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 A Matter of Fairness

Sermon - 9/04/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 17:24-27

I frequently begin my sermons by noting how familiar a text is because, you know, we've read these texts many times, if we go to church very often, if we've grown up in church or if we study our Bible at all, etc. But that's not the case today, it's not a very familiar text, it's downright peculiar, even odd. It reminds me of the couple that was in the church in San Diego where Dad served, the husband was a Psychiatrist, the wife was a gynecologist. Their nickname in the church was "Odds and Ends" :) That was the nice name they gave them. The other name was "Nuts and Butts". It was a fun church :)

So, with that inspiring introduction, this is the text from Matthew 17, verses 24 through 27:

When they [meaning Jesus and the Disciples] reached Capernaum [Capernaum was a town on the northern shore of Galilee, the sea of Galilee, you can still see it today, the ruins are quite spectacular], the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ 25He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ 26When Peter said, ‘From others’, Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. 27However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’

Huh. See what I mean? Is that text familiar to you? How many sermons have you heard on this text?

There are two reasons for that: one reason is the text is not in the lectionary, it's not one of the assigned texts to be read in worship. And the other is that probably the reason why it's not in the lectionary is that people think it's such an odd text that no preacher in his right mind would give a sermon on it! Tells you what kind of mind I have :)

But as I was preparing for this week, I thought about all the attention that has been given to jobs and taxes here recently, and I thought well, this is a great text for Labor Day Sunday. And because it is such an unfamiliar story, people don't have a preconceived notion of what it means, so I can make up just about anything I want and tell you this is what it means, right? Throw in a football reference or two, and we've got a sermon. So, does that work for you?

Speaking of football, here's the game plan: I've going to give you some historical background that helps explain some of the text, shed some light on its odd character. And then I want to tell you the scholarly consensus of what commentators say this means, and then I'm going to tell you why they're wrong (in my humble opinion). And then apply it to today, and along the way I might mention jobs and taxes and football.

So, background: during the time of Jesus, all Jewish males above 20 years of age were expected to pay a tax to support the Temple. And this was based on Exodus 30:11-14 where we read: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses: when you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord, so that no plague make come upon them for being registered". Elsewhere in the Torah, registration is a big 'no-no', it was a means to oppress the people in some way, and so it was forbidden. And so they paid this tribute as a way to offset that. "This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. Half a shekel as an offering to the Lord, each one who is registered from 20 years old and upward shall give the Lord's offering".

OK? Only, there was a little bit of a controversy around paying this tax. There were people who didn't want to pay the tax -- can you imagine that?! Comes as a shock, I know. But in particular, the Essenes, who are sort of the ancient equivalent of an Amish Tea Party, said that there's nothing in the text that says how often we must pay it. So guess how often they said they should pay it? Once. Yeah, one time, you had to pay this tax, done and over.

Well, the Essenes were a minority, they were greatly disliked by the religious establishment, because of their radical nonconformist views (no surprise). Sort of like an Amish tea-party environmentalist. Make that a gay, Amish tea-party environmentalist who liked to ride Harley's. They were a bit different from 'us', you know, a bit different from everyone. So the question here is a trap -- it's almost an accusation. 'We know Jesus is one of those gay-loving Amish tea-party environmentalists who like to ride Harley's, and therefore doesn't pay his temple tax'. You know, he's not like us patriotic, God-loving Jews. And then Peter, here portrayed as the right-hand of hand of Jesus who has the authority to speak for Jesus, says 'No, no no, he's not one of those'.

It almost comes across as almost a bit defensive -- too quick, and too loud. Anyone remember Representative Weiner? 'I did not send lewd pictures to that woman (and that very buff torso), whose telephone number is 555-1212, but I don't know who she is'. The denial is a little suspicious.

And then notice in what follows, Peters defense of Jesus, Jesus reveals in fact he has not paid the temple tax, at least not yet. And he provides justification for why he need not pay it (Bill Sizemore should take note of this). Jesus apparently, overhearing the whole affair, says to Peter 'You know, you're a smart guy, so what do you think, who pays for the lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous, of the Kings? Their kids, or someone else?'. Peter says "Duh, someone else, of course".

