Friday, April 16, 2010

The Tax Collector in Me

Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"
"Don't collect any more than you are required to."
Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?"
He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely - be content with your pay."
Luke 3:12-14

You gotta love John the Baptist. He pulls no punches. There's no beating around the bush when he's asked by these notorious lots, "What are we doing wrong?" In one sentence, he pierces the heart of the matter. We're not tax collectors and soldiers, but these words are penetrating for us as well, if we will just reflect for a moment on how this spirit of extortion creeps into our daily life and existence.

From the hourly employee all the way to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, there is room for extortion at our workplace. The devil has made sure of it. The hourly burger flipper can do time clock tricks that gain him 15 minutes here or there, he can spend time on the clock in the bathroom, contemplating his navel, he can stuff fries in his mouth when no one is looking and who's going to notice if he slips a Happy Meal toy out for his nephew? For a list of possible CEO and upper management abuses, just review the history of the fallen Enron executives, among many others.

Corporate greed happens in small businesses too. I'm self-employed, so I have no boss or stockholders to cheat, but I can sure jip my clients if I wanted to. I can do substandard work that I know will be enough for them, but not to my best ability. I can fudge on the time a task took me if I am working for hourly pay. Even if my contracts are watertight, I can always find some way to make a business expense out of a personal expense. Going to visit Mom the next state over? I'll just stop into a bookstore while I'm there and drop off a business card. Now the whole trip is a "legitimate" business expense.

I don't consider either of my parents to be the kind of people who are always looking to make a buck any way possible. In fact, they are both generous to a fault. So where does this propensity in me com from, to always be thinking of ways to weasel money? It is culturally pervasive, either overtly or as evidenced by the many controls to keep this money-weaseling nature in check, and moreover, it is just human nature.

Those who have had the experience of traveling off the tourist track in just about any Latin American country can tell you that bribery and extortion are practically institutionalized. There's no minor infraction of the law that can't be settled by slipping the officer a 20. Big trouble costs more. When I first saw this in action while I was in the Peace Corps, I was appalled. I quickly concluded that the whole system was corrupt and their justice was no justice at all if supported by bribery and extortion. It is so easy to see the splinter in the Ecuadorean's eye! If I turn my scrutinizing eye to my own countrymen, however, I have to hang my head in shame for Americans too. Whereas dishonest gain is outlawed and frowned upon, it certainly is as strong a nature in our culture, as evidenced by the many prohibitions, policies and procedures and technologies - everything from the time clock to the retina scanner - that we have in place to deal with it.

And if I look inward... shame on me. Not everyone struggles equally with every kind of sin. You may well be the kind of person who is always on the up and up and never trying to better yourself with office freebies, legitimized business expenses and extended bathroom breaks. The only way to know for sure is to pay some attention to yourself in this matter. Keep a watchful inward eye for the propensity to get more than is rightfully coming to you and you might be surprised at how natural an inclination this is.

What should we do? Be content with our pay.

Contemplate this: Am I justifying my sin nature to claim more than is due me?

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