Taxes, Rights, and Responsibilities: Part 2

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God (vv. 9-10, NRSV).

In the Jewish tradition that shaped Jesus, justice and righteousness were interchangeable things. To be a righteous person meant to do what was right: to love, to treat neighbors and aliens with compassion, and to call society to a higher standard of justice. The prophetic tradition of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah was the tradition to which Jesus belongs: we love and honor God not solely by worship, but by behaving with justice, kindness, and mercy to the widow, the orphan, the alien.

In Jesus' own understanding of the Law, we find something similar: the student of the Law who prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan knows what God's Law asks, and Jesus affirms it (Lk. 10:25-28):

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?"

He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

We love God, which means we should have no other gods (including such cultural gods as wealth, power, fame, or security) before God.

We love our neighbors, which means we are faithful in our care and compassion for those around us, and for those far away who we discover are suffering or require help.

And while these are not our natural human inclinations, we find it recorded in diverse sources in the Christian tradition that the Law of God is written on human hearts, and if we will rediscover it, or if we will turn to God and thus make ourselves able to discover it, we will be able to recognize Divine Law within Natural Law. So it is that, as Thomas Aquinas says, the eternal law is the plan by which all creation is ordered, while the natural law is the plan by which human beings participate in the eternal law  (Summa Theologica IaIIae 91,1-2).

Calvin, who gave a lot of thought to how a government might be shaped by those who love God, wrote similarly that the tables of God's Law are spelled out to us by the inner Law written on our hearts (Institutes II/8/1), and he concluded that God's Law tells us

We are not our own, to do whatever our desires dictate, but must obey God implicitly and agree to everything God asks. The Law teaches that justice and integrity are pleasing to God, and injustice is abhorrent. So if we do not want to rebel against our Maker with flagrant ingratitude, we must spend our whole lives in following righteousness. (Institutes II/8/2)

And righteousness, as the Hebrew prophetic tradition and Jesus' life and teachings tell us, is not simply about personal piety, but about living with justice: dealing justly with the widow, orphan, and alien, or as Jesus expands the bubble, with the prostitute and tax collector, with the lame, deaf, and blind, with the hungry, with the demon-possessed, with our neighbors wherever they may be.

Even if they are our enemies.

We are called to do this in our personal lives; we are called to do justice in the lives of our faith communities. Are we then also called to do justice in the ultimate community we call our state or government? Should our laws, taxes, policies, and programs be designed to do justice?

In Book Three, Chapter Seven of the Institutes, Calvin wrote that we owed ourselves to our neighbors, that we were simply the stewards of God's good gifts who would someday be called to account, and that "The Lord commands us to do good to everyone without exception," because the image of God exists in every human being, and so no matter who needs our help, we "have no excuse for refusing it" (Institutes 3/7/6).

I would argue that this applies in all the spheres of our lives.

Next week we'll consider the teachings of more contemporary theologians and the recent uproar about whether social justice is Christian as we conclude our look at some fundamentals of taxation, rights, and responsibilities. Until then, may the blessing of the God of righteousness be upon you, and bring you safely back to our conversation.

2/24/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Mainline Protestant
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Aquinas
  • Budget
  • Calvin
  • Government
  • Mainline Protestantism
  • politics
  • Taxes
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.