Tuesday, February 25, 2014

More on Ancient Taxes and Charity

Sunday the lectionary for thousands of Christian churches of many different denominations in America contained an Old Testament reading from the book of Leviticus, a book of laws of the ancient Hebrews that governed them between the exodus from Egypt and the founding of a nation in what is now Israel and Palestine, over 3000 years ago.

Our reading was edited to focus on those passages that dovetailed with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and loving your neighbor. 

The 19th chapter of Leviticus actually covers a dizzying array of issues.  It reiterates some frequent prescriptions (keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and mother) and prohibitions (no worshiping idols, do not steal or bear false witness, as well as do not wear garments made of two materials or cut one’s beard).  It offers some interesting redresses, too.  For instance, if a man has intercourse with a woman who is the slave of another man, they should NOT be put to death.  She receives no punishment, because she was not free.  His punishment is to provide a ram for a sacrifice of penitence.  Most of this is far more reasonable than the most punitive of the Old Testament laws that often get cited by modern progressives to point out the inconsistencies of those who use the Bible for modern political purposes. 

It also offers this, which I need to keep in mind:  “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.”   I don’t think that “the great” in our society need as much benefit of the doubt as the poor, but I do strive to be fair.

But there was also this:  “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. 10You 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.”

This appears to be a call to direct charity, over and above the commands elsewhere to “tithe” ten percent of their income in grain, oil, and livestock.   Since in ancient Israel the church and the state were effectively the same thing, the tithe was really much more of an income tax than a gift to charity. 

We get into dangerous territory here, since today almost everyone pays more than 10% in taxes – in sales, excise, state, and social security taxes, even if not in federal income tax.  But I’ve never heard anyone – even (or especially) my socially- and fiscally-conservative friends -- use that as an excuse to not give at all to charity or church. 

I have heard modern tax rates used as a reason why the 3000-year-old 10% tithe is an unrealistic goal for church budgeting purposes.  And, given that the average American gives 2% to charity, and a third of that to church, I don’t think 10% is realistic, either.  That’s not to say it’s not a worthy individual goal. 

Meanwhile, how about this:  “you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”   Whoa!  Wouldn’t that complicate the lives of our payroll departments!  I wonder of the State of Indiana is still holding the first day’s pay of a new employee for four and a half weeks before they get their first paycheck? 

And, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

Well, there’s a whole ‘nuther blog there …

I wrote this not because it is a major epiphany for me, but just because I’m trying to get into the habit of responding to and documenting what I learn every week.   The big lesson here is the extent to which themes of social justice in Judeo-Christian tradition predate the New Testament – and certainly our own modern politics. 

Just can’t help throwing in a couple of additional wise-guy remarks.

I can’t find any place in the Bible where it talks about tithing 10% of one’s income from labor, but only 5% of one’s income from investing.

I did find a reference in Exodus 27:32 concerning giving a tenth of one’s livestock.  It’s pretty easy to measure out a tenth of one’s grain no matter how little there is, but what happens when one has an odd number of sheep or cattle?  The instruction was to let them pass through a gate at their own random pace, and set aside every tenth one for the Lord.   So, it would seem, someone with only 17 sheep would only have to tithe one.  And someone with fewer than ten cows would get the equivalent of a standard deduction in today’s terms, and not pay a tithe on cattle.

I wonder how many ancient Hebrews had fewer than 10 head of cattle.  Perhaps 47%?

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