Taxes and “dishonest wealth”

It’s a 33-minute drive from my house to the Colorado Department of Revenue in Colorado Springs. How do I know that? I needed to have some triage performed on my Colorado income tax return. My “October Surprise” this year was a letter saying that my return had been adjusted and I owe them enough additional taxes, penalty, and interest to get my attention.

I used that drive to think about how taxes work and the meaning of “dishonest wealth.”

Image by tswedensky

What’s in your pockets?

By Steve Leininger
Philippians 4:10-19
Luke 16:9-15

It’s a 33-minute drive from my house to the Colorado Department of Revenue in Colorado Springs. How do I know that? I needed to have some triage performed on my Colorado income tax return. My “October Surprise” this year was a letter saying that my return had been adjusted and I owe them enough additional taxes, penalty, and interest to get my attention.

For two days before my appointment, I printed out returns, adjusted returns, supporting documents, and rules that I may or may not have violated. After studying the rules, my returns, and talking to a tax expert (Don), I decided I was pretty sure that TurboTax and I were right, and the state of Colorado was wrong. 

Colorado income tax should be a fairly simple process. Take your federal taxable income, subtract any Colorado-specific deductions to get your Colorado taxable income. Multiply that by 0.045 and that’s your tax. If you did something the state wants you to do, you may also have a credit which will reduce the final amount payable for your Colorado tax. Often when you get a deduction or a credit, you must send in documentation to show that. Somehow, the Department of Revenue had lost the documentation I sent in. But I had copies of everything I had sent in at tax time and receipts for the documents that were “e-filed.” I was prepared to show that the mistake must have been on their end. 

My drive to the Colorado Springs Tax Service Center gave me some time to reflect on why the state of Colorado allows deductions and tax credits. It would have been simpler to just take their 4.5% of the federal taxes and be done with it. The net tax is used to pay for anything the state has responsibility for. Things I use every day and things I would never use but is part of everything Colorado. 

In my case, I have a deduction every year for money put into college savings for my 4 grandchildren. The amount put into the accounts is subtracted from my federal taxable income amount before the tax calculation is made. This is the state’s way of saying thank you for taking care of your kids or grandkids education. 

Tax credits have a much greater influence on your final tax bill. It is the government’s way of encouraging you to direct your money into projects that ultimately meet part of the local community’s social program needs. In Colorado, there are several organizations that accept donations through a local “enterprise zone.” The Enterprise Zone Contribution Tax Credit provides a tax credit to Colorado taxpayers that contribute to targeted enterprise zone projects. These are vetted projects like the Marion House (part of Catholic Charities) and Salvation Army. Both of these organizations provide broad community support to those in need much more efficiently than could be done by the cities where they are located. The tax credit for a portion of your donation is a BIG THANK YOU from the state of Colorado in recognition that an individual’s funding projects are such a big help to the cities’ mission of providing services to all citizens.

In today’s first reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we have Paul thanking the Philippians for their concern and generosity, even after he had moved on from Philippi during his second missionary journey. He states that he has become self-sufficient because “I have strength for everything through him who empowers me.” [Philippians 4:13]

He thanks the Philippians for their support as he moves on from the start of his preaching of the good news:

You Philippians indeed know that at the beginning of the Gospel,
when I left Macedonia,
not a single church shared with me
in an account of giving and receiving, except you alone.
For even when I was at Thessalonica
you sent me something for my needs,
not only once but more than once. 

[Philippians 4:15-16]

Like the department of revenue, Paul thanks the Philippians greatly for their generosity:

It is not that I am eager for the gift;
rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account.
I have received full payment and I abound.
I am very well supplied because of what I received from you
through Epaphroditus,
“a fragrant aroma,” an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.
My God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. 

[Philippians 4:17-19]

Here, the “profit that accrues to your account” will assure that “God will fully supply whatever you need.” The currency is God’s “glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

The punch line of today’s Gospel reading today is a familiar one, also heard in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:24.

“No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.” 

[Luke 16:13]

So, we need to know who this “mammon” is. Scholars tell us that mammon is wealth regarded as an evil influence or false object of worship and devotion, in other words, the love of money. 

The beginning of the reading was confusing to me at first, but let me extend the department of revenue model to help explain things. It starts out:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  

[Luke 16:9]

Jesus is in the middle of delivering a barrage of parables, or teaching stories, to his disciples, or followers. If we backup from chapter 16 in Luke to the beginning of chapter 15, we find these followers include tax collectors and sinners who were all drawing near to listen to him

So the phrase “dishonest wealth” is somewhat confusing. Jesus had just finished “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward” where the steward, on the cusp of being fired, gives back his ill-gotten extortion of his master’s debtors in order to secure their favor. His dishonest wealth was the amounts requested from the debtors for the stewards own dishonest gain.

But dishonest gain probably means more than that. I believe that Jesus is referring to one’s “excess wealth”, or that beyond what you need to be take care of family and business is the real “dishonest wealth.” Spread that around or “make friends for yourself” is the right way to “be welcomed into eternal dwellings”, which is heaven.

That’s like a HUGE tax credit, don’t you think?

Note that in this reading, we are not given a list of where to share our dishonest or “excess” wealth, but we are called to do something pleasing to the ultimate taxing authority, our God in heaven. Ponder the rest of the good news and let your heart guide your actions, so that you can enter heaven with no remaining dishonest wealth in your pockets.

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