I did the following interview with Dow Jones columnist Al Lewis:
See the first installment of this series: Sweeter than Honey I: Introduction
Petros continues the series of posts comparing the law codes of ancient Israel, the United States Constitution, and the Internal Revenue Code. This post considers what the law implies about the purpose of man.
Laws guide behaviour of people in a community. They instruct what the member of the community is forbidden to do and what the member of the community must do. They therefore imply something about the nature of man (both men and women) and his purpose. We shall therefore look at three different law codes to determine what these they imply about man’s purpose.
The purpose of man in the Ten Commandments and the Torah
The Ten Commandments begin with the line, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” God, who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them, had set apart the children of Israel as people unto himself. Furthermore, he had demonstrated to them his power and his concern for them by setting them free from the slavery of Pharaoh in the most dramatic fashion. Therefore, he set the Torah over them as a suzerainty treaty with blessings for those who obey and curses for those who refuse.
Now first, the Ten Commandments govern man’s relationship to God: (1) to worship the God exclusively and to worship no idols (Commands 1-2); (2) to not use his name in vain (Command 3); and to keep the Sabbath day holy set apart for rest and for the worship of God (Command 4). Secondly, the Ten Commandments (esp., 4-10) guide relationships between humans to maintain peaceful relationships within the community. The rest of the Torah sets events of the Exodus in a narrative context and provide casuistic embodiment to the Ten Commandments. Thus, the Pentateuch is a sort of narrative commentary on the basic laws set out in the Decalogue.
The Decalogue can be further epitomized in two commands, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut 6.4); and, “… love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD” (Lev 19.18). Each of these commands relies on the nature and character of God and his relationship to the people. Thus, the Torah claims that man’s purpose under the Law is to love God and to love his neighbour.
The purpose of man in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
The purpose of man in the Constitution stems from the great awakening of the individual conscience in Western culture that began to blossom with the Renaissance and came to fruition in the Enlightenment: man is now an individual and his greatest good is to pursue happiness as a free person; this is man’s God-given, inalienable right, as enshrined into the basis of U.S. law by the Declaration of Independence. The People later established the Constitution in order to form a more perfect government which would protect the rights which the colonists had fought for in their Revolutionary War of independence from King George of England. The Constitution created three branches of government with limitations of power; each branch could check and balance the others. Moreover, the Constitution strictly limited these powers. Yet the states would not ratify this text without a further Ten Amendments, all of which strictly and explicitly limit the power of the Federal Government. Indeed, the Tenth Amendment says that the United States has only explicit powers and any other power not explicitly laid out in the constitution was to be the sole reserve of the States and the People:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
The purpose of man in the Internal Revenue Code
The convoluted Internal Revenue Code is too extensive for a layman to discern a coherent narrative. Therefore, it is perhaps best to allow the IRS, that body created to enforce the code, to explain to us what is the purpose of man. In a newsroom release, the IRS explains how it is necessary to do past un-filed returns; it offers the following rationale:
Filing tax returns and paying the correct amount of tax is good citizenship. Conscientiously discharging this duty contributes to our nation’s well being and provides peace of mind. And failing to file returns can jeopardize a family’s financial security and future.
This is amazing. The two inevitabilities of life are death and taxes. Imagine if everyone believed that our purpose is to die–then what would be the point in continuing? And yet, the IRS says, in not so many words, “Your purpose is to pay taxes.” Indeed, we see that this mentality pervades the IRS. In a recent comment at the Isaac Brock Society, by 30-yr IRS Vet, who worked in the bowels of the IRS as a litigator, we learned the following rational for FATCA (emphasis mine):
FATCA was conceived because our system of voluntarily self-reporting income and deductions was not working. The theory is, in a democratic society, the government has no right or reason to know what assets we hold or the extent of our personal wealth. The theory is that with an enlightened and educated citizenry, we are on our honor to honestly report our gains and losses on our tax returns. Unfortunately, the government concluded that that was not happening and many Americans were using off shore bank accounts and other foreign investments to cheat their fellow Americans by not paying their fair share.
FATCA was designed to target Americans who were cheating on their taxes through the use of offshore accounts. FATCA is a sad commentary on the fact that in some instances, our honor system was not working. No one in the US government was thinking of Canadian citizens who had little or no connection to the United States when FATCA was enacted.
