There is a story in the Gospel of St. Matthew where St. Peter comes to Jesus and wants to know how they are going to pay their taxes. The tax in question is a religious obligation for the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem, not an imperial levy demanded by Rome. Christ discusses the obligation to pay the tax, makes a very sound argument for why the Son of God ought to be exempted, and then says that they are going to pay it anyway so as not to offend the tax collectors standing at the gate.
Since he does not have a shekel to his name, Christ sends Peter fishing. When Peter brings back a fish, they open its mouth. Sitting there in the mouth of the fish is exactly enough money to pay the tax.
It is easy, especially in a time of rising costs and falling incomes, to become overly anxious about money. The media trot out financial advisers who seek to calm our fears by telling us we’ll be okay if we’ll cut back, save up and live more frugally until the economy improves. This is all good advice, but it is not the advice that Christ gives.
His position on money is radical. For example, when a brother comes to complain about an unjust apportioning of his inheritance in Luke 12:13-15, Christ does not immediately demand that the older brother make restitution. He is quite dismissive; he refuses to arbitrate the claim and warns both brothers against all temptations to avarice, “for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
The rebuke here is obvious. Presumably, both the brother who complained and the brother who withheld the inheritance were in the same position: Each had more than he needed. Christ uses their petty dispute to point out the futility of wealth.
Most North Americans, even in the middle of the present recession, are in the position of these two brothers. America’s “poverty line” in 2011 is well above the income level that would constitute fabulous wealth in most of the world. We take for granted amenities and comforts that our truly poor brothers and sisters would consider luxuries.
Christ’s warnings against riches should ring out all the louder when the financial pride of our culture is humbled by economic crisis. This is not a time to wring our hands, but a time to remember what money is — and what role it ought to play in life.
Our culture is one of obsessive efficiency. Intangible things like “quality of life” are measured almost exclusively in economic terms. We assume that an increase in wealth leads to an increase in happiness. Young people are encouraged to choose their profession by consulting the marketplace above all else, religious vows of poverty are seen as wasting human potential, and the solutions to social problems are framed almost wholly in terms of funding.
Even in the Christian press, there is often the suggestion that people who do not regularly invest in retirement savings plans or maintain a healthy balance in the bank account are irresponsible. One often hears that faithful Catholic couples “can’t afford” to have more children because they won’t be able to pay school fees or save up enough to pay for tuition. This is a sign of our times, for, while the Church’s fifth precept — “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church” — does not spell out how to help, or how much, there have been long periods in history when Catholics did as much as they could rather than as little as they needed to. In certain eras, voluntary tithing was the norm rather than the exception. Clearly, that’s no longer the case. No wonder our churches are ugly, our art nonexistent and our impact on social and political life severely diminished.
Which brings us back to the question of the temple tax in the mouth of the fish. Christ does not say, “Consult with your financial manager, figure out how much you can give without cramping your lifestyle, and then write out a check to God for whatever amount seems reasonable.” He asks for a blank check, upfront, without counting the cost — and without figuring out where the means are going to come from. He says, “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
Christ didn’t put a little nest egg aside so that he would be able to pay the tax when it came. He simply did the will of the Father. It is worth noting that, when the time came, he told Peter to go out and do his ordinary work. There was no way that Peter was going to pull up enough fish in one day to pay the tax, which was equivalent to an entire month’s wages. Yet, because Peter had been doing God’s will in the months preceding, when he went out, the money was there. From an earthly perspective, the “transaction” was not foreseeable, planable, manageable, or in any way secure, responsible or reliable.
Contrast this with the parable Christ tells to the two squabbling brothers. A man who has more than he needs decides to do what most of us would consider a wise thing: He gets himself a storehouse and puts his riches aside so that he’ll have them later when times are hard. Sounds prudent. Sounds provident. But Christ calls the man a fool: “This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Instead of placing our hope in material things, we are called by Christ to invest childlike trust in divine Providence: “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his Kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.”
Next time, we will look at the problem of poverty from a social perspective.
Melinda Selmys is head writer at VulgataMagazine.org.