayer. Your children learn about Jesus here. The poor are fed here. The Gospel is sent into every desolate corner of the earth from here. You meet God here.
Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2: The Churchbook, (chapters 13-28) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), p. 402.
Lord Acton, quoted by Bruner, ibid.
Hugh Neeld, The Reader’s Digest, October, 2008, p. 55.
“The Brown Wallet,” by Ann Douglas Vaughan, Reader’s Digest, July, 2014, p. 22.