A spiritual practice?
by Ken Rummer
With the April 15 deadline looming, my wife and I are once again taking on Form 1040 with its schedules and worksheets. We are tackling taxes.
Early on in our marriage, we discovered two shared activities that really stressed our relationship: hanging wall paper and doing our taxes.
We dealt with the first by agreeing not to do it again. Ever. But the taxes—they still had to be done, and we are still doing them together. I think we are getting better at the together part.
Going through the process this year, I’m wondering if tax preparation could serve as a spiritual practice. What do I see when I look through our tax forms and schedules? What does God see?
As itemizers, we have to add up all our giving: church pledge, special offerings, food bank, and all the other charitable gifts. Is the total as generous as I like to think it is?
I look at our account balances and our income from various sources. We are richer than I thought. Do I need to re-hear the gospel from this place of relative wealth?
Paying taxes, I contribute to the common good. I also end up supporting the common bad.
Can my faith still live with the dissonance?
As you can see, I’ve been scratching my head, and my heart.
A few nights ago, in an almost-awake, not-quite-asleep moment, I bumped into a Bible story, or maybe the story bumped into me. The full version resides at Matthew 17:24-27. It’s a story about Jesus dealing with a tax obligation.
The tax in question was a yearly assessment for the support of the Temple. As established in Exodus 30, this religious requirement fell on all Jewish men age 20 and older. Each was to pay half a shekel, roughly two days’ wages.
“Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” The story begins with a question from those who were gathering the tax. Peter answers, “He does.”
Later, when Peter catches up with Jesus, Jesus anticipates the tax question. He asks Peter about taxes levied by an earthly ruler. “Are those taxes paid by the ruler’s children or by others?” Peter says, “By others.” Jesus says, “So the children are exempt.”
The implication seems to be that Jesus, as the son of God, shouldn’t have to pay a tax levied in the Torah by his Father, who is the heavenly ruler.
But Jesus, concerned about possibly leading others astray, arranges to pay the tax anyway. He tells Peter to go fishing, take the first fish he catches, and look in its mouth. There he would find a coin worth two half-shekels, enough to pay the temple tax for the both of them.
End of story.
Now I’m aware that the temple tax was not the same as taxes paid to Rome, and neither was a direct parallel to our income tax. I also know that a full accounting of Jesus and Taxes, or Christians and Taxes would require a book instead of a blog.
But I draw comfort from this story, hearing that Jesus paid taxes, too. That’s a companionable thought when the night gets late and the forms get blurry. Even in this, he shared our life.
I’m also noticing that it took a minor miracle for Jesus to get his taxes turned in.
I know for me, it’s always felt that way.
Ken Rummer writes about life and faith from the middle of Iowa by the High Trestle Trail. Previous posts are available at http://presbyterianmission.org/today/author/krummer