"Enter the figure from line 23 on line 28, unless it is larger than line 22, and then divide by whichever is the smallest number from lines 17a or 17b, and place the resulting figure on line 32."
After two evenings of reading instructions similar to those, I’m proud to announce that I’ve completed the Schnase family 2009 taxes well before the April 15th deadline. Our taxes are ready for filing. I’d love to share with you how cheerfully I fulfill this important and necessary civic responsibility, but in truth I find writing the final check to be a painful experience. The larger the number, the greater the indigestion. In any case, I’m glad to have it behind me for another year.
Whenever I delve into salaries and taxes, I’m reminded of the earliest years of my ministry. In June 1984, I was appointed to serve Wesley United Methodist Church in Harlingen, Texas, at a salary of $23,157. That number included pension payments, health insurance, death and disability insurance, parsonage utilities, and professional expenses. The actual “take home” pay was just under $1400 per month. In 1984, that salary represented one of the largest ever given to a probationary conference member fresh from seminary. Nothing was withheld for taxes.
As naïve as this sounds, I honestly couldn’t imagine what I was going to do with all that money! Esther and I had lived the poor life of students for so long—counting pennies, reselling books, using coupons—that this windfall of a salary seemed extraordinarily generous. We could fulfill our tithe, start a college or retirement fund, and set aside money for vacation. We could buy a car! I immediately began to read investment magazines and watch personal finance programs on television to learn how to manage our great wealth.
At the end of the year, I picked up the tax forms and began reading about how to pay taxes for clergy. Immediately I faced several harsh realities. First, since United Methodist pastors are considered by the IRS to be self-employed, I had already missed a couple of quarterly estimated payments that I had responsibility for paying. Penalties and interest were due.
Second, self-employed clergy pay both the employee’s and the employer’s Social Security costs. My “high” salary took me into the 28% tax bracket. Adding the 15.6% Social Security costs meant that more than 43% of every new dollar earned went to Uncle Sam! (If I were repeating the experience today in Missouri, I’d need to add another 6% for state taxes, meaning that 49% of my salary would be gone before I could buy my first Diet Coke!)
Third, I discovered that the Social Security costs are assessed not only according to the salary, but also for the rental value of the parsonage!
Reality set in. In my mind, I went from rich to poor in one day of reading. Jubilation turned to panic. Fourteen hundred dollars per month didn’t seem like very much anymore. If we continued to tithe on the complete salary, then all other spending, savings, debt retirement, investment, and giving would have to come from only 40-45% of the salary.
Luckily, we discovered all this early in my ministry and we began to form a lifestyle that allows us to live and save within our means. From that early lesson until today, we live on less than half of whatever income we receive. There have been seasons of our marriage when this discipline was easy—two jobs and no kids—and there have been times when this practice was extraordinarily difficult—two kids and one job.
Sensing a trap in the Pharisees’ question about whether God’s faithful people should pay their civil taxes, Jesus answers, “Give Caesar what is his and give God what is his.” The religious leaders are left speechless by Jesus’ cunning answer.
The practice of giving to God stands alongside the need to render unto Caesar. Generous giving encourages deeper reflection and greater exploration about wealth and how it relates to purpose and happiness. What is God’s, and how do we use what God entrusts to us with a sense of responsibility? What is our family’s definition of success? How wealthy do we hope we, or our children, will be, and why? What motivates us as a household, and what matters most to happiness? What will become of the wealth, or debt, which we accumulate? How much do we give, and why? What difference do we want to make in the world? How does giving influence, or reflect, our relationship with God?
These are all spiritual questions that arise from our dealing with money. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees leads us to spiritual exploration about one of the most challenging elements of daily living: How do we earn, spend, save, and give money?
Paying Caesar and giving to God: Both are important and necessary. The coercive power of the law assures our compliance in paying taxes. But only the training of the heart through the spiritual discipline of giving provides the strength for generosity. God uses our giving to reconfigure our interior lives and to establish a healthier relationship toward the material world we live in.
What do you think Jesus meant with his answer? How do you see the relationship between paying taxes and spiritual generosity toward God? What were the pivotal learning experiences that framed your spiritual understanding of money and wealth? Who are you learning from as you seek to balance the spiritual life and material living?
May the Lenten season grace you, and may you survive this year’s tax season with peace!