Supporting Caesar, Honoring Caesar’s Boss

Tax forms“Done for another year!” I yelped around nine o’clock last night as I put the finishing touches on our federal and state income tax returns. (Okay, I know at least half of you are muttering, “Show-off …,” while the other half are saying, “What took you so long? I filed mine weeks ago!”)

The annual late-winter chore is not a favorite of any of us. But, as Jesus said, we must “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Luke 20:25)—even as we debate with Uncle Caesar about how much he really needs.

All those numbers on the forms do have a way of clarifying our financial state. Once a year, we see in black and white just how much money we’ve accumulated, from multiple sources. Those of us who itemize deductions scurry around hunting for every medical outlay, mortgage interest payment, tax write-off (don’t forget the deductible portion of your car’s license plate fee), and charitable contribution, hoping to shave the taxable portion as low as possible. That last category—donations—brings us to the second part of Jesus’ words: “Give back … to God what is God’s.”

I saw an interesting map the other day[1] showing donations to charity as a percentage of adjusted gross income, reported state by state. Leading the way by far, at 6.56 percent, was Utah. (Apparently Mormon bishops don’t mind talking to their people about tithing.) In second place was one of the poorer states in the nation, Mississippi, at 4.99 percent. Third place went to its neighbor Alabama, at 4.81 percent. The stingiest of all? New Hampshire (1.74), Maine (1.95), Vermont (2.00), New Jersey (2.01).

But enough of nosing around in what other people give. How about you and me? If you want to face the truth about your generosity, here’s the simple math: Take your “Gifts to Charity” total (Schedule A, Line 19) and divide it by your “Adjusted Gross Income” (Form 1040, Line 37). Are you okay with the percentage revealed, or not?

Of course, some of what we “give back to God” isn’t recognized under IRS rules. We buy a warm coat for a needy child, or we pay for breakfast so we can encourage a troubled single parent. It’s what Jesus wants us to do as his hands and feet in this world, whether it qualifies as a tax deduction or not.

The truth of the matter is, many of our brothers and sisters in other lands get no tax benefit from any of their giving. Can you imagine the governments of Nepal or Belarus or Congo giving a tax break for what goes in a church’s offering plate? Christians in those environments must give purely because they want to honor God; there’s no other incentive.

If the United States ever knocked out its deduction for charitable donations … how would it affect your giving? Would your percentage stay the same, or start to shrink?

My wife and I have, in the past few years, set up our Quicken software to sort giving into four distinct sub-accounts:

  1. Local (giving to our church and other nearby ministries)
  2. Missions (giving to outreach ministries beyond our local area)
  3. Secular (worthwhile organizations—e.g., the Alzheimer’s Association, the Boy Scouts—that aren’t specifically Kingdom-focused)
  4. “Alms” (giving that Jesus would approve, even if the IRS doesn’t)

As you can, see Categories 1, 2, and 4 have spiritual significance; they are “laying up treasure in heaven” (Matt. 6:20). Only categories 1, 2, and 3 get tax benefit on Schedule A.

And we’re okay with that. Caesar and Caesar’s Boss don’t always think alike on these matters.

If we Western Christians are not careful, our giving decisions can become skewed by the ever-present “What’s in it for me?” question. If I give, what do I get in return? A tax deduction? A book or CD as a thank-you? An annual report that proves my gift was well used? My name on a plaque somewhere? An entrance into an elite circle of pampered donors? Our American style of giving has become highly transactional, it seems. (For more on this, see my article “Are You Giving, or Shopping?”)

In contrast, Jesus put it very simply: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matt. 10:8). He didn’t worry about how the revenue department would view that. And neither should we.

[1] “Databank USA,” AARP Bulletin (Dec. 2014), p. 36, using Chronicle of Philanthropy analysis

1 Response

  1. The tax write-off question hits us where we live, doesn’t it? I’d like to think I would still give as I do now, but I may be fooling myself. I wonder how many justifications I would come up with. I expect we will find out some day.

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