Tax policy and a man named Zacchaeus


Economists be damned, the GOP tax plan constructed on the debunked scaffolding of trickle-down economics, keeps plodding forward. We are to believe that giving a massive tax cut to corporations and business owners will put needed cash in the pockets of poor and middle-class families because the corporations will uncharacteristically choose to invest their tax savings in relocating outsourced jobs back to the United States, and in raising workers’ wages.1 Why not a more modest corporate tax cut? Respected economic think tanks state that for the proposed 15% corporate tax cut to pay for itself and have benefits spreading broadly throughout income sectors, annual economic growth would have to reach about 7%—which everyone agrees is outlandish.2 Yet we are supposed to buy the trickle-down arguments put forth with the tax-cut bill, forgetting that labor in the United States is increasingly being replaced by robots who garner no paychecks, that other countries will likely lower their corporate taxes and wages to retain US corporations—in an accelerating “race to the bottom,” forgetting that an attempt to finance growth with debt (adding 1.5 trillion dollars to the deficit, which the tax cuts would do) would put us in league with several economically devastated countries, and forgetting that prize-winning economists generally agree trickle-down economics has failed, pointing out that—in fact—middle-class taxes will likely be raised by the GOP plan, some immediately, some a few years down the road.3 I hear the talking points and wonder if the spokespeople and legislators promoting this tax plan simply believe we are stupid.

Since I have been thinking about the parable of the “ten talents” in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, I find myself reflecting on the tax plan in light of it. This descriptive parable provides a snap-shot of the sort of inequality we see being promoted in Washington. Basically, the servant who doesn’t do his part to make the rich richer is cast out into the cold where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” to use Matthew’s words.

In Matthew, this “descriptive parable” (as opposed to the other kind of parable, a “prescriptive parable”) is placed among a slew of stories about final judgment, which has misled some to view the master as God—a retributive, sadistic God, at that. I prefer the placement of the story in the gospel of Luke (if unfamiliar with the parable, click here to read Luke 19:11-27), which meshes well with the key point of the parable. Very tellingly, Luke places the parable of the ten talents right after Jesus chooses to have dinner with Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector and crook. In fact, in Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the ten talents while at Zacchaeus’ house!

A quick history lesson: Scholars say that in first-century Palestine, over 90% of the population were poor tenant farmers and tradespeople who paid exorbitant taxes and dues to a small number of wealthy people who owned the land and lived in cities like Jerusalem, or Sepphora—not far from Nazareth. Not only did people pay the owners whose land they lived on and worked, but they paid taxes to the Romans, and on top of that, seasonal tithes to the temple, in the form of obligatory sacrifices at the temple. This is why, in the gospels, the most disliked people are the tax collectors, the priests at the temple (the Sadducees or the chief priests), and lastly, the emissaries of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ followers during his short ministry, and his followers in the early Jesus Movement, were mostly composed of this vast majority of people cracking under the weight of this oppressive system.

Now, let’s think about the parable of the ten talents. This descriptive parable says: Look how this world operates; the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. This is this world we live in. Yet Luke’s editing of the parable and his placement of the story, says: This is not the way of God’s kingdom.

Jesus tells the parable while he is at the home of Zacchaeus, the tax collector—representative of the economic system that has grossly profited the few at the expense of the many. He tells a parable, a story, about a greedy master who has brutally punished a servant because the servant—in all his fear and good intentions—didn’t make him more money on his investment. The story says that Zacchaeus was so impacted by Jesus, so totally transformed by his encounter with this teacher, that he decides to give half of his possessions to the poor. He says he is going to pay back everyone he has defrauded in his work four-fold!

Did he make this decision before or after Jesus told the story of the greedy and brutal master?

Then Luke follows the parable of the ten talents with Jesus riding into Jerusalem, into the temple—viewed at the time as one of the centers of the exploitative economic system. Jesus rides into Jerusalem like a king—but the world’s kind of king—and strides into the temple to drive out sellers exploiting the poor.

Then, tellingly, temple elites plot a way to kill him.

Luke’s placement of the ten talents parable in the context of these other stories, clarifies for us Jesus’ message: Don’t be like the tax collector Zacchaeus before his repentance who tries to become rich by exploiting the labor of others; don’t be like the cruel master in the parable, who aggrandizes himself by subjugating others; don’t be like the greedy money changers at the temple who are extorting people in their religious devotion; don’t be like the chief priests trying to kill Jesus because he threatens their wealth, proclaiming a kingdom not of this world. For in this world, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But not in the realm of God. The whole sequence of stories is saying: The kingdom of God is about generosity, not greed. It is a new realm where hearts are transformed, the greedy become generous, the fearful become faithful, and the poor have the ear of God.

We don’t have to look far in our own day to see that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The statistics are clear.4 The parable of the ten talents is a descriptive parable: This is the way the world works at times, it says. This is what we are seeing out of Washington, DC. But Jesus and Luke have another message: You are children of God and you are on a different path, like Zacchaeus. The early Jesus movement was called “the Way.” You are on a different way, they are saying, be not conformed to the way of greed and exploitation, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds. In Greek, “repentance” literally means “big mind”—the translation of the Greek word “metanoia”. To have your mind expanded and changed to a broader, bigger view, a different consciousness, is the essence of repentance.

Let us have our minds made bigger as we undergo a process of transformation just like Zacchaeus. And let us note that Jesus showed Zacchaeus great mercy. We grow in a context of mercy. Jesus didn’t excoriate or humiliate Zacchaeus, he invited himself over for dinner! Like Zacchaeus, Jesus invites us to be changed by knowing him, by how he shows us who God is, and just as importantly, who we as children of God are becoming. He invites us to the way of generosity, and to call one another and our leaders to a path of economic justice.

As we think about tax plans, let us always remember Zaccheaus.







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2 thoughts on “Tax policy and a man named Zacchaeus

  1. Could the “talents” in this parable also be the gifts, in the sense of abilities, that God gives to each and everyone of us? And if we don’t use them, we not only lose them but essentially become useless for the Kingdom of God?

    • Thanks for the comment, John. At times the parable has been interpreted that way. However, I think in Jesus’ day, in a context of so much indebtedness and tenancy, there is only one way it would have been understood. The audience would have known many examples of this kind of “master.” So I think the parable must have been intended this way, as a situation with an oppressive master trying to economically exploit the inferior position of his subjects.

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