Sunday, October 16, 2011

Occupy Borderlands! Gods, emperors and taxes

Text: Matthew 22:15-22 (Render unto Caesar . . . )

People have been complaining about taxes for as long as government has existed. Many of us don't like paying them and we are often unhappy with the services that our taxes support. In Canada, we rely on government for healthcare, education, roads, regulations, and security even as we often complain about their cost and quality.

Imagine, then the negative feelings people must have towards taxes when their government is a foreign empire that uses its taxes to oppress and exploit them. The latter describes the situation faced by Jews during the time of Jesus. While the Romans did provide the people of Palestine with roads and peace, they prevented the Jews from having their own state. And the Romans used the taxes paid by their conquered subjects to support the lavish lifestyles of the ruling elite in Rome and the armies that conquered other humble people throughout Europe and Asia.

This is the background to the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus found in our Gospel reading today. The Pharisees ask "is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?" Jesus immediately realizes that their question is a trap. If he answers "yes," he risks angering his peasant followers who hate Rome and its tax collectors. And if he answers "no," he risks exposing himself as a dangerous subversive.

Instead, Jesus uses a Roman coin to come up with a reply. He notes that the coin has a image of the Roman Emperor on it, and then says that we should "give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Or in the more familiar words of the King James translation, Jesus says, "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's"

This reply silences Jesus' enemies. But what does his phrase really mean? It is not immediately clear to me if it means that his followers should pay taxes to the hated Roman Empire or not. And if money is among the things that belong to Caesar, then what exactly are the things that belong to God?

Thinking about this story brings to my mind current political struggles around taxes, government spending, and the economy. These have been hot topics since the financial crisis of 2008. We are told that it was only massive government bailouts of the banks in 2008 and 2009 that saved the world economy from a depression. But there has been a backlash since then against both the banks and the governments that propped them up with tax dollars.

In the United States, one early reaction was the formation of the Tea Party. This movement takes its name from a tax revolt in the British colony of Massachusetts just before the American Revolution. Many American colonists did not like paying British taxes on tea. Their slogan was "no taxation without representation." And their symbolic protest that dumped tea into the harbour in Boston helped to spark the Revolution that led to the establishment of the United States in the late 18th Century.

Today's Tea Party is angry about the massive rise in government debt in the United States following the bailouts of the banks. However, it is hardly a revolutionary movement. It opposes most government spending other than the military and therefore opposes most taxation.

A newer protest movement in response to the same issues is Occupy Wall Street, and it has been dominating news coverage this week. Tomorrow will mark one month since this movement began in New York City, and by now it has spread to hundreds of cities around the world, including here in Canada.

The Occupy Wall Street participants are protesting against economic inequality, corporate greed, and the cozy relationship they see between governments and the very rich. They claim to represent the 99% of us who have not benefited from government efforts to deal with the economic crises of the last three years. The 1% who do benefit, they say, are billionaires, many of whom are to blame for the financial frauds that led to the crisis in the first place.

Occupy Wall Street has received support for the same reasons as the Tea Party. Despite the massive amount of tax money funnelled into banks over the last three years of economic crisis, few positive effects seem to be flowing to ordinary people.

On both the left and the right of the political spectrum in the United States, people are angry that trillions of tax dollars have been spent propping up the banks and that this spending has not yet stopped people from losing their homes or their jobs.

A trillion dollars is a hard figure to understand. Many of us had never heard of the world trillion until three years ago when government bailouts began. In order to help us better understand the world trillion, I present a word picture involving seconds.

1,000 seconds equals 17 minutes. 1 million seconds equals 11 days. 1 billion seconds equals 32 years. And 1 trillion seconds equals 32,000 years! So if someone gave you a dollar every second for the next 32,000 years you, too, could have a trillion bucks!

And now Europe's banks are teetering on the brink of collapse, and another 1.5 trillion dollars of tax dollars is the suggested cure. Bitter people wonder why the government doesn't just directly pay off poor peoples' mortgages instead of giving the money to banks and their rich executives. Well, I am sure there must be good reasons to funnel tax money to those at the top instead of those of us at the bottom, but I can also understand people's resentment.

In 2009, when billions of tax dollars were invested in General Motors to prevent its bankruptcy, I chatted with a member of the Kingston Road United Church choir in Toronto who is a manager with GM in Oshawa. I suggested to him that instead of the bailout, the government should just buy every family in North America a new truck! That way, the average person would at least get something from the bailout. He thought it was a good idea. But I guess that is not how spending taxpayer's money works . . .

Jesus' phrase to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's" can be understood in different ways. The one that I find most useful is based on the following observation. Not only was Caesar the Emperor of Rome, he was also considered to be a god. The Romans had other gods such as the immortals who lived on Mount Olympus. But although he was a mortal human, the emperor was also said to be a god and the son of a god. Not only did his subjects owe the emperor tribute in the form of taxes. They also owed him devotion as the bringer of peace from heaven to earth.

I believe that this fact explains why Jesus' reply silenced the Pharisees. As devout Jews, the Pharisees argued that there was only one God, the God of Israel. But rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar's meant not just paying taxes, but also worship. And worship of any god other than Yahweh was a sin for devout Jews.

Jesus does not directly answer their question about taxes. But by drawing attention to the image of the Emperor on Roman coins, he highlights the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. They try to be both devout Jews and dutiful subjects of the hated Roman empire. But Jews and Romans understand Jesus' directive to give to God what is God's differently.  For the Jews, God is the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. For the Romans, god is the emperor in Rome whose armies conquer and oppress poor people everywhere.

So which God are we to choose? The emperor or Jesus? A few days after today's Gospel story, the Empire executes Jesus. And God raises Jesus to new life. 40 years after that, the Romans burn God's Temple in Jerusalem to the ground. And out of the ashes of Jerusalem arises a new faith made up of the poor. From defeat, God continually shows us a path to a new life of love beyond earthly standards of success. God makes the choice between Jesus and Empire an easy one for us.

Where one's treasure lies is also where one's heart lies. If this is true, then it must be true that many people today worship wealth, luxury, and power, just as people in Ancient Rome worshipped the power and wealth of their emperor god.

Do the trillions of dollars in taxes spent in propping up the banks over the last three years indicate that banks are the new gods of our current empire? Should we then join the protest of the supposed 99% against government support of the rich 1%? Should we start an Occupy Coronach/Rockglen/Fife Lake movement perhaps?

Well, I am not suggesting the latter. But I do believe that the current anger about government money going to the banks instead of to poor people reflects a common theme in history as found in our Gospel reading today.

As followers of Jesus, many of us value solidarity in suffering more than success in business or war. Many of us value loving service to our neighbours more than a rat race in which the person with the most money and influence wins. Many of us value faith, hope and love more than fear, despair and violence.

As followers of Jesus, we try to render unto God what is God's. We uphold values centred on love. We worship a God who suffers with us and shows us the path to new life that rises above the false gods of either Rome of 2000 years ago or of Wall Street today. We gather each Sunday to remember that our strength lies in weakness, that humble service can create a life of hope and love, and that death leads to resurrection.

Those of us gathered here today and in churches all around the world do not belong to the 1% who have super-wealth and privilege. Instead, we are part of the 99% who continually receive the grace to remember that solidarity is more beautiful than victory, that service is more valuable than wealth, and that love is stronger than death.

Wall Street may sometimes seem to have occupied our governments. But God in Christ has occupied our hearts.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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