This accurately reflects the mentality of the IRS. The purpose of man is that each pay his fair share of taxes. That is the greater good. In order to achieve that we must sacrifice our working theory of a democratic society, that each individual has inalienable rights, such as the right not to have his castle ransacked by government without a specific warrant–the intent of the Fourth Amendment was to abolish general warrants such as FBAR, which requires citizens to divulge their bank papers to government without the need of a warrant based on probable cause. But why would Congress create an IRS that had the power to levy draconian fines upon a people for refusing to relinquish voluntarily their Fourth Amendment rights? Because the purpose of man has changed from that of seeking his own happiness in a free country–to one of paying his fair share of taxes.
The real problem for Christians, Jews or adherents of any other religion, is that the Internal Revenue Code redefines humans as no longer owing their allegiance first to their god, but it makes the state itself into the god to whom one owes full allegiance. In a real sense then, the Internal Revenue Code recognizes no other god except the State and expects all others to bow down only to the State. And the IRS are the priests of this state religion. It is not the first time that a political power has required worship. One only needs to look at defied Roman emperors to whom one had to burn incense or die, or at the Chinese emperors or Egyptian Pharoahs who were worshipped as gods on earth. This is idolatry of the state, and those who actually still believe in the Ten Commandments must resist it, as the First Commandment states: “You shall have no other gods before me.” But also to the secularist living in a secular state, the making of the state itself into a god, to whom all allegiance is due, is repugnant.
David son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah wrote many psalms. One such psalm records the following words as translated from the original Hebrew text (Psalm 19:7–10; RSV):
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
This text is striking when we compare it to our own situation vis-à-vis the Federal Law code in the United States. The law of Israel was summarized in the Ten Commandments and expanded in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch or the Torah. The Ten Commandments contain 149 words in the Hebrew text. The whole Torah contains about 80,000 words in the original text. It is simple, understandable, even elegant.
The basis of the laws of the United States is the constitution and the most important principles contained in it are the first Ten Amendments. The US constitution (body) contains about 4500 words; the first Ten Amendments are 482 words. It is simple, understandable, even elegant.
The number of words in the Internal Revenue Code is a difficult thing to estimate. One blogger writes:
By the way, if you go to the US Government Printing Office (www.gpo.gov), you can order a complete set of Title 26 of the US Code of Federal Regulations (that’s the part written by the IRS), all twenty volumes of it, at the bargain price of $974, shipping included.
According to the US Government Printing Office, it’s 13,458 pages in total. The full text of Title 26 of the United States Code (the part written by Congress–available for an additional $179) is a mere 3,387 printed pages, bringing the adjusted gross page count to 16,845.
The number of words has been left as an exercise for the student.
The Internal Revenue code is difficult, obtuse, requiring experts to understand it. Can you imagine anyone extolling this Internal Revenue Code as sweeter than the honey? No? I can’t either. Yet David wrote many generations after Moses handed down the law. David wrote Psalm 19 not as a lawyer, a priest or a king, though he became king of Israel later; but as a poor shepherd boy who tended sheep and composed many of his great hymns as he worshipped God under an open sky. He was just an ordinary person who had great admiration for the law of his people.
He looked to the law to guide him in his everyday life, to show him wisdom and to understand what is right and wrong. He often fell short. He is a famous adulterer and murderer. He found himself in violation of the Law, and yet I would venture that even at the end of his life, after so many miserable failures, he could still sing the words of Psalm 19 to the God of the Torah.
By contrast, I have no praise for the Internal Revenue Code of the United States. Who does? Even those who enforce it find it so hopelessly complicated that they inadvertently violate its demands (Geithner) or require a professional in order to comply with it (Shulman). I only have loathing and resentment for this so-called law that instructs me neither in wisdom nor in the difference between right and wrong. It is only a burden put on my shoulders that I am unable to bear. This law is oppressive and destructive. It makes what should be a free people into slaves. It is more bitter than vomit in my mouth.
I propose in the next few days to discuss the IRS code in comparison to two other great law codes: (1) the Ten Commandments and the Torah; and (2) the Bill of Rights (Ten Amendments) and the United States Constitution. Over the course of these posts I will compare these law codes under the following categories:
- The purpose of man
- The purpose of the law
- The knowability of the law
Law is not supposed to be a thing that causes estrangement and hostility. Rather, it should guide our relationships with one another and help us to achieve harmony and prosperity, what the Hebrews called shalom. When law helps us achieve shalom, it is sweeter than honey. Our laws today do not lead to shalom; they have become instead an instrument of State control in our lives, and thus they have become more bitter than vomit.
