This is my fourth post for Joe Carter's collaborative project Jesus the Logician (which would better be described as Jesus's Reasoning).
In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus caps off his diatribe against the rich scribes who dress majestically, love popularity, and receive much honor from human beings but who are merely showy without real piety and in fact devour widows' houses. As he looks up while saying this, he sees rich people depositing their gifts to the temple, while a poor widow put in just two coins. He says, "this poor widow has put in more than the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (Luke 21:1-4, NIV)
Jesus is not telling the literal truth when he says that she put in more than others. Of course she didn't. She put in a tiny amount. It wasn't more than they put in. But "out of their wealth" they didn't put in very much, and out of "all she had to live on" she put in 100% of it. In other words, she put in 100% of what she had to live on, and they gave a tiny percentage of their surplus.
This is quite an argument, given the context. He's talking about the pride people take in things they do, the honor ascribed to them for their deeds. This is one deed that rich people can take much delight in doing, giving such large amounts and being the primary funders of the temple. We've seen the same sort of thing in recent weeks with billionaires giving very large gifts for tsunami relief. Yet for many of these people, that sort of gift is a drop in the bucket. It doesn't amount to a real sacrifice on their part by any means. When the business is counting sums, they can say they were responsible for a much greater share, but when the business at hand is moral evaluation, as those who take delight in having a high public opinion are doing, then it's irrelevant to the issue of how great their gift is in terms of an absolute measure. What's relevant to moral evaluation is how great the gift was in terms of what resources were available and what other needs someone might have to put those reasouces toward.
This exact issue comes up with taxation, with one crucial difference. The current U.S. system of taxation is progressive. It's designed to take into account the kind of thing Jesus is talking about here. Conservatives who insist on a flat tax have to get around the problem he's raising, since their argument for a flat tax is that we should treat everyone absolutely equally. The problem is that treating poor people equally requires taxing them so that the sacrifice for them is fairly similar to how taxation affects rich people. The only way to do that is to make it so there's not very much sacrifice at all, and really poor people just don't pay taxes the way things are right now. I should know. I'm one of those people who don't make enough money to owe any taxes besides the mandatory ones in my paycheck like social security and medicare/medicaid. They also try to make it so that middle class people pay a smaller amount than richer people to make it less burdensome for them, but I think it's fairly obvious that middle class incomes require far higher taxes when compared with resources and expenses in the relevant way. So the argument Jesus is giving here is recognized as fairly important for some purposes by all who accept the progressive income tax.
The one caveat I have is that Jesus isn't talking about taxation. He's talking about what kind of gift, offered by one's own choice, not by government mandate, should count as a morally superior gift. He's saying that choosing to give more money doesn't necessarily make a gift better, not if the smaller amount is coming from someone who has much less to begin with. That doesn't say anything about what the government should collect from people of higher or lower income. I think it does say that a just system of taxation needs to keep in mind that poorer people have less to give and thus are sacrificing more when they give the same percentage. I don't think the only way to acknowledge that is with a progressive system like ours. Ralph Nader's proposal to tax everyone at 35% except those who make less than $100,000 would also take that into account.