Try Radical Generosity

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We are about to slice a piece of the Bread of Life, the Word of God. And today’s slice comes from: Matthew 22 : 15-22 ~Paying Taxes to Caesar
Then the Pharisees met together to think of a way to trap Jesus into saying something for which they could accuse him. 16 They decided to send some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to ask him this question: “Teacher, we know how honest you are. You teach about the way of God regardless of the consequences. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. 17 Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to the Roman government or not?” 18 But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Whom are you trying to fool with your trick questions? 19 Here, show me the Roman coin used for the tax.” When they handed him the coin, 20 he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. “Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God.” 22 His reply amazed them, and they went away.

Only two things are inevitable, said a wise person long ago, death and taxes. The Eiffel Tower, someone has said, is the Empire State Building after taxes. Seriously, we know that paying taxes is a small return for the privilege of living in such a great land.

According to an item in the Associated Press a while back, tax authorities in a city in southern India found a new way to handle tax evaders: they sent teams of drummers to stand outside the homes or shops of those who refused to pay and to pound noisily on their drums until the obligations were met.
Tax officials in that city have been successful in recovering nearly a million dollars owed by these tax cheats by this method. I hope our I.R.S. don’t find out about their success. Our neighborhoods are noisy enough.

The people of Jesus’ time felt the same way about taxes that many of us do. But paying taxes was even more problematic for them. The currency was one problem. Even more of a problem was the maliciousness of the tax system itself. According to Bible scholar William Barclay,
“A tax was payable for using the main roads, the harbors, and the markets. A tax was payable on a cart, on each wheel of the cart, and on the animal which drew it. A tax-collector could bid a man stop on the road and unpack his bundles and charge him well-nigh whatever he liked. If a man could not pay, sometimes the tax collector would offer to lend him money at an exorbitant rate of interest and so get him further into his clutches.”

The Pharisees tried to lay a trap for Jesus. They sent their disciples to him along with some Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” This was dangerous ground for the Master. If he said not to pay taxes, he would be in big trouble with the Romans; if he said, “Pay your taxes,” he would offend his own people. But Jesus knew what they were trying to do. He said, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

We may or may not agree with the way our government spends our money. That is our right, one of our most precious rights. Actually, it is a long standing American tradition to make fun of our government officials. Of the many on my list of remembrances of such are:

• John Adams once said, “In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two [useless men] is a law firm, and three or more is a congress.”

• Mark Twain once said, “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But then I repeat myself.”

• Ronald Reagan once said, “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

• And Will Rogers said: “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”

We laugh because that is the only way we can deal with our frustration. And so, though we may grumble, most of us understand the need to pay our taxes. We render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. We can do so happily or not, but still it must be done.

Years ago in The New York Times Magazine appeared an article “Out of the Wasteland, A Jackpot.”
There was a man a few years ago who gave quite happily to our government. His name was Stanley Newberg. Newberg came to the United States as a small child, the son of poor Austrian immigrants. He became quite wealthy and at his death in 1986, his estate included $5.6 million in cash, which he bequeathed in its entirety to the United State Government. He wrote, “In deep gratitude for the privilege of residing and living in this kind of government, notwithstanding many of its inequities.” When the estate was settled, his $5.6 million went directly to the U. S. Treasury . . . where it lasted about a minute and a half. Talk about a drop in a bucket. Still, we are obligated to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Rendering unto God, on the other hand, is entirely voluntary. Of course, that puts the church at a little disadvantage.

There’s a story about a local fitness center which was offering $1,000 to anyone who could demonstrate that they were stronger than the owner of the fitness center. The owner, a real muscle man, would squeeze a lemon until all the juice ran into a glass, and then hand the lemon to the next challenger. Anyone who could squeeze just one more drop of juice out would win the money. Many strong people tried. Others; weightlifters, construction workers, etc., but nobody could do it.

One day a short, skinny guy came in and decided to give it a try. The crowd laughed. The owner grabbed a lemon and squeezed away, then he handed the wrinkled remains to the little man. The crowd’s laughter turned to silence as the man clenched his fist around the lemon and squeezed six drops of lemon juice into the glass. As the crowd cheered, the manager paid out the winning prize. Then he asked the skinny guy what he did for a living. “Oh,” the man replied, “I’m the treasurer of the [Baptist] church!”

Again, we laugh to keep from crying. According to George Barna, the church statistician, among adults who regularly attend church (that is at least once a month) 37% did not give a dime to a church in the last year. He goes on to say that only 3-5% of the people who do give, tithe their income. And the situation is getting worse, in spite of our increasing affluence. One study shows that U.S. Christians give proportionately less today than they did during the Great Depression. Giving to Caesar is required by the state; giving to God is voluntary. That puts God at a disadvantage.

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