What does the Bible say about tax?

taxgapThe Methodist Tax Justice Network recently published a new booklet called The Bible and Tax. We invited network chair Revd David Haslam to summarise its message in this guest blog.

Taxes don’t get vast attention in the Bible, at least overtly. However, it is clear that there was a taxation system, even in Old Testament times. It is more clear in the New Testament; it is even the reason why Bethlehem is the place where, according to tradition, Jesus was born. Those who have sought to understand the economic system in which Jesus grew up, taught and preached tell us the system of taxes was extremely burdensome on the ordinary people. There were taxes to be paid to the Temple, the Romans and the Galilean kings – in Jesus’s time, King Herod. The rural labourers and peasants who formed Jesus’s audiences were severely squeezed.

The booklet restates Ched Myers’ The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics. He began by quoting James Haughey, “We read the gospel as if we had no money, and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the gospel.” Myers says economic and social justice are “woven into the warp and weft of the Bible”. He points out the first lesson of the people of Israel as they leave slavery in Egypt is economic, the tale of the manna (Exodus16). It illustrates Yahweh’s alternative to the oppressive Egyptian model. Bread “raining from heaven” symbolises God’s good gifts – but the people are told not to gather too much, and not to gather on the Sabbath, and somehow all have according to their needs.

The booklet covers several Gospel events and parables. The parable of the sheep and  goats clearly emanated from Ezekiel 34. The “shepherds of Israel” undergo serious criticism for exploiting the sheep, using them to amass their own wealth and failing to support the needy among them. So God says he will take over the job but he also lays into the “rams and he-goats” who trample the others and pollute even the water they drink. The fat sheep (or goats) push, butt and scatter the sheep in every direction. They will come to a sticky end….

Exploring the ‘Rich Young Ruler’, Myers first observes that the man is socially powerful, he gives deference, but expects something in return. He has a sense of entitlement -surely he can “inherit” eternal life. Jesus’ fundamental question relates to where the young man – who had “great wealth” – has obtained his money. The main route by which people grew rich in those times was through the poor defaulting on credit. If small agricultural land-holders ran out of money they had to take out loans (shades of payday lenders), and if unable to service these loans the land was taken by the lenders. This was why socio-economic inequality was so high at this time – sounds familiar in today’s world?

Dr Colin Morris concludes his Foreword by accepting what the author says, that

We could make a strong argument for Jesus being on the side of tax justice

and that this is the clearest and most effective route to eliminating poverty.

Find out more about the Methodist Tax Justice Network on their Facebook page.

Click here to find out more about Church Action on Poverty’s work for Fair Taxes.

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