Actually, the Greek here, says the word, which is translated 'others' in the Revised Standard Version, can be translated either 'stranger' or 'aliens'. That's significant, I'll come back to that in just a moment. But the point Jesus makes is simply the children of the King get off Scott-free, they don't pay the tax. Therefore, Jesus and his followers, who are children of THE King (right? God), should not have to pay this tax.

Now, just as a side note, I would just point out this is not a good text to use during stewardship season :) When we want to remind people that we all have a part to play in providing financial support to the body of Christ, which is the temple in our faith, in our tradition, so to speak.

Except Jesus goes on to give instructions to Peter on how to pay the tax, for the two of them. Go catch a fish, there you will find a coin in the fish's mouth. And guess what? The coin here is precisely 1 shekel. Remember, the tax is a half-shekel. So, you've got enough to pay the tax for you & me. The heck with the other 11 (Disciples), they're on their own, they can go fishing on their own. But Peter and Jesus are covered.

So, what exactly is the message here? That we're all free from financial obligation, be it to the government or to the church? But that we should all pay voluntarily by going fishing? Does that work for you?

And to add to the complexity, or I should say to the confusion, there's one more critical piece of the historical information: many of you know that Matthew's Gospel was written most likely in the late 70s or early 80s, after the Temple of Jerusalem had been been destroyed because of the revolt against Rome. And so no more Temple, no more Temple tax, right? Wrong. The Romans saw this as an opportunity to rub Jewish noses into the mess they had created by revolting in the first place, and continued to collect the tax from them, to support not the non-existent Temple in Jerusalem, but a temple in Rome to Jupiter. Now there's a clear message, saying "up yours" to you and your Jewish faith.

So, what's the point?

How the heck are we going to apply this? Well, point number one: in the early 1940s, Dietrich Bonheoffer, and his soon-to-be biographer, Eberhard Bethge, were in a restaurant in southern Bavaria (this is after Germany had invaded France) and some announcement came over the radio of a victory in the war on that Western front. And immediately the people rose to their feet and gave a "Sieg Heil!", a tribute to the victorious German forces. And Bethge was shocked to see Bonheoffer standing, giving the salute.

He said "What are you doing?". Bonheoffer looks down at his friend and says "Stand up you fool, we don't want to be arrested for this".

Jesus says they are not obligated to pay the tax but they should do so anyway. Why? Well, the answer given in most commentaries by Biblical scholars is that it's out of a desire not to offend others. Calling to mind those teachings of both Jesus and Paul of our responsibility to the weak. That we do not do something that causes someone else to lose their faith, create a stumbling block for them. You know, serving alcohol to someone who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Behaving badly in the public, contrary to your Christian values. Teaching your children bad habits like how not to tuck away the football when running through a crowd :) If you watched the game yesterday, you know what I'm talking about, very sad.

Those commentators totally miss the point here, however, Jesus is not talking about the weak, he's talking about the strong, the Kings. Those in power. The concern is not that they will offend someone's sense of decency and morality, but that they will get in trouble with the authorities by not paying the tax.

In other words, like Bonheoffer, he is saying choose your battles carefully, we do not want to be arrested or this. And keep in mind Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where there is another bigger battle looming with the authorities.

Point number two: even as Jesus agrees with Peter to pay the tax, he gives a blistering critique of the rich and powerful in the process, pointing out the basic injustice of the tax system. The privileged get off Scott-free, and the disadvantaged (the aliens) pay the toll for their lavish living.

Now, does that sound familiar? Have you ever heard this thing before?

If you read the New York Times, August 15th editorial, Warren buffet, one of the richest Americans in this country, said basically that is the tax system of this country. That's our tax system. Buffet. He writes: "While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get extraordinary tax breaks".

