“Many academic studies have concluded that there is considerable elasticity of demand for charitable contributions by the wealthy – or in English, that means that the wealthy in fact respond to tax incentives for donations.”
And so the Wall Street Journal reported, “Charitable organizations are…worried.” Nevada Democratic Representative Shelly Berkley, speaking in the House Ways and Means Committee hearing, cut to the chase of the matter:
And we all understand that she is right.
As a president of a seminary, training up the next generation of pastors and missionaries, this whole conversation has, naturally, gripped by attention. Our seminary, like other non-profits, depends on the financial stewardship and vision of our “major donors” as we all like to call them (“or in English” that means mostly those with incomes over $250,000). Taking away any incentive to give cannot help us. But I ask, with all due respect to the common sense observations of Representative Berkley (and with thanks to her for speaking up for us!): “Does it really hurt us? Can this really impact the overall work of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in our generation?”
Jesus did have a tax policy. In fact, with a tilt towards Karl Barth’s admonition to read the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other, I did read from Matthew’s Gospel this morning before I read the papers. I happened to read from Matthew 17.24-27, the account of the temple tax and the amazing way that Jesus paid it, with a shekel in a fish’s mouth. It was the perfect Providentially appointed, spirit encouraging reading to go with the depressingly pessimistic articles I was reading on tax deductions and the ominous threat to charitable organizations. Indeed I think the Gospel account is a perfect place for churches, charitable groups, and especially all Christian organizations to rest in light of all of this talk about taking away out tax deductions and threatening our donor base. Here is what the Bible teaches:
“When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the tax?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?’ And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself (Matthew 17.24-27 ESV).'”
The text is not without some difficulty in interpretation. But several things are clear and should be noted:
This was, of course, a temple tax not a state tax but hang tight, there is some application here. The collectors who came to Peter to text him to see if Jesus would pay were not from the Roman “IRS” but from the Jewish Temple, but there is an authority issue at work here anyway so stay with me. Their question was, no doubt, yet another trap being set for Jesus, yet the question does have parallels to our own questions today. Peter answers the contemptible query about whether Jesus will “pay up,” without actually consulting Jesus about the matter, but he assures them that “Yes” Jesus would pay the temple tax. When the matter is brought to Christ, He instructs Peter about his response to the Temple tax by presenting a traditional, albeit remarkably ingenious (I believe “divine”), Rabbinical response. He answers the question with a question. Jesus asks whether the kings of this earth get their tax revenue from “sons” or “others.” Peter knows the lay of the land as well as we do. Politicians were the same then as now because human nature has not changed since the fall of Adam and Eve. So the fisherman-disciple answers correctly, that rulers get their money from those who are not their loved ones, their allies, their closest constituencies, if you will; they get their revenue from “others” (translation, “the rest of us poor folk who have no connections”). Apparently, Jesus believes that Peter got the right answer. So Jesus says, “Then the sons are free.” Peter is a son of God because of his faith in Jesus. He is exempt from any older Levitical law concerning taxes and so, of course, is Jesus because He is the King! But Jesus in humility condescends to existing authorities, so “as not to give offense,” and agrees to pay the tax. But he pays in a most unusual way. He orders Peter to do what Peter knows how to do so well: go fishing. Jesus tells him to cast a hook into the sea and the first fish that comes up will be a fish that has a shekel in his mouth. Peter, who will receive the tax portion for himself and for Jesus, is this miraculous fashion, is then to present the tax to the authorities.
Now that is the story. And here is the policy of Jesus that we need to remember:
Because we yet live under these policies, for the sake of righteousness, we humbly oblige and submit to them. Yet, we acknowledge, Christ’s Kingdom is not sustained by the policies of men but by the promises of God.
Thus the tax policies of the current President of the United States may not be favorable to those churches and organizations that labor under the banner of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. However Christ Himself will support our mission. This is because He said that He would build His Church. If the government sees fit to make tax policy favorable to the Church and other non profits because they see the benefit of these organizations to the State, as they surely did when the present favorable tax policies were written, then that this a blessing to us all who give. But if not, then we will support the work of Christ anyway. Our giving is not tied to policies of men but to the grace of Christ in our hearts. “Ah,” someone says. “But what about the raw data that Professor Colombo and others present, as well as the common sense statement by Representative Berkley, that the wealthy do of course respond to tax incentives? You will be affected, you fool! You will be impacted and some of us will not be sustained.” True enough. But there is the matter of the shekel in the fish’s mouth. God Himself will provide. He will provide for the giver and He will provide for those who put their hooks in the sea to cast vision for their ministries. We have to believe in this if our ministries are serving the cause of the Kingdom of God.
This is what the old English Presbyterian pastor, Matthew Henry, thought about this passage when he wrote:
“If called by providence to be poor, like our Lord, let us trust in his power, and our God shall supply all our need, according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. In the way of obedience, in the course, perhaps, of our usual calling, as he helped Peter, so he will help us. And if any sudden call should occur, which we are not prepared to meet, let us not apply to others, till we first seek Christ.”
I would thus say to our supporters and to others who are called to give to the work of the Lord: rest in the shekel in the fish’s mouth. If the U.S. tax policy will not support you by giving you the deductions we all enjoyed heretofore, then do not worry. God will provide. And to the pastors and missionaries and seminaries and inner city food kitchens I say, “Do not fear. But go out again and cast your vision, like Peter and his hook in the sea, and God’s school of fish will come, and they will bring what you need in this world.”
Oh sure, I would prefer that this government leave the old policies alone. In fact, I would prefer that the government stop spending money, which they (we) don’t really have and they wouldn’t have to hurt those who support ministries that help so many people in our country. I would prefer that the charitable organizations help the people, not the government. But that is my political opinion. My faith, in the midst of all of this, must be at rest in all of this in the Christ who owns not only the cattle on a thousand hills, but the single little fish whose fins push him through the water, under the command of that his Creator to find a shekel on the bottom of the sea, to suck it up in his mouth, and then intuitively swim, again by divine fiat, to a faithful vision cast by humble, if not always completely understanding, followers of the Master.
Obama may have his tax policy. But Jesus has His. And in God we trust.
Jackie Calmes, “Obama Plans Major Shifts in Spending,” in The New York Times online edition (2009).
Jackie Calmes. “Obama Plans Major Shifts in Spending.” In The New York Times online edition, 2009.
John D. Colombo. “Could Obama’s Tax Plan Hurt Charitable Contributions?” InNonprofit Law Prof Blog, 2009.
Matthew Henry. “Commentary on the Whole Bible.” Matthew 17.24-27: Accordance, 2008.
John D. McKinnon and Martin Vaughn. “White House Rethinks Tax Hikes.” The Wall Street Journal, Thursday, March 5, 2009, 3.