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On July 23, 1846, Henry David Thoreau was arrested for having refused to pay his annual $1.50 poll tax for 6 years, roughly $60 a year today, manageable, but it was the principle of the matter. He didn’t want his money supporting the ongoing Mexican-American War nor making him complicit in Southern slavery. He would go on to write: “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.”

Despite being arrested, it seems Thoreau underestimated the state’s willingness to use violence against people’s non-violent protests. I wonder what Thoreau thought of this story, often used to remind us to pay our taxes.

We have skipped over chapter 11. We will return to it in a few weeks, but Jesus has paraded into Jerusalem, come to the temple, turned over tables, and started teaching in the temple. Jesus is teaching about authority, and those in authority had thoughts about it. Jerusalem was the religious and political center of the people. So the leaders here were the most important, not like the synagogue leaders out there in the sticks of Galilee.

And Jesus begins to teach in parables. The first hearers might have remembered from Isaiah something we read in the early winter.

Let me sing for my loved one

    a love song for his vineyard.

My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.

He dug it,

    cleared away its stones,

    planted it with excellent vines,

    built a tower inside it,

    and dug out a wine vat in it.

He expected it to grow good grapes—

    but it grew rotten grapes. Isaiah 5:1-2

In Isaiah, it was the grapes and the vines that were to blame. Parables mean to throw alongside, Jesus tells his parable alongside Isaiah.

The parable was also thrown alongside the things happening in their time and place. The crowd that came with Jesus the Riff Raff From Galilee, many of them probably worked on farms like the one Jesus talks about in the parable. It’s possible the tenets who were working the land used to own it. And the owners of the farms now were likely the elite of Jerusalem, the political and religious leaders that were sitting near them even now.

I wonder if the leadership that was there heard the start of this story and thought “We’re the landowners. We’re like God from Isaiah 5.” And I wonder if the crowds From Galilee thought “Yeah do the things you have to do to take back the land that was yours from the beginning” as they were the tenants in the story.

Maybe the switch happened when Jesus talked of the beloved Son. The leadership was already starting to realize they needed to plan to have Jesus killed back in Chapter 3 of Mark. Maybe it was then they realized that Jesus was taking Isaiah’s Parable and throwing it on its head.

The landowner is not an allegory for God that represents them. But just God. And the vineyard still represents the Beloved Community that God was trying to build whether with the Hebrew people or this new Church community, it is the people who bear the fruit of love and justice.

But instead of blaming the vineyard for producing bad grapes, the ones responsible are the ones whose responsibility it was to care for, to nurture, and to do well by the grapes. I wonder when the leadership realized they were the tenants who killed the prophets and were plotting to kill Jesus. That Jesus was saying they had not cared for the vineyard and had not done Justice and sought Mercy and loved compassion on behalf of or toward the community they were supposed to be nurturing and cultivating. That they earned their wealth on the back of the poor. That they compromised who they were to the Empire for their survival and thriving. They thought they could own everything, own the vineyard, own the kingdom.

Jesus called out the leadership had been called out. And they were mad.

The reason this question about taxes is a trap for Jesus is because there were only wrong answers. For Jesus to say yes pay your taxes to roam was to invite the ire of the crowd that came with him that he’s telling them they should pay for their oppression at the hands of Rome. But to say not to pay your taxes is sedition I might get you executed by Rome. Jerusalem would stop paying taxes and would be invaded and destroyed by the empire in 70 CE.

7 You must have no other gods before me. 8 Do not make an idol for yourself

God seems pretty serious about that. And Emperors would have their own coins minted with their face on it and around 30 Common Era the coin with Tiberius’s face would Proclaim Tiberius son of the Divine Augustus. When proclaiming himself a god and creating an image. And so for many faithful choose even carrying that money would be considered blasphemy and certainly carrying it into the temple. And here we were with the religious leaders in the temple and they can produce a coin with the face of the emperor and the proclamation of the emperor’s divinity. Jesus has already won over the crowds who know now they are more faithful. They know that while the leaders have the emperor in their pocket, they are in the pocket of the emperor.

I think it’s likely, the one who told the wealthy young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor, meant to give everything with the Caesar’s image on it back to Caesar. Get out of the system that is oppressing you and others. And we aren’t left on our own, build the beloved community, the vineyard, with Jesus as the foundation–with justice and compassion and abundance and healing, where everyone has enough and everyone has a purpose. Where each of us is imprinted with the Image of the Divine, made in the Image of God, and so we offer ourselves back in gratitude and service and love and care for all that God loves–which includes ourselves, we’re not sacrificing ourselves, but it isn’t about just us. It’s about all of us, the whole vineyard, building the Kingdom of God here and now.

And sometimes we have to do it for ourselves. If, for example, our large corporate overlords are our modern empire, they are both giving money to and have in their pockets those whose job it is to care for us, the vineyard. And they have compromised and made out well on the backs of everyone else. And they have in their pockets their boards, while their workers make less than a living wage and have union conversations be the end of their jobs.

Or the early church that compromised with the Empire to ensure its survival and the church of the 70s that compromised with the Empire to assure its power. It leaders of the church to deny genocides, participate in capitalism that destroys the earth, the dehumanization of the other that their lives could be ended by slavery, colonization and empire building, and to display their learn cruelty displayed on fence posts and in bathrooms. It becomes Christian Nationalism, believing that the church should be the Empire. The empire from Assyria to Rome to even the US today, but so many other nations and empires today, rely on fear and are defined by violence. We can only stand in opposition to or compromise again, and again, and again.

So we build the beloved community, nurture and cultivate and care for the vineyard ourselves. When the leadership of a church, religion, state, nation, or corporations fail to live into their job to lead those they are tasked to care for, we have to build a beloved community and look out for each other. We house and feed each other. We become a shoulder, a ride, a listening ear. We show up. We march and protest but make sure everyone is hydrated. Hand out snacks.

I’m not saying don’t pay your taxes. I am saying, we should pay attention to whose lives and deaths we are complicit in, whose pocket we’re in, whose oppression we’re intentionally or unintentionally supporting and can we stop. And how many ways can we be a beloved community, that builds a beloved community, that cares for those the system has forgotten, ran over, and built wealth and power on top of?

How can our money, our time, our resources, our compassion, our energies be used outside of the systems of the empire and instead bring life, and life abundant?