The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s062g08 Sunday 29 19/10/08
'lawful to pay taxes?' Matthew 22.17
We should be quite clear; the question that the Pharisees ask is about paying taxes to the State, not to God. They already accepted and paid their tithes to God but they wanted to separate themselves from the real world, and live in their own little cocoon of the 'church' (aka synagogue) as they would have seen it.
In our world the question is not whether we pay our taxes to the State only the rich seem to manage to avoid these - but whether we should attend to our religious duties, including contributing to the Church.
In the days when this happened, the 'church' was the centre of community life. The synagogue was the place where children were educated, the sick and needy cared for and most of the social life revolved around the worshipping community. When people gave to the synagogue and the Temple, they were giving to contribute to the welfare of others. In most countries these days, education, health care and welfare are run by the State and the church is no longer the centre of social life. When (in Australia) we pay our taxes at 33% or 47% we are contributing to the welfare of others and the community around us. This is a significant contribution to God, for God wants the welfare of all. For the church to expect parishioners to contribute a further 10% to them, then this becomes somewhat unreasonable and God is portrayed as having an ego problem.
I well remember an enthusiastic (white) Australian teaching the biblical injunction to tithe to Sudanese refugees most of whom were receiving welfare benefits from the government. These people sent huge amounts of money back to the members of their families in the Sudan while 'living off the smell of an oily rag' here. This enthusiastic (white) Australian had little idea of the realities that faced these lovely people. It was just another example of the rich expecting the poor and needy to live up to their expectations.
We should not miss the fact that those who asked this question of Jesus about paying taxes, certainly did tithe already. It was precisely these who had Jesus killed. So tithing is not especially 'christian' and certainly doesn't exempt anyone from effectively crucifying others, and crucifying Jesus thereby.
Jesus was aware of their malice. Certainly it is malice towards Jesus, for he retorts, describing them as hypocrites. But it is also malice towards the State. The Pharisees were the separated ones, separated from the tax-collectors and prostitutes with whom Jesus associated, and separated from the 'movers and shakers' in society too.
They preface their words by describing Jesus as showing 'deference to no one .. you do not regard people with partiality'. Their malice was precisely because Jesus didn't defer to them; that he regarded other people as equal to them. So in fact (as they well realized) Jesus showed deference to all! That was the real scandal and the real reason for their question.
And Jesus tells them that he regards the demands of the State on an equal status as the demands of God! No wonder they were amazed and further scandalized! We can take the lesson that we too are not to set ourselves up as a subset separate from society, but to be a part of society, contributing as we are able. Certainly the Church does provide education, health care and welfare to the poor and needy, but often in competition with the State. Just this last week I was told that often in church schools students who misbehave sufficiently badly are expelled, relieving the school of the necessity of really dealing with the problem and passing it on to another school, often a State school, to fix!
Following on from last week's sermon about eternal life being **now** or never, Jesus ends today's gospel with the words: 'He is God not of the dead, but of the living'. God is not concerned about our eternal future, God is concerned how we live with others in the here and now.
Far be it from me to suggest I have any financial expertise or gift of telling what lies in the future. However it seems that President Bush's recent statement that we are in this together is a good realisation, though perhaps it's a bit late. We have in the western world an embarrassment of riches. Millions, billions and trillions of dollars have been found to try to restore confidence in the system but the millennium goals are forgotten. We are all in this together. No one can **win** over others. We sink or swim together it has ever been thus and it will always be thus. The 'church' needs the 'world'. Indeed if the world is not the church then the church is not the church. We will not be safe from the present financial turmoil in our little cocoon of the church and indeed any idea that the 'church' is a safe haven from the perils of real life is as much self-seeking as those who might seek their security in amassing wealth over others.
We too are to show deference to all, we too are to pay our taxes, for we can't take it with us. We make our heaven here and now, otherwise it will be too late.
I confess I'm not sure that millions, billions and trillions of dollars will actually fix the gap between the rich and the poor though I'm not about to suggest that we do not try :-)!
Those heroic Sudanese refugees I mentioned earlier came to Australia thinking that here was a land of plenty, and certainly in comparison to where they had come from it is indeed. But along with money comes a vastly higher cost of living. One cannot live in Australia like they used to in the Sudan or in refugee camps around about. One cannot even undertake a course of education in Australia without a computer and an internet connection! How do they explain this to their starving relatives back in Africa without them thinking that they have forgotten the hardships they have left behind?
If the problem is just money it is easily fixed. It really is about attitudes one to another and they are harder to change.
Just this afternoon I attended a concert to mark the end of Mental Health week. This comprised a choir, a percussion band and a rock band, (made up of mental health clients and friends) as well as a jazz band and an a Capella choir from the Orange Regional Conservatorium. The whole program was wonderful and more wonderful was the breaking down of the barriers between 'normal' and 'ill' people. We are all in this together. None of us can win when someone else loses. This was a real example of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring and while the rock band ended their bracket with a wonderful rendition of 'Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door' God was really not mentioned!
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