Here in BC, as most know, we are in an election. Our Church building is one of the advance polling stations. People were here voting on Thursday and Friday and will again Monday to Wednesday. The election date is October 24, but many will have voted before in-person or by mail. And campaigning continues.
Typical of every election, political leaders are talking about taxes and taxes are the subject of campaign promises. In this election, the BC Liberal party is leading the way promising that if elected it would stop the provincial sales tax for a year and reinstate it at 3% for the second year. They also promised to scrap the speculation and vacancy tax, create a 35% tax credit for seniors’ homecare services, end the 2% small business income tax, and create a Fair Tax Commission to review all BC taxes. The Green party has promised to reinstate the $10/year increase in the carbon tax, to apply the carbon tax to slash pile burning in forestry, and to eliminate provincial sales tax on electric bikes. The NDP have made no specific tax related promises, relying it seems on the record of their tax policies over the past three years.
It is 2020 and we are in an election, and political parties, along with federal and provincial governments, and many others are talking about taxes, as it seems we always are.
It’s about year 36 in the common era and as we hear, Jesus is questioned about taxes. Have human beings always talked about, complained about, made promises about taxes? Two things to be sure of, death and taxes. Is that true?
In Jesus’ time the reason for the question about taxes is to trap or another word could be to “tempt” Jesus. And the purpose is malice or “evil.” If those words sound familiar, it is because they started when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan/evil and it continues. Those who come questioning are an interesting mix. Pharisees who live by the law and therefore rule paying taxes to Rome unclean and unacceptable. And Herodians, who support Herod as a King recognized by Rome and therefore the tax that supports Herod’s governance.
Despite their falsely flattering words about Jesus being sincere, truthful and impartial, Jesus knows their evil purpose and resists the temptation/their trap and responds by saying, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.” They are amazed at Jesus’ response and leave.
Two millennia later, still talking about taxes, we hear Jesus’ words and maybe we’re amazed, but more likely perplexed and unsure exactly what Jesus means. What should we give to whom, in taxes, in anything, in everything?
These are the closing days of Jesus’ life. This is the first of four question and answer confrontations between Jesus and religious leaders, followed by woes Jesus speaks against them. This question about taxes appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke, so it seems this question and the saying by Jesus, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.” is important in early Christian communities.
Is it still, and what does it mean for us? In Jesus’ time, the emperor, as witnessed by the coin, claimed divine status. The “emperor is Lord,” was countered by the Christians’ first creed/confession, “Jesus is Lord.” But Jesus does not simply separate empire and taxes as evil, therefore pay no taxes; and God’s realm as good, so give everything to God. Why? Was Jesus protecting himself with a clever answer? This all seems too important for that, and self preservation wasn’t Jesus’ first concern.
We are being asked something about taxes by Jesus that is important, then and still, “Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, and to God what is God’s. But what is Jesus asking? What is clear is that Jesus and early Christian writers and communities saw paying taxes as connected to their faith and following of Jesus, not separate and disconnected as we might want to keep them. Maybe taking a coin and looking at it, then and now, there is something in the image we see, and the allegiance and trust we place in that image.
The first reading relates the story of Moses’ negotiating with God to again go with God’s people “who have found favour with God.” This follows the people having made and worshipped the image of a golden calf in Moses’ absence and God’s forgiving the people at Moses’ pleading. Now, Moses’ request is for God to once again go with the people in the journey of the wilderness to the promised land, and for an epiphany, a vision or image of God once again to assure God is with God’s people.
God grants Moses request, to go with the people, and to see an image of God, but with conditions, that Moses will see God’s glory, but be protected from seeing it face to face. This is not a literal description of God with hands, a face and back, but Moses’ intimate and profound experience of seeing God’s glory and its reassurance that God is with Moses and the people.
“Whose head is this and whose title?” Jesus asks. Are Jesus’ words a challenge then and now, that if all we see is the image of empire and money and power, and place our trust and allegiance in that, like some golden calf that human beings have never stopped making and to which we offer our worship, then we will simply give to the emperor what is the emperor’s, no questions asked? We know this can be true in our time and lives, seeing the image of money as power and security, as our own and worth our every effort, and therefore our allegiance and even worship without question. It continues to separate us from one another, with fewer people having more, and governments protecting them, and more people having less, especially those marginalized in any way, indigenous and other racialized people, the mentally and physically sick and differently able, women and children and queer folks, those who are addicted, isolated, forgotten. This is not Jesus’ way or God’s desire.
But if we see more, see God’s image and glory even in a coin, in money, taxes and everything, not for its own worth, but as shared wealth and the means to the wellbeing of everyone, as an equal opportunity for generosity and kindness and even celebration and joy for all and all creation; then “give to God what is God’s,” asks more, asks everything of us in giving of ourselves, our money and all we have to God’s good purpose.
Is paying taxes in our time part of God’s good purpose? The Canada Revenue website lists the following made possible by taxes: libraries; parks and playgrounds; arenas and swimming pools; roads and bridges; education and schools; health care and hospitals; police, ambulance, and fire services; garbage and recycling collection; economic development and wildlife conservation; national defence; and programs funded by taxes including Old Age Security, Employment Insurance, Canada child benefit, and social assistance. That all sounds mostly good, maybe depending on all national defence means.
According to Revenue Services, in 2017 7.7% of federal taxes go to debt servicing; 16.7% to operating expenses of all departments and agencies except 8.2% to National Defence; 2.7% to Crown Corporations; 13.4% to other transfer payments; 29.2% to transfers to people; 22.1% to transfers to other levels of government. Again, much of this is good and needed and other expenses and inefficiencies and subsidies and costs are less so and all of it has radically changed in the pandemic, We have systems of government accountability that are necessary and need strengthening and biases of systemic racism and gender and identity inequities that are oppressive and require dismantling. And we see so many in our province, country and world continuing to suffer, dying daily from drug poisoning, living without housing, clean water, safety, employment, support.
In all this, in all its complexity, is Jesus telling us it is life and death that we see the image of God in everything, especially in everyone who suffers and is of God’s greatest concern and for all creation. And therefore, give to God what is God’s in all we do with our money, our taxes, our lives. The gracious gift of God is that God always goes with us and all humanity as God promised Moses, and God offers us visions, images of God’s glory to assure us of this promise and God’s good purpose before us. I am not sure what the best example of “Giving to God what is God’s” may be in our time of an election, a pandemic, a world in turmoil, except that I see images of God and God’s concern, in all creation and everything, and most often in people, seeing and seeking to serve the needs and the wellbeing and good of all to God’s glory. And I know it isn’t separate from how I or you vote, here or elsewhere, or pay taxes or anything and everything I do by God’s grace, giving everything the weight and responsibility of God’s good purpose, and the freedom to live and act in the Spirit following Jesus. If there always will be death and taxes in this life, Jesus has answered death with the promise of new life now and forever. And has graciously and forever connected taxes and everything to God’s good purpose. Let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.