A letter to the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, an association with over 8000 members, informing him why the author will not be renewing his membership: The US Federal Government is persecuting American citizens abroad of whom the author is one.
It is easier perhaps for poorer Christians who make only enough to survive to justify all their expenses and their lifestyles, than for Christians who are upwardly mobile. As a one gets wealthier, tastes in cars, restaurants, housing, and entertainment all become more expensive.
When I was a doctoral student, the Mrs. and I lived on about $35,000 per year (inflation adjusted)–and that included expensive tuition. Now our expenses are easily triple that amount. Is such lifestyle inflation justifiable?
Thanks to a comment in an e-mail from blogger Paul Williams, I’ve learned that Dave Ramsay, whom I’d never heard of, has recently bought a house worth nearly $5 million. Ramsay has a radio show and is in the business of giving advice to Christians about how to get their finances in order, though I have no basis for determining if Ramsay’s teaching is based on sound biblical interpretation, because as I said, I’d never heard of him. But Paul Williams asks the pertinent question if a Christian should even live in a five million dollar house. And certainly any Christian who has a public presence like Dave Ramsay will be questioned about how they are using their money, particularly if they seem to live in such opulence while teaching others how to live frugally (though one should bear in mind that that’s four million in US dollars–which have no intrinsic value).
So Paul has asked me to respond to his comments. And I would say that he is right, that Christians, whether in the public eye or not, must be accountable to one another. Otherwise, why would the Apostle Paul in 1 Tim 6 advise Timothy concerning instructions to the wealthy? So it is a biblical non sequitur that Christians don’t have to answer to one another about their use of their own money, as some are wont to say. Yes it is their money, but the root word for Christian community is koinonia/κοινωνία (pronounced key-no-KNEE-a), whose root meaning is “sharing”. So a balanced Christian teaching would respect property rights while learning how to share and create a community in which the members love one another and reach out to the world with the message of reconciliation that God offers to the world. It is not a community in which members are required to give a tenth or some other part of their increase and never think again about the Kingdom of God. That churches may have many members like that is besides the point. That is not Christian community but just another social club where members pay dues.
But because we must also balance community with property rights, it is difficult for me, because I don’t know Dave Ramsay nor his church, to pronounce any kind of opinion on whether he should or should not have bought this house. But I agree with Paul, what someone does with their money is not just a matter of that person alone or his family, but it concerns the church too.
This subject is important to the righteous investor. As we have argued elsewhere, the righteous investor’s goal is not to attain wealth in order to enjoy the good life. Often the righteous investor could just quit and live comfortably and well from his existing wealth. Why take risks with capital just so that one can live a more wasteful and indulgent life? Rather, the righteous investor will be motivated by the charismatic gift of giving and will desire to increase net worth for the purpose of creating a continuous revenue stream to benefit the Kingdom of God, for Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
I can’t judge Ramsay. But I can judge myself. There is room for Christians to judge first themselves (Matt 7.1-5; 1 Cor 11.31), and we also have the responsibility to help other Christians be accountable before God and the Christian community about how they use their finances. So if I were to buy an expensive house or any other thing, I would have to ask myself some basic questions:
(1) Is my purpose to further the agenda of the Kingdom of God? If I buy a large house, is it so that I can (a) host the church for Bible studies or even Sunday worship (as in the early church); (b) provide housing for retirees, widows or orphans; or a hospice care for the dying? I often regret living in a house that is so small that I cannot really do some ministries.
(2) Is the purpose of my spending to create or run my home business? If I buy a large house in order to run a home business, it is justifiable. For example, I barely have enough room in our current house, which we bought when our income was an eighth of what it is today, and therefore I would consider moving to a more expensive house in order to have more space for my research business and my wine making.
