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Birth and Taxes – 12/24/2012

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin, that great early American statesman, inventor and whit, wrote a letter to a friend which included the line, “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, and taxes”. For more than two centuries his words have been quoted again and again to express the contempt that Americans, his descendants, have for the very concept of taxation. In one classic episode of the Simpsons, the family patriarch, Homer, leads an angry mob to city hall to demand quick and decisive action against the threat of bear attacks. The mayor’s response is to fill the streets with patrol cars, helicopters and stealth planes, maintaining constant vigilance throughout the city. Homer is satisfied, until he discovers that the bear patrol is funded by a new tax on his pay check. He then leads the same mob back to city hall. So it goes.

The story of the birth of the teacher Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke begins with taxation. It explains that Mary and Joseph were travelling that night because of Roman tax policy. It makes a fitting start to the story, given how much the Gospels have to say about the evils of life under the Roman occupation, and in particular the suffering caused by Rome’s taxation. The job of the tax gatherer was particularly reviled in Jesus’ time. So much so that at one point in Matthew’s account, the prophet chastens the religious authorities by declaring that tax collectors would enter the Kingdom of God before they would.[i]

Yet there is something in this world more certain than taxation or death, and that is the other subject that Luke opens with: birth, the great prerequisite of life. And in fact, the lesson of Jesus’ life and ministry is that birth is a greater thing than death. Even Rome, the greatest empire of its age, could not extinguish the teachings of Mary’s son with all their instruments of horror and war.

What made the taxes of Jesus’ day an evil in need of confrontation was how regressive they were: how they placed a greater burden on the poor as a means of transferring wealth to the already rich. In the early decades of the first century, debt in Judea had swollen to epidemic levels, causing people to forfeit their farms and their homes to those holding their loans. Every financial crisis may be different, but each is also the same.

But the evil of those taxes was in their application and their consequence; not the concept of taxation itself. And so I would offer my own version of Ben Franklin’s famous words, “in this life, nothing can be said to be certain, except that you were born, and that you owe”. You see, while the political truth and wisdom of a statement made by another statesman earlier this year has been hotly debated, as a theological assertion it is beyond reproach: “You didn’t build that.” Each of us arrived here by the same means, kicking and screaming, bleary eyed, beautiful and in abject need, just like everyone else who has ever lived, including that famous infant in Bethlehem. We inherited a world that was not made by us. Yet, it was entrusted to us.

None of our lives could have proceeded to this point without a staggering quantity of generosity and goodwill from ancestors and friends and people we will never know. What Corey Booker, the current mayor of Newark, NJ calls “the conspiracy of love”.[ii] Because of this, we owe a vast debt to one another, to the earth that bares our weight, and to the totality of all existence, whom some name God. According to the lessons of Jesus and so many other teachers, our lives are for the paying of it. To clothe the naked, care for the sick, house the destitute and raise up the downtrodden. It is the fair tax of the universe, assessed on the gift of our having been born.

It is a bill that comes due frequently and not only when we are feeling flush and comfortable, with ample reserves of the milk of human kindness. When a child cries, when a stomach growls, when a hand reaches out or a face turns away – the world’s need does not wait for a more convenient time. People can come together to work for many purposes. Sometimes that means waging a war, or building a prison, and sometimes it means building a house for people who have none, or providing a school for the education of children. But whether or not the label ‘government’ is applied to the things that a people decide to do together, we each owe a tax on the gifts of living. In this season, it is traditional to give to others, and that is good. But remember that the spirit of December 25th is just as much needed on March 8th, or August 13th, or October 27th, or on any other day of the year. We live because we were born, and so we owe to everyone else the means to their lives as well.

[i] Matthew 21:31

[ii] Commencement address, Bard College, 2012


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