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I think of taxation systems that devour the resources of poor people today. Regressive tax systems place a greater weight of sharing space in society on the poor. Progressive taxation is rooted in the concern that the wealthy pay their fair share of the cost of sharing space in society.
Earlier this year here in WV, some legislators pushed to remove West Virginia’s income tax. It would have been a regressive move that would have further transferred society’s tax burden away from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. For now, this harmful push has failed. I want my taxes to be used for the common good, to help those in need, and I favor tax systems that do so progressively not regressively. In this week’s story, Mark’s Jesus condemns a flat, regressive tax structure that “devours the houses” of those already struggling to live through poverty.
I also don’t subscribe to an interpretation of this story that makes light of the gifts of the wealthy and places an inequitable burden on the poor. Those who see in their wealth as a call to share their superfluous “plenty” with those who have less or whose daily needs are not being met are following the principle we read elsewhere in the Christian scriptures: “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14).
I think, too, of the multitude of nonprofits in the world doing good with individuals and working for systemic change .They exist solely from contributions given by people with the means to support that work. These gifts are the lifeblood of those organizations. As we work toward a day when these kinds of organizations may not be needed, we must also acknowledge how vitally necessary their work is in the meantime.
We should reject any interpretation of this week’s story that either diminishes the wealthy as they follow the ethical call of the gospel to give their wealth away or praises systems that burden those barely surviving. These interpretations contradict the overarching economic themes found in the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. The same Jesus that called the rich man to give his possessions to the poor also condemns any system that devours widows’ houses under the guise of something praiseworthy such as national fidelity, cultural pride, and/or religious piety. The widow’s motive in the above story could be any of these.
Ultimately, Jesus’ desire in the stories is that people would have life and have it more abundantly—“to the full” (John 10:10). This isn’t abundance in a prosperity gospel or capitalist sense but in the sense of a human community where every person in the community is thriving. Whether we call it eternal life, abundant life, or just a sustainable life, this is a community where no one has too little while others have too much. It’s an imaginative vision of a world where every person is connected to and committed to others, where every person’s needs are being met, and where no one is becoming wealthy off the exploitation of another. No matter how glorious exploitative systems of luxury may look on the outside, they are not sustainable. As Mark says of the eventual end of these systems, “Not one stone here will be left on another” (Mark 13:2).
This story does not praise the piety of the poor within a system that takes economic advantage of their piety. It condemns any system that conditions and then exploits people to give more than what is life-giving for them to give.