Election Sermon 5:  Taxes

Homily preached by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge

Church of the Intercession, NYC

October 18, 2020

Text: Matthew 22:15-22


In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We all know that it is politically treacherous for any candidate for office to announce that he or she intends to raise taxes, no matter how honest that statement might be.  All of us of a certain age remember that such a frank confession by presidential candidate Walter Mondale in 1988 likely cost him the election to the first George Bush, who famously uttered the words “Read my lips, no new taxes” as he accepted his party’s nomination.  But then President Bush of course went ahead and raised taxes, which certainly contributed to his losing his bid for a second term.

Everybody hates taxes.  The only person I can think of who professes to like paying taxes is Warren Buffet, the fabulously wealthy financier and stock guru, who perennially offers to pay more than his share because he believes in giving his wealth back to society voluntarily.  Remember that in our world, that’s what a tax is, a required financial contribution to society, yet the very word implies a burden:  something is taxing when it takes more out of you than it should.

Now, we all know that we must pay taxes to receive many essential services, like garbage pickup, snow plowing, public education and libraries, health facilities, transportation, and more.  Yet despite knowing that many of those would vanish without our taxes, we gnash our teeth and moan silently or aloud every time we have to pay a tax, especially on April 15.  None of us likes seeing our hard-earned money go out the door, particularly to a government that we might not trust or agree with.  Whether some of our money is going to, say, the military or ICE to fund things we find reprehensible, or whether we fear that our taxes may be getting skimmed off to line politicians’ pockets, we always resent being forced to give money to people or causes we distrust or dislike.

Strong as those feelings are now, the rage against taxes was much more vehement in Jesus’ day, particularly in the occupied Roman territories.  Although the Romans were famously good at public works projects like roads and aqueducts, most of the “tribute money,” as Roman taxes were called, went to the most reviled aspects of Roman society:  the lavish lifestyles of the emperor and his surrounding elites, and the despised Roman army, the very instrument of oppression.  It’s safe to say that even Warren Buffet, had he lived back then, would not have been volunteering to pay more than his share to the Romans.

That is the background for today’s gospel reading from Matthew, in which the Pharisees come to Jesus with a snare in the form of a tax question:  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  The word “lawful” is the trap here, for there were of course two different law codes at the time:  Roman law, which demanded taxes under penalty or jail or death, and God’s law, Jewish law, which also had severe penalties for tax cheats.  So if Jesus had taken one side, he would have been in big trouble with the other.  Such was the Pharisees’ plan.  But Jesus slips out of the snare with an answer that seems clever on the surface, but which is much deeper than clever.  It goes to the very heart of who we are in relationship to our money, and as such has something to say about some of the issues that are right now simmering under the surface of our upcoming election.

Money is a very fraught, complex topic for us; our identities are often deeply intertwined with our economic standing.  It is of course necessary to have money to survive in society, although how much we need is likely less than we think – if, for example, we are highly favored by God so that others are inspired to care for us, we might not need hardly any money; in fact there are entire classes or people, like monks or nuns, who do not earn a living at all, relying entirely on the favor of others.

But for the rest of us, money is such a deeply personal measure of our own self-value that we consider it a horrible faux-pas to ask someone how much they make; that question can get a reaction worse than asking a woman her weight or her age.  It is that painful, sensitive spot on our souls and in our psyches that Jesus’ answer seeks to heal.

Here’s how and why. The Roman emperor was emperor in large part due to wealth; unfathomable amounts of money both announced and enabled his power. Caesar’s image of earthly wealth was literally stamped on his coinage, making part of Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees literally true, in that it all of the gold, silver, bronze and copper in the empire ultimately all belonged to Caesar anyway; at most it was temporarily lent to his subjects so that they might trade it with each other under the watchful eye of his rule, and then return it to him when he demanded it.

But the second part of Jesus’ reply – “give to God what is God’s” – teaches us that just as Caesar’s image was stamped on a coin, God’s image is stamped on all of us – in other words, we are God’s gold, we all belong to God the way that all the money belonged to Caesar.

Jesus’ admonition to the Pharisees to “give to God what is God’s” goes even deeper than that.  The gold in God’s treasury cannot be devalued – and it certainly can be argued that despite our time’s obsession with material wealth, there are other, more reliable, superior ways to add value to our world.  If you need proof that we are looking in the wrong place for value, consider that we, living in the United States right now, are far and away the most majestically wealthy country in all of human history, yet we are angry, fearful, divided and unhappy, all according to our own self-reporting.  Clearly, we need to put the gold bars in Fort Knox aside and work with the contents of God’s treasury instead.

And make no mistake, God’s treasures are not ethereal, wispy, sentimental or trite; to the contrary they have everything to do with what kind of society we wish to create and then how we spend our economic resources in order to support it.  First, let’s note that even the very act as seeing all of our fellow humans as gold bars in God’s Fort Knox immediately would remake much in the way of our public policies – if the poor as well as the rich, the black and the brown as well as the white, LGBTQ people as well as straight people, and immigrants as well as the native-born are all gold, then no one can be discarded as worthless, all are of tremendous value.

The policy implications of this are astounding. We would no longer be able to ignore those suffering economically; there could be no more crazy, unjustified racism and deadly policing; no more senseless fights over human rights as though those rights are somehow dependent on sexual or gender orientation, race or ethnicity; no more immigrant kids could be locked in cages; and we could never even consider spending our tax dollars on a useless border wall.  All that vanishes in a flash, with the one simple adjustment Jesus asks us to make with regard to value according to whose image in on the coin.

Now, the caution.  None of this means Jesus would subscribe to one party or philosophy over against another; this is why Pope Francis objected so passionately when some in our country called him a “socialist” when he objected to our government’s brutal treatment of immigrants, replying that he is for nothing but what Jesus supports in the gospels, and against nothing but what Jesus clearly abhors.  He, and we, are talking gospel identity here, not political identity.

Furthermore, we should also be aware that while Jesus is radical in some ways, going against the societal norms of his day, he was not extreme: although he forgave people, he never absolved them of personal responsibility, and always asked for repentance; he never promised us lives without suffering, but instead promised to be with us in all of our struggles; and he never encouraged us to lower our expectations of ourselves or those around us – in fact, quite the opposite – remember that he said, “To those who have been given much, much is expected.”

My sisters and brothers, we have been given much: by our country, by the God who created us, and by Jesus above all, who gave his life for us.  Therefore much is expected of us.  As the coins in God’s treasury, we are to contribute ourselves to God’s kingdom, to pay our taxes, so to speak, with ourselves as the currency.  We are of immeasurable value to each other when we recognize the value in each other, and then act accordingly to create a world that reflects those values.

No one likes paying fiscal taxes, but by contrast, paying God’s taxes can and should be joyful – when we pull ourselves away from the toxic value system of our world and see human value the way God sees it, our wallets are not lightened but our souls are.  As the church, we have the task of leading by example. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day so many people in our country saw the gold in each other that we wouldn’t dread paying taxes because we knew that the money would be spent in recognition of every child of God’s true value?

Okay, okay.  I know that’s not likely, at least in the near term, but you know, baby steps first.  Let’s begin with this election, and start putting our currency where God is.