Taxes and Trees

Those who organized the Revised Common Lectionary think they’re so clever. As so many churches make a push for members to begin or increase their giving, they throw in readings like this one from Matthew about paying taxes:

“The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away” (Matthew 22:15-22).

The Pharisees thought they would surely trap Jesus by forcing him to either confirm that the Roman emperor was due taxes or else anger Rome and provide himself a ticket to jail without passing “Go.” Does the emperor deserve this money, or does it belong to God? But unless these Pharisees are also ready to answer the question for themselves, they are barking up the wrong tree.

There’s a lot of this—barking up wrong trees—going around the United States right now as simplistic and often despicable campaign ads and debate performances intentionally churn up negative emotions about opposition in order to win votes by default.

After November 4th, I’m going to be in need of a major detox.

Sometimes I wonder if all of the wretchedness in campaign season is motivated by the candidates’ desire to have an overall low voter turnout—to dissuade conscientious people from the thought that their votes make a difference, leaving a select groups of voters to bring about more controlled and predictable results. Wherever the actual practices come from, those in power too often put humanity and progress at risk for the sake of maintaining power.

I was glad to see that the mayor of my old stomping grounds, Vancouver, Washington (no, not the one in Canada) recently risked at least some popularity by boycotting a prayer breakfast which is to be keynoted by, “former Army Lt. Gen. William G. ‘Jerry’ Boykin, who in interviews, speeches and writings has said that the war on terrorism is a Christian war against Satan and that followers of Islam are ‘under an obligation to destroy our Constitution.’”[1] But the mayor’s boycott is merely a political stunt if it does nothing to bring about acceptance, tolerance, and compassion, for which he claims the community strives.

It’s possible to hear Jesus’ phrase, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's,” and think that Jesus is making a quick getaway from an uncomfortable situation—when, in fact, he’s saying something quite radical: namely that where, when, and to whom we give our time, money, votes, energy, and compassion matters…

…and that we must think for ourselves how we go about making those decisions. To that extent, he’s not only talking about taxes, but about priorities. In a world where so much is too often sacrificed for the sake of power and control, how are we to give to God what is God’s?

Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree.