I own a copy of a big book entitled The Forbes Book of Business Quotations: 14,173 Thoughts on the Business of Life. Its headings run from A-Ability to Z-Zeal, and include under G- God and under T-Taxes. There are, in fact, 94 quotations about God and 70 quotations about taxes. The numerical superiority of the headings under God is reassuring and we can rest easy knowing that in the book God is ahead of taxes.
The Forbes Book is meant to be Chamber of Commerce staple so there is a lot of humor and light heartedness in the quotations. For example, here’s one of the quotations on taxes, from G.K. Chesterton: “A citizen can hardly distinguish between a tax and a fine, except that a fine is generally much lighter.” And here’s a quotation on God from Anonymous: “ God will provide the victuals, but He will not cook the dinner. There are other equally light-hearted and delightful quotations . For the most part, this massive collection of “business quotations” is an easy going book for an easy going audience. It is not a book with much hint of “gloom and doom” nor does it offer much of a reality check on every-day life as it really is.
The Forbes Book is not the kind of book Jesus and his disciples would pick up, much less read through, but we can imagine the Pharisees and Herodians might take some delight in it. This may be because our book has nothing to offer by way of explanation and understanding of hard facts, for example, that our city, Philadelphia, “the birthplace of American democracy,” is the poorest big city in the United States with 27% of its population including more than a third of its children, living below the poverty line. [46.2 million nationally] Nor will our treasury of delightful sayings help us explain and understand the appalling disparity between the rich and the poor in our country and the fact that, year- by-year, proportionally fewer people control more and more of the country’s wealth.
So we come to this morning’s Gospel, and the tension between giving to God what is God’s and giving to the emperor what is the emperor’s. We know the story here: the Pharisees and Herodians are determined to trick Jesus, who is proving to be quite a nuisance, into incriminating himself so that they can get him arrested and out of the way . After their two-faced flattery of Him, the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. For us, this is a silly question: of course it is lawful—and required and right—to support the emperor—our government—because this is a legitimate way to care for each other and to support the welfare and social good of the entire community. But for people under Mosaic Law, the question was a serious—and tricky—one.
Jesus responds by acknowledging the trickery at hand and calls the Pharisees and Herodians hypocrites. To be called hypocrites by Jesus is not something anyone would wish for because, for Jesus, hypocrisy may be one of the worst transgressions. Hypocrisy is distortion and denial and dishonesty, all of which the Pharisees and Herodians are guilty of, as are we if we are not mindful of our Christian covenant. The difference between us and the Pharisees and Herodians is that we truly know Jesus and that is why we are Christians and why we practice the Faith. To be who and what we say we are means that we practice obedience as much as we practice generosity, compassion, justice, and fairness in everything that we do. Unlike those people trying to trick Jesus in order to destroy Him, we proclaim Jesus and practice His ways. Thus, we have chosen to resist poverty, hunger, and injustice in the inequitable distribution of wealth. As mixed-up as some of the Occupy Wall Street protesters all over the country might seem, they could be seen as expressing some of our own Christian sensibilities.
As Christians, we know there is something terribly wrong in our country, as the facts about Philadelphia as the poorest big city in America affirm. We all have our own stories of adversity and crisis, yes. But we know from the Gospel, Jesus’s own story, that this is what is means to be alive and human. Yet, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel , we ARE in fact responsible for one another through what we give to the Emperor and that not to pay the emperor can be to turn our backs on what we give to God.
Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians, we don’t need to say how amazed we are at Jesus’s presence, justice, compassion, wisdom and goodness. We know all this and it is the Good News of the Gospel. But what is the Good News is often the Hard News of the Gospel. How do we manage this tension? Let’s try this: what if each of us wanted to add a new quotation to The Forbes Book of Business Quotations, one that included God, taxes, generosity, compassion, justice, and Faith? Here’s my suggestion and it comes from a “comedian,” of all people, Stephen Colbert. It’s a zinger so get ready:
If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition, and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Preached by Dr. Peter Kountz
For 9:00am High Mass
Sunday, October 16, 2011 – Pentecost 18/Proper 24