Death and Taxes and Dirty Dishes

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” – Colossians 4:6

A few days ago we took up the issue of “tax fairness” in “Fair Share” is All the Rage Again. Our point at the time (which we stand by) is that talk of “fairness” in taxation usually devolves to people making judgments about the appropriate use of other people’s money. (“They have more than me, they can afford it” … you know, that type of fairness.)

A comment came in to the post referencing several new testament Bible passages without necessarily taking a side in the debate. The passages of interest got me to thinking though, particularly about a different tack in the taxation and general welfare debate. First, let’s consider some of the verses of interest.

The Early Church …

There are several lengthy passages in Acts which discuss the nature of communal sharing in the early church:

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:42-47

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” – Acts 4:32-37

(Side note, in order to avert over-reactions, preachers [and commentors] often will point out that they didn’t sell all their possessions, but they did sell lots and gave liberally. For instance, we know from other passages that they met in the houses of various church members – thus they couldn’t have all sold all their houses.)

My last argument – free choice …

In times past we’ve approached this issue from the standpoint of freedom. We took this up last year  in “There’s a Big Difference between Trying to Get in and Trying to Get Out.” The early church chose to share freely with each other. That choice is not offered by the current forced-benevolence system. People are told they must share.

Today we’ll take a different approach (though I doubt we’ll cover anything that hasn’t been said before).

Dirty Cups, the Problem of Theocracy

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” – Matt 23:35-36

With those words and many others, the Jesus waylaid the religious leaders of the day. (I’d actually suggest reading the whole chapter again to capture the full expression of frustration and lament over what the religious leaders had become, and how they had corrupted the religious observances of Judaism.)

With the cup and plate reference, we see that the Pharisees wanted the outside to be clean, they wanted the appearance to be one of righteousness and virtue. On the inside, however, they had no love for justice or truth; they had no compassion for the needy.

This was not to be the way of the new religious order. This was not to be the way of the church. Instead, the Lord would make the cup clean on the inside; He would wash away our sins. (“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” – 1 Peter 2:24.) Then, once the inside is clean, the outside too could be legitimately clean.

This is how it was in the early church (and how it is in many places today). First, the people got saved then they could live freely in openness and benevolence toward their brethren. (It’s an interesting term, “saved.” It is, as with the clean cup analogy, a pure expression of hope in the face of hopelessness. It is an exasperated realization that I am not perfect, and yet I wish to meet God with a clean conscience. And so, unable to make myself clean, I ask the Lord to do it for me. For this is why Jesus died on that cross, to make atonement for sin, so that I could be free.)

Theocracy, and much of the pro-benevolence tax and spend policies get this exactly reversed. They presume to turn causality backwards, to invert the implication. Instead of saying “when the people have been made alive in Christ, then they will live with compassion and benevolence for their fellow man” they say “we will demand that the people live in benevolence and compassion toward their fellow man, for this is the will of the Lord.” Yes and no, friend. Yes, it is the will of the Lord that people live a charitable life (see Malachi 3:5, for example). But it is also the will of the Lord that the inside of the cup be cleaned first, so that the outside may be clean also.

It’s hard though, and that’s the rub. It’s hard work to change hearts and minds. It’s hard work to preach the gospel and trust the Lord to prevail upon people to do what is right. People are messy and difficult and troubled and sometimes, sometimes they just won’t do what is right. No, it is much easier to simply demand that they behave; to simply enforce goodness and charity and benevolence – to force the outside of the cup to be clean. And so this is the way that so much of Christian political discourse goes. The religious left wants to use government to enforce communal benevolence. The religious right wants to use government to enforce sexual and substance purity. But we who love freedom want the church to preach the gospel, and the government to stay out of it.

We agree with sexual purity and communal benevolence, and yet democracy is no mechanism to enforce it. The will of the majority cannot make the cup clean on the inside.

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