Whose Head is on this Coin?

Again, I’m amazed at how uncanny it is that the Holy Spirit seems to continue to be working in overdrive.  This past week I just got our taxes in under the wire – with all that was going on we absolutely had to get an extension.  So, October 18 was the bewitching hour.

I remember back to when I had taken over much of the financial aspects of my parent’s construction and real estate company.  I had opened a letter from the California State Franchise Board.  Mail from these people is never good.

It turned out that Dad owed them around three hundred dollars and some odd change.  This was for his share of the employees overhead for about two years previous.  Dad was absolutely insistent that this was all a mistake.  Their mistake! 

I would spend hours on interminable hold attempting to contact someone so this issue could be resolved.  Dad would not be mollified until every last stone was turned over.

We went down to their regional office in Long Beach and spent, I can’t tell you how many hours, while Dad attempted to convince the woman at the counter that he was right.  He really didn’t owe them anything.

It’s no wonder that the Plexiglas window was one inch thick.  They probably get a lot of irate taxpayers like my father.

Finally, after we got home, he somewhat settled down.  My arguments forecasting impending doom and confiscation made an impression.  I had reminded him of the adage of our high school government teacher, Mr. Marchek, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”  And how dictatorships have most effectively used this mechanism to eliminate their opponents.  This was one fight he was not going to win.

Grudgingly, though he wasn’t going to pay this “unfair and outrageous” tax bill and penalties, he would acquiesce to my writing the company check to satisfy the “greedy so-and-sos.”

Matthew tells the story of religious authorities coming to Jesus with the question about the obligation to pay taxes off to Rome, the colonizing power of their land.  This was a highly provocative question for two reasons.  First, given the brutality of Roman occupation, any payment or cooperation with their demands would be seen as collaboration with a hated enemy.  Second, the face on the Roman coin to pay the tax was that of an infidel who claimed to be divine, who claimed the titles of divinity proper to a god.  To handle this coin was to become ritually unclean.  Haram!  Definitely not kosher.

So here come these pompous leaders thinking to trap Jesus.  Hypocrisy dripping from their lips like honey:

“’Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what do you think.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’”

“But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?  Show me the coin used for the tax.’  And they brought him a denarius.  Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’”

And you know the rest. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caeser’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

Just whose face is on that coin?

In a democracy it’s all our faces.  All of us!

My friend at lunch the other day said, “If it’s true that it takes a village, then it’s up to all of us to make sure the streets are swept and in good repair, that the sewage and water systems are functioning and that there are decent schools to educate our children.”

Community is a gift of God.  It is up to us to exercise good stewardship of our common life together – paying the bills.  That, in part, means providing the necessary financial as well as the political support.  It means behaving in a civil manner towards one another and accepting our obligations to participate in the process.  It means constructive criticism – and causing “Necessary Trouble” as a last resort.

When serving on the Planning Commission of our town of Ridgecrest, CA, for a number of meetings we were dealing with the owner of a lumber yard.  He didn’t want to adhere to the zoning regulations or pay the required fees for operating his business.

At the last meeting dealing with this obstreperous fellow and his refusal to pay the required fees, our city councilwoman, Florence Green, in exasperation said, “Listen we’ve got to run the city one way or another; which pocket do you want us to take it out of?”

It’s up to us.  It’s our face on that coin.

And I consider it a blessing to pay taxes – it means I’m making money.  Look at it that way if you don’t accept theological persuasion.

Through our common civic endeavors, sometimes amazing excellence breaks out.

I attended an inner-city high school in Long Beach, California, Poly High.  “The Home of Scholars and Champions.”  It was located in one of the poorest, most racially diverse parts of town.

And while our sports teams took home more than their fair share of CIF state victories, a new principal arrived on the scene who academically made all the difference.

She developed within that high school a magnet school for science and math.  That endeavor allowed, and still allows, Poly to send more students to UCLA than any other school in California.  This, from the poorest section of town!

This degree of academic excellence has been underwritten by our taxes and civic support.  Sometimes, we get what we pay for.

Driving through the roads of Connecticut this past week, I noted that they all looked like they had been freshly paved.  No potholes and the lane markings were fresh.  Even on country roads way out of town.  Not anything like our disastrous roads in California which are one big pothole.  Yes, their taxes are a bit higher.  Again, you get what you pay for.

We are Caesar in a democracy.  It’s not only our face on that coin, but it’s our schools and highways, our government services from fire, police to post offices and senior citizen centers.  After-school programs and decent jails, prisons and reintegration programs for those being released.

Our faces on that coin.  All to be counted a blessing.

Should we pay taxes?

As one businessman has said, “I don’t mind giving fifty percent of what I make back to the American people because they give me one hundred percent of what I earn.”

But of course, we need to monitor as to how our money is spent.  And sometimes we get it flat-out wrong.  Like investing in a possible candidate for Speaker of the House of Representatives who has no accomplishments to his name except vituperation.  A person who authored only four bills in some sixteen years and not a one of them has been enacted into law.  Someone who in that brief trip from an assistant wrestling coach is now worth over $30 million.  And for all that, what we got was election denial and the support of an insurrection against the U.S. government!  This, the would-be leader of the Chaos Caucus.  So, for weeks to come, and for weeks into the foreseeable future NOTHING GETS DONE!

A pretty poor result for his hefty congressional salary and whatever funds he can grift off his campaign coffers.  We’ve got to watch the purse.  It’s our head on that coin, and this man would represent us.

No more million-dollar toilets in Air Force jets, or hammers costing hundreds of dollars.  The fact that the Pentagon budget has not been, and apparently cannot, be audited ought to in itself raise red flags about fiscal responsibility.  As I said several Sundays ago, quoting Reagan, “Trust BUT verify.”  It’s our head on that coin.  It’s our money.  It’s our future at stake.

Yes, there will be mistakes.  I’ve made my share of them.  But God’s gift to us is each other and the common endeavor we share.  Always to perfect and renew.

I close with James Baldwin’s take on our responsibility to one another.  That’s a Torah gift and a Gospel demand.  That we can work it out together is both a Gospel gift and a Gospel obligation.

Listen to Baldwin in his essay, “Nothing Personal.”  He says:

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; The earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.  The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.[1]

As St. Paul enjoins those of us in the Jesus Movement, “Rejoice with those who rejoice” …and, to paraphrase Tom Bodet’s Motel 6 commercial, “We’ll keep the lights on for you.”  Amen.

[1] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 393.

October 22, 2023
21 Pentecost, Proper 24 The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney
Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-

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