Jesus, as both a model of living and a moral teacher, is often dragged into various political or cultural debacles to prove points or demonstrate hypocrisy; and unfortunately, the true meaning of His teachings are often lost in the process.
One of the most recent such incidents began when Erika Christakis — an M.P.H. (Masters in Public Health), M.Ed., and administrator at Harvard — wrote a piece in TIME Magazine’s “ideas” section about how “un-Christian” Paul Ryan’s Congressional budget plan is because of Jesus’ teachings concerning taxes.
(Disclaimer: This article is not about Paul Ryan, his budget plans, or other similar political issues. The CIA is only expressing an opinion on the issues concerning Jesus’ teachings.)
In her article, Christakis suggests that Jesus supported a tax rate of at least 50 percent, if not 100 percent:
As near as we can tell, Jesus would advocate a tax rate somewhere between 50% (in the vein of ‘If you have two coats, give one to the man who has none’) and 100% (if you want to get into heaven, be poor). Mostly, he suggested giving all your money up for the benefit of others. And Jesus made no distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor; his love and generosity applied to all.” —Erika Christakis with TIME Magazine, August 14, 2012
As internal evidence, Christakis gives vague references to two Biblical passages. The first, with reference to giving coats, is obviously from Luke 3:11 (“John answered, ‘The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same'”). Unfortunately for Christakis, in order for her argument to work, we would have to ignore two things. First, Jesus did not say this. This particular passage is from John the Baptist — it is still valid scripture, but Christakis cannot claim this to be a direct requirement from Jesus. Second, and more important, we would have to ignore the immediate context. Consider Luke 3:12-14:
Tax collectors also came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’
‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’
He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely —be content with your pay.'”
In these verses John the Baptist tells tax collectors not to collect more than is required, and soldiers not to extort money. If the intent behind John the Baptist’s instructions was for the government to mediate this charity, he had the perfect opportunity to express that intent.
So, neither Jesus nor John the Baptist supported a 50 percent tax under Christakis’ references; what about the 100 percent tax? For this, Christiakis does not provide a quote, but instead an interpretation without reference. Her supporting statement — “if you want to go to heaven, be poor” — is most likely a reference to Luke 18:18-29 when Jesus speaks to the rich ruler who asks how to receive eternal life. In answer to the rich man’s question, Jesus reminds him of the commandments (“‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother’”), and the ruler claims to have kept them all. Then Jesus says, “‘You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'”
It seems that Christakis would prefer that we stop there, however if we continue reading we find that we need to take a deeper look at this passage.
When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth.Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’
Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’
Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.'” —Luke 18:23-27
Even assuming for a moment that Christakis is right, and that poverty is the path to heaven, wouldn’t you want to apply a 100% tax on all people — including the poor — to guarantee their entrance into heaven? Of course, then the government would have everything (meaning that the government was rich) and would be going to hell. Besides, if the point of 100% taxes are to use that money through government entitlement programs to help the poor, aren’t you forcing the rich into heaven and the poor into hell? I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound much like charity to me.
Except, Jesus didn’t tell the crowd, “If you have trouble giving up everything you own, find a friend or willing government official to — uh, shall we say — help you through that issue;” nor did Jesus say, “What is impossible with citizens is possible with government!” He made it very clear that this was an issue between God and man.
Passages such as these also demonstrate that Jesus teaches a charity that has less to do with the material, and more to do with the heart and character of the person giving. When the ruler claims to have kept all of the commandments since his youth, you have to take a step back and ask, “really?” As Matthew Henry makes clear for us in his commentary on this passage:
Men think themselves innocent because they are ignorant; so this ruler did. He said, All these have I kept from my youth up, Luke 18:21. He knows no more evil of himself than the Pharisee did, Luke 18:11. He boasts that he began early in a course of virtue, that he had continued in it to this day, and that he had not in any instance transgressed. Had he been acquainted with the extent and spiritual nature of the divine law, and with the workings of his own heart,—had he been but Christ’s disciples awhile, and learned of him, he would have said quite the contrary: ‘All these have I broken from my youth up, in thought, word, and deed.’ . . .
The great things by which we are to try our spiritual state are how we stand affected to Christ and to our brethren, to this world and to the other; by these this man was tried. For, (1.) If we have a true affection to Christ, he will come and follow him, will attend to his doctrine, and submit to his discipline, whatever it cost him. None shall inherit eternal life who are not willing to take their lot with the Lord Jesus, to follow the Lamb whithersoever he goes. (2.) If he have a true affection to his brethren, he will, as there is occasion, distribute to the poor, who are God’s receivers of his dues out of our estates. (3.) If he think meanly of this world, as he ought, he will not stick at selling what he has, if there be a necessity for it, for the relief of God’s poor. (4.) If he think highly of the other world, as he ought, he will desire no more than to have treasure in heaven, and will reckon that a sufficient abundant recompence for all that he has left, or lost, or laid out for God in this world.
Henry, correctly, focuses on the passage as one about the heart of the person in following Christ. When Jesus asked the ruler about the commandments, He was searching for the heart; and when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, He was still looking for the heart. The Bible tells us that we are sinful from birth (Romans 3:9-20). That is why we can never achieve the perfection necessary to save ourselves; and that is why Jesus questioned the man in the way that He did.
This point is merely amplified by Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 9:8, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Also, this notion is verified in Luke 19 with the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector (i.e. “sinner” from verse 9), who says to Jesus after meeting him, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” To which Jesus replies, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” He cares more about the character of the person than the money.
Obviously, when you get down to it, charity is about helping the poor. But if it is coerced, if it is wrangled from the hand, or if it is extorted, then it is not genuine charity. Genuine charity is a gift that is an outpouring from the heart — an overflow from the thankfulness of a heart changed by Christ’s grace.
When Jesus is challenged on the issue of taxes in Mark 12, He asks who’s portrait and inscription is on the coin; and the obvious answer came: “Cesar’s.” To which Jesus famously replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Cesar’s image may have been stamped on his coins, but God’s image is stamped on us (Genesis 9:6) and His inscription is written on our hearts (Romans 2:12-16).
In order to understand genuine charity, we must realize that the poor do not belong to the government, but to God.