Time is absolutely a fleeting commodity in my life right now and I must devote it almost exclusively to my book project and the development of my upcoming webinar series,“Dominionism 101: An Introduction to Today’s Political Right”. These two projects are intertwined and I am anxious to complete them. The webinar will be available through a new linked web site that I will announce in the upcoming week. The book is undergoing skillful edits through my publisher and is right on schedule.
So, once again, I am grateful for Pastor Bess’ weekly newsletters. His contributions are not simply a filler during this very busy time for me, his posts are packed with insightful perspectives from a Mainline Christian…a side we don’t hear often enough in these times of media-grabbing by more extreme Dominionist views. I thank him for sharing these writings with us.
Attached is a column that I now wish I had rewritten. I believe I could have made the point more clearly. What Luke did to the parables of Jesus is a key issue in Bible scholarship. Luke make a lot of additions and interpretations that confuse the message of Jesus rather than clarifying. The passage from Luke 18 is a good example. I hope readers will take the time to look up and read the Luke 18 passage. This could be a good learning experience in the search for the message of Jesus.
Kind regards to all, Howard Bess
WHEN JUSTICE IS A PART OF THE TAX STRUCTURE
By Howard Bess
Across America it is almost election time. At or near the top of the issue list is taxation. Who should be paying taxes? How much should people be paying? For what purposes should tax money be used? Jesus, the Rabbi from Nazareth, would be in the thick of the discussion. It is what he did in rural northern Palestine in the first century, and I believe he would do it again. In true rabbinic fashion he would be telling stories about how the tax system relates to the establishing of justice in the kingdom of God on earth. This involvement in public life is a part of the Jesus story that Christian ministers, leaders and churches are hesitant to talk about.
In the 18th chapter of Luke, Jesus is reported as telling a story about two people who went to the Jerusalem Temple to pray. To better understand the parable, the reader should strip away both the introduction and the conclusion that Luke added to the parable to better fit his own purposes. Luke makes the parable a story of contrasts that seeks to redefine the identity of the good and the bad. In the process Luke takes our attention away from the fundamental meaning of the parable.
Once the introduction and the conclusion are stripped away, the parable is a typical story that would be told by a rabbi with an implied or verbal invitation for a discussion to begin. The first hearers of the parable were no doubt peasants in rural northern Palestine. They would have very easily identified with the characters in the story. Two generations later when Luke wrote his gospel, he probably did not fully understand the two characters. Certainly, without some knowledge of history and the culture of the first century, a modern reader is not quick to understand the dynamics.
The Pharisee is a tragic story in itself. He was one who had sold his soul to the Jerusalem Temple system. In the process he had achieved wealth and position. What he did was not easy or popular. His Temple prayer indicates that he believed he had become someone important. The Pharisee of our story was one who was regularly sent 70 miles north of Jerusalem to places like Nazareth to collect tithes and fees for the support of the religious system based in Jerusalem. The total that was demanded was typically between 20 and 25 percent of a peasant’s income. As unjust as it was, the peasant population with reluctant obedience coughed up the money and gave it to the religious mercenary from Jerusalem. Amazingly, the poor were paying the price for the rich to get richer.
The tax man was different. He was a very poorly paid mercenary employed by a tax collector who was in turn the servant of a puppet government that was expected to extract funds for the rulers in Rome. Sounds complicated? It was. It was a system of revenue extraction for the benefit of Caesar. All the middlemen took and kept as large a share as they dared. Everyone got a share except for the guy on the bottom of the pile. He received no more than a subsistence level wage. The tax guy in the story was in fact a toll collector. Toll collectors were stationed in the tollbooths along roads, at borders, and at the gates of towns and cities. They collected fees from everyone who traveled. They were tough and demanding on people who traveled for any reason. The toll collectors had to produce revenue or be fired.
The toll collectors were hated by everyone, but they were economically trapped. They probably felt terrible about what they were doing. They were doing only what they had to do to survive.
Toll collections were only one part of the tax extraction program that was operated locally but controlled in far away Rome. It is estimated that the Roman system of taxes and tolls took up to another 25 percent of the income of rural peasants.
Once the introduction and the conclusion of the parable are stripped away, and the life situation of both the toll collector and the Pharisee are grasped, the discussion begins. The most dramatic result is that the peasant listener to the story gains insight into the systems of extraction and those who operated the systems.
This is the stuff of which rebellions and revolts are made. Make no mistake, Jesus was fully involved in confronting the injustices involved.
In today’s world, my wife and I pay taxes. We pay sales tax; we pay local property tax; we pay gasoline tax; we pay federal income tax. When I consider the benefits that we receive, we probably should be paying more taxes. Public schools, roads, parks, police and fire protection, and recreational facilities head a long list of benefits that we receive and are for the common good.
The tragedy that emerges out of the parable of the Pharisee and the toll collector is that common folk were being heavily taxed with zero benefits for the common good. The rich were getting richer. The poor were getting poorer. Jesus was leading the protest movement.
My first point in the writing of this essay is to point out that Christian ministers, Christian believers, and Christian churches have too often stayed out of the issues of the injustices of our American tax system. This needs to change. Churches and their leaders ought to be in the front lines of protest against injustice wherever it is found. Our tax systems are a good place to start.
The parable of the toll collector and the Pharisee is the lectionary Gospel reading for Sunday, October 24, 2010. Many sermons will be preached on this particular text. Few ministers will dare talk about the injustices in the American tax system.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.