Posted on June 17, 2013


The IRS may be under the gun these days, but taxes are at least as old as the Bible.

Some of us are familiar with Jesus’s famous answer to the question put to him by some Pharisees: must we pay Caesar’s taxes?

 “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (NIV, Matthew 22: 16-21)

Let’s be clear on this tax. It was a poll or tribute tax, not an income tax. The latter was introduced permanently in the U. S. only in 1913 with the passage of the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, about two thousand years after Jesus ruled on whether Jews should pay Caesar’s tax.

In the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus distinguished between the secular and the spiritual realm, and recognized we effectively live in two worlds, at least for those who are practicing Christians.

These two worlds intersect in many areas but taxes are one of the most instructive for they have to do with our wealth, and most of us guard our wealth—whether very little or a very lot—very zealously.

At the very basic level, taxes support the existence of government, and government is necessary for the just and effective management of the people’s affairs.

No government equals anarchy and chaos.

Too much government usually ends up in tyranny, of the Left or the Right.

Just the right government is what we strive for: a balance between the liberty of the individual and the needs of the state to protect our interests, collectively and individually.

Not all taxes are “new.” Some seem to think that the notion of a “flat tax,” or one rate for all, is new. In fact, an income tax was first instituted in 1861 to help pay for the increasing costs of the Civil War. It was to be a 3% on all income over $800. That was a flat income tax.

Several attempts to make income taxes permanent did not survive the course of the nineteenth century.

Yet, the debate over whether income should be taxed became very loud and raucous in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Pitted against each other in the income tax debate were the great businesses, monopolies and fortunes of the era and the “common” man, a slippery term defined many different ways, but, for the sake of argument, everyone not in the first category.

Prior to a national income tax, revenue for the federal government was largely generated by tariffs, or taxes on imported goods from abroad. Republicans tended to favor higher tariffs to protect domestic industries, and so protected those producing products manufactured in the U.S.

But “Progressives,” of both Republican and Democratic stripes, were arguing hard that this tariff structure actually fell harder on the small consumer—you and me—and favored the accumulation of great fortunes and industries.

Through the process of monopolies, it also increased power among the few and powerful, and squelched the concept of a “level playing field.”

The answer was a “progressive income tax,” or one which taxed the lowest incomes at a low rate, and increased as incomes increased. In this instance, the principal of fairness trumped the competing principle of liberty.

That’s what we have today, at least in principal.

One other element fueled the decision to establish a progressive national income tax. This was the concept that great industries, fortunes and monopolies were encouraged by government laws and decisions which favored them—more and better infrastructure, high tariffs, etc. Having benefitted the most, Progressives figured they owed the most.

When the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified, President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress in April, 1913 which passed an income tax of 1% on incomes above $3000 and applied surcharges between 2% and 7% on income from $20,000 to $500,000. A corporate income tax was also established and although parallel in theory, it operates under separate rules with separate rates.

Today tax codes, deductions, exemptions and other special privileges are so complex that no one person comprehends them entirely: certainly not Congress or even the Internal Revenue Service, established in 1918 to succeed prior federal tax collecting agencies.

Biblically, the tax collector does not fare well, as told so well in the gospel of Mark where sinners and tax collectors were lumped together.

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”635px-CaravaggioContarelli

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17)

We need another national tax debate, and a whole new tax structure to meet the realities of today’s world.

My wife likes to move all the furniture around periodically. I suggest we take a page from her book.

Throw out all the old furniture and bric a brac collected over the years and start anew.

Maybe even build a new home.

She will no doubt approve of this debate and lead in the rethinking and remaking of the tax structure, once she gets finished rearranging all the furniture in the bedrooms today.

A version of this article appeared in the OpEd section of The Tuscaloosa News Sunday June 23, 2013

For those curious, the painting above is the pendant to the Martyrdom of St Matthew and hanging opposite in the Contarelli Chapel of the San Luigi dei Francesi, the French Church in Rome. It was particularly appropriate to both the place and the time, for Rome’s French community had something to celebrate: Henri IV, heir to St Louis, had recently converted to the faith of his ancestors.

The subject traditionally was represented either indoors or out; sometimes Saint Matthew is shown inside a building, with Christ outside (following the Biblical text) summoning him through a window. Both before and after Caravaggio the subject was often used as a pretext for anecdotal genre paintings. Caravaggio may well have been familiar with earlier Netherlandish paintings of money lenders or of gamblers seated around a table like Saint Matthew and his associates.

Caravaggio represented the event as a nearly silent, dramatic narrative. The sequence of actions before and after this moment can be easily and convincingly re-created. The tax-gatherer Levi (Saint Matthew’s name before he became the apostle) was seated at a table with his four assistants, counting the day’s proceeds, the group lighted from a source at the upper right of the painting. Christ, His eyes veiled, with His halo the only hint of divinity, enters with Saint Peter. A gesture of His right hand, all the more powerful and compelling because of its languor, summons Levi. Surprised by the intrusion and perhaps dazzled by the sudden light from the just-opened door, Levi draws back and gestures toward himself with his left hand as if to say, “Who, me?”, his right hand remaining on the coin he had been counting before Christ’s entrance.

The two figures on the left, derived from a 1545 Hans Holbein print representing gamblers unaware of the appearance of Death, are so concerned with counting the money that they do not even notice Christ’s arrival; symbolically their inattention to Christ deprives them of the opportunity He offers for eternal life, and condemns them to death. The two boys in the center do respond, the younger one drawing back against Levi as if seeking his protection, the swaggering older one, who is armed, leaning forward a little menacingly. Saint Peter gestures firmly with his hand to calm his potential resistance. The dramatic point of the picture is that for this moment, no one does anything. Christ’s appearance is so unexpected and His gesture so commanding as to suspend action for a shocked instant, before reaction can take place. In another second, Levi will rise up and follow Christ_in fact, Christ’s feet are already turned as if to leave the room. The particular power of the picture is in this cessation of action. It utilizes the fundamentally static medium of painting to convey characteristic human indecision after a challenge or command and before reaction.

The picture is divided into two parts. The standing figures on the right form a vertical rectangle; those gathered around the table on the left a horizontal block. The costumes reinforce the contrast. Levi and his subordinates, who are involved in affairs of this world, are dressed in a contemporary mode, while the barefoot Christ and Saint Peter, who summon Levi to another life and world, appear in timeless cloaks. The two groups are also separated by a void, bridged literally and symbolically by Christ’s hand. This hand, like Adam’s in Michelangelo’s Creation, unifies the two parts formally and psychologically. Underlying the shallow stage-like space of the picture is a grid pattern of verticals and horizontals, which knit it together structurally.

The light has been no less carefully manipulated: the visible window covered with oilskin, very likely to provide diffused light in the painter’s studio; the upper light, to illuminate Saint Matthew’s face and the seated group; and the light behind Christ and Saint Peter, introduced only with them. It may be that this third source of light is intended as miraculous. Otherwise, why does Saint Peter cast no shadow on the defensive youth facing him ?

English: The Calling of Saint Matthew
Date between 1599 and 1600
Medium oil on canvas
Dimensions Height: 322 cm (126.8 in). Width: 340 cm (133.9 in).
Source/Photographer Web Gallery of Art:  Inkscape.svg Image Information icon.svg Info about artwork