He notes that he paid in taxes last year $6.9 million dollars. Seems like a tax burden to me, don't know about you :) But he goes on to say that of the 20 people who work in his office (Buffet has an investment firm, it's how he made his billions of dollars) he has the lowest tax rate of all of them. And presumably they all make much less money than he. In fact, his tax burden is half of the other 19. Something is wrong when his secretary pays at a higher rate than he does.

And that 'something', you see, is privilege. That's what the rich have bought in this country. The justification we hear is that lower taxes create more jobs. The historical record, however, shows that to be a total myth (and I speak of myth here as the untrue kind, versus the true kind). In two decades, Buffett notes, before the tax cuts were instituted under the Bush administration, our economy created 40 million jobs in those two decades. Since those tax cuts have been enacted, the job market has plummeted. Not necessarily that there's a direct correlation, but those tax cuts have not brought the benefit that we were promised.

Meanwhile, he says, the income of the top 400 people increased from $17 billion in 1992, to $91 billion in 2008, while their tax burden decreased from 29% to 21.5% percent. That's what we've done. That's privilege.

Thus, Buffett is pushing for the select committee of 12 (who have been charged with reducing the federal deficit by another 1.5 trillion dollars) to increase tax revenue only from the super rich--those making one million or more, and even more on the mega-rich like himself. He says it's time to stop coddling billionaires and get serious about shared sacrifice. To tell you the truth, I think he took those words right out of the mouth of Jesus. That's the way I read this text.

Point three: the appeal Jesus makes with his question to Peter is really a simple matter of fairness. The children of the rulers don't have to pay, why should we? Fairness is the most rudimental measure of justice. Ask anyone who works at the University of Oregon what they consider to be a fair and just wage, I'm sure you will hear an earful. Is it fair to those at the bottom of the pay scale to be forced to take unpaid furlough days while those at the top receive a 5% or more increase? Now, I really like President Lariviere, I think he's a wonderful man, I like his vision. His contention, however, that it's only fair to those upper paid employees because of the job market (that their colleagues at other universities are paid more) and we don't want to lose them because that would cost the university even more in replacing them, that that may be entirely right. I suspect he is right. But it still does not pass that gut-level check of fairness, which will likely cost the university even more because of the dissatisfaction of the greater number of employees at the lower end of the pay scale.

Now, of course, underneath it all is the whole issue of how we finance (or we do not finance) public education in this state. And that's the larger issue to which this is a most unwelcome distraction. And for those of us who are paying tuition and those students paying tuition, this is not a minor issue. I'll tell you, it is costing the Bryant family twice as much to send our son to a public institution than it costs to send our daughter to a private institution in California, where the tuition is twice as much as what it is in Oregon! Does that make sense? It's because of the lack of scholarships in the public institutions, where private institutions are so much better endowed. That's the situation in which we are in, and I wish there were enough to go around for everyone to receive those pay increases.

So, as long as we're talking about the University of Oregon, and I'm almost to the end of sermon, and I've hardly even mentioned football :) No wonder after yesterday. Well, here it is, and it's not from Oregon coach Chip Kelly but rather UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, of all people. He was quoted in the paper this week, and he said: "Look, I know how this business is. It's just like I tell my quarterbacks: Fair is where they give the pig a blue-ribbon". I love that quote.

Yeah, life isn't always fair. That's just the way it is, so deal with it, right? Only, is that the way it should be? And what about the kingdom of God, that ideal world Jesus talks about so often, that world as it ought to be if God were on the throne instead of Caesar? Or any of those other Kings, who support their lavish ways on the backs of their subjects, alien or not?

Don't we expect God to be fair? At the very least, Jesus says, God is a whole lot fairer than the Kings of this world. Hence, the coin found in the fish's mouth -- not history in the making, but parable in the telling. This is fairness in God's world: the tax is paid for us by God on the shores of Galilee. Just as the debt is paid for us by Jesus on the hill outside Jerusalem.

This is the fairness of God's world, paid for us. All debts paid, all sins forgiven. Now, is that fair to those like that older brother of the prodigal son, you know, for whom less is to be forgiven? Probably not.

But it is the kingdom of God.


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