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God and the Emperor

  • Posted on Apr 15, 2009

Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Luke 20:21-22

Jesus answers this question with the famous line: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:25) This scene takes place as Jesus is surrounded by students who seek to learn from him and spies from the Roman authorities who seek to trap him and so arrest him. Like a good teacher (and maybe lawyer), Jesus is unable to be trapped by his words.

Today is April 15th–a day that lives in infamy for many folks each year. In my parish setting, I notice that along with major holidays, Tax Day is a day that brings forth much anxiety for many folks. Of course, Tax Day often coincides nicely with a major holiday or season of the church–Lent and Eastertide. In the doldrums of Lent, folks begin to assemble (and find) their financial records. Piles of papers that have sat quietly minding their own business for months are riffled through on the weekend. Procrastination runs high in January and February. For those having to file financial aid forms for schools and colleges, procrastination doesn’t work. Those financial aid offices require copies of the returns in early spring. Questions abound. Will there be a refund? For clergy types and the self-employed, did we pay enough estimated quarterly tax? Money is a major anxiety producer–especially these days. How can Jesus understand? He lived a nomadic, monastic existence.

Ah, but Jesus does understand. Look at all the parables and stories from his ministry involving money. Earning, Coveting, Hoarding, Panicking about money are all ways for us to be pulled away from God. Yet, in our society, money has its place–if we can put it in the proper perspective.. For me, I am blessed to have a husband who organizes the tax papers nicely. He has studied, marked, read and inwardly digested the Clergy Tax Guide. Because of him, I can concentrate on Lent, Holy Week and Easter this time of year. However, I know from my time as a clerk on the Tax Court and from my colleagues who work in tax law (and even for the IRS), that the majority of folks who work in this area do so because they believe in our system of taxation and want to make it work. It is important for the health of our country–especially now–to pay our taxes. It is easy to become cynical and see all the loopholes and earmarks in the Tax Code. However, for the folks I know that work in tax policy and legislation, the common good is the ideal for most.

I always feel good when we send in our returns each year–although it feels even better when a refund comes our way. For me, it has become a responsibility that means that I am part of a larger community. A community that can be a vehicle for doing Kingdom work. Another part of my responsibility as a citizen is to hold that community responsible for the common good. As a follower of Jesus, I continue to work for the Kingdom of God in all the communities to which I belong. I just have to keep it in perspective.

How do filing your taxes make you feel?