(3) Is my spending a justifiable expense with regard to the enjoyment of wealth for the purpose of rest, relaxation or entertainment? For example, we own a large screen TV, and the watching of DVD’s is a chief source of cheap entertainment; we also go on a get-away vacation, typically 10-20 days a year. But these are necessary things if we are too be able to keep up a pace of arduous labour during the year. We drink sparkling mineral water from Italy. It is inexpensive compared to other beverages, but it’s good for us and doesn’t make us fat. In the end, we believe that the funding God provides for us will permit us an enjoyable life and permit us to give generously to the Kingdom of God. God is not a kill joy who wants to squash our every attempt to have fun or to enjoy our wealth, but rather he “richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6.17).
(4) Does my spending give honour where honour is due? At times it is necessary to spend in an apparently opulent manner in order to give honour where honour is due. Mary of Bethany honoured Jesus with an extremely expensive perfume (John 12.1-8); and Judas Iscariot, the hypocrite, rebuked her with specious argument that the money could have been given the poor. The value according to Judas was 300 denarii which is the equivalent in those days of about 600 days wages of a skilled labourer. At Ontario minimum wages, such a perfume would have been at least $40,000 CDN; and yet Jesus defended Mary because she gave honour where honour is due (Rom 13.7). So as Christians we have to remember not to be cheap like the hypocrite Judas but to spend money appropriately when necessary–whether it is a funeral or wedding, or the birthday or anniversary of a beloved parent or grandparent. We must show honour. Our wedding was at the Delta Inn in order to show honour to our guests, and not at the first ugly restaurant that we looked at. My father-in-law would have been ashamed had we chosen such a dive, for it would have shown disrespect to all his guests.
(5) Does my spending improve the life of anyone? For example, I’d far rather eat at a restaurant and leave a nice tip to my server than to have the government confiscate my wealth and give it to people with whom I have no connection. A wealthy person who regularly eats at restaurants provides jobs. I have two people who work regularly in my home, a full-time research assistant and a housekeeper (one day a week). These expenses may seem luxurious to some, but they need no other justification than that they free us up to our revenue generating activities and they provide a source of income for others. This would apply also to the expensive vacation that we take, because whether it is a luxury cruise or a resort, the guests at such places are served by people who need jobs to survive. Why would we, as Christians, want to question the sort of consumption that provides jobs for people, which is far better than welfare because it doesn’t humiliated them into accepting charity without working? Yet in our day this is an easy target of those who promote class envy. But we know that Job and Abraham, men held up as biblical examples, had large households with many hired servants, and perhaps some slaves as well. Many early Christian householders who were stalwart leaders in the early church owned slaves and had hired servants, and in doing so, they were able to redistribute their wealth in a manner which is far less problematic than our current welfare system.
(6) Is my spending a good temporal investment? It may at a times be a good investment, particularly in a temporary downturn, to buy a house that one intends to flip once the economy improves and the real estate market recovers. I seriously doubt that this is a good time for real estate in the US but I cannot judge another, who is real estate savvy and buys a house for such a purpose.
(7) Is my spending a good eternal investment? I want to imagine that Kingdom of God works in a way that is similar to investing. When investing in company, I ask myself if the investment has the ability (a) to provide a revenue stream; and/or (b) to multiply in value. If I had five million dollars to invest, would I buy a 5 million dollar house to live in? Or would I build a seminary in Latin America or Africa? Which would reap greater rewards for me in the Kingdom of God? I ask this question because I was involved in theological education overseas and trying to raise funds for that venture. I thought that theological education could be a means of raising up sound biblical teachers, providing much needed leadership infrastructure for young churches, and addressing the needs of AIDS, poverty and war in distressed countries, through Christian education and changing the hearts of people towards God. While I now question methods and assumptions I previously held, the challenge remains. Then again, I could live in a one million dollar house instead and give four million to build a hospital and provide a few staff members for a few years in a country that has few such facilities. I could build and staff a medical school in some countries. For crying out loud, the ministries that could be done here in North America require very little imagination. I know missionaries at one of the Mohawk Territories here in Canada who do Christian work and are underfunded by a thousand a month. I could help them build a community house where they could teach Mohawk children how to live for Jesus. What about inner city missions where homeless are fed and offered the good news of the gospel? These are the things I could do and I believe that my reward in heaven would probably be greater than if I bought and lived in a five million dollar home.
Here are some of the criteria that I use to judge my own use of money. The questions don’t always have cut and dried responses, and context and motive are very important. But once we have judge ourselves and have removed the planks from our own eyes, we may be able to help our Christians brothers and sisters to ask similar questions of their use of wealth. May the Lord help us.