Sermon 18th October 2020
Sermon 18th October 2020: Tax and how to love it!
Today our Epistle reading looked at how the Thessalonians rejected idols and showed their faith, that was shown by their labours of love both in Christian community, and in wider society. They welcomed the message and revealed God not only through what they said, but through their suffering, they revealed God’s awesome power and word about the Thessalonians spread through the Church and abroad. Their faith became an example to us all and was immortalised through the pages of the Bible.
Turning to our gospel reading: It’s been said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. I’ve preached on death before so today I’m going to preach on what to some is an even more scary topic – taxes!
I have a quick question for you all today – who here (or listening to the recording) likes to pay taxes. What, no-one? Well, by the end of this talk I hope to convince you to love paying your taxes! Tough call, I know, but I’m going to try!
So today I’m going to be focussing on our reading from the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 22 verses 15 to 22. If you have a Bible, or a Bible on your smartphone you might like to look it up. I’ve preached many times here in the Parish of Widford but today I’m going to do something I’ve never done before – focus on a single verse in our Gospel reading, and I’m going to make three clear points. The first is that however much we think we have, we don’t actually own any money at all. The second is that it is a privilege, not a sentence, to help each other and wider society, and taxes are the way that happens to a very large extent. The third is that if taxes are a reality (which they are), we can love paying them and not see it as a chore. So, three things: No money is really ours, to pay tax is a privilege, and finally, we can actually love being taxed.
Here we go! Our text this morning is in Matthew 22 verse 21: ‘Render (give back) to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s’
Before we get to the three points, what is the context? As Jesus was nearing the end of his ministry, the Pharisees were desperate to trap him, so they got together with the Herodians (who wanted to see the descendants of Herod the Great back on the throne and the Roman occupying power gone) to set a trap for Jesus. They would ask Him whether tax should be payed to Caesar. If Jesus answered ‘pay your taxes,’ he could have been accused of colluding with an occupying power, and if He’d said ‘don’t pay your taxes’ Jesus could have been thrown in Jail – even killed, by the Romans. Either way, the Pharisees were 100% sure they would win and Jesus would lose.
Now, I should pause a moment and compare the motives of the Pharisees with the motives of Jesus. Like the Thessalonians, we are to emulate Jesus, so this is important! The Pharisees discounted Jesus’ faith, His followers, and the miracles He performed. All they wanted was Jesus dead, so they could continue with things as they were before his ministry. The Herodians were in cahoots with the Pharisees – so the two groups buried their differences so they could trap Jesus. They weren’t interested in which of the two options Jesus chose, they just wanted to crush Him, His ministry and His message. Compare that with Jesus. He’d had no privileged upbringing. He didn’t even have money in his pocket (as we read in this passage and elsewhere). He denied his deity to enter our world and to save us. His motives were pure, which as it turned out, was the best strategy to answer their trick question. So, the confrontation was set.
Even though the Pharisees intended their question to be a trap for Jesus, in His answer He used it as an opportunity to make a profound point. While there are earthly kings, rulers and governments, there will always be taxes.
And so to the first point. However rich you may be, you don’t actually own any money at all. Look at a five pound note. On it you will see a promise from the Queen to pay the bearer on demand the sum of five pounds. When you put money into a bank, or invest it in something like a house or any other investment, the value ascribed to it is merely what someone else will pay, or what goods and services you can get in return. The money on its own is useless, it’s the goods and services that really count! A five pound note is simply a special piece of paper with a promise on it. The promise is only as good as the word of the Monarch who makes it. Money is not tangible. It is not real. It is merely a means of trading goods and services between people. That’s why the love of money (not money itself) is said in the Bible to be a root of all evil. Love alone is everything. The promise of money is empty until the promise is fulfilled. If the Queen (or the Bank of England, or a person to whom you lend money) chooses not to ascribe value to your money, the money becomes as transient as a whisper in the wind.
So, when we have money in our pockets, or save money, we merely hold promises, or lend it to others for safe keeping. Hold this thought. Money is only as good as the promises of those who hold it, create it and trade it. So money is a promise.
Stay with me here, an explanation will be revealed in just a moment!
We need to take a step back and work out who is the most reliable one we know to deliver promises. The Queen is lovely, but it’s not her. It’s not stocks, shares, gold, property, art, goods, or possessions. It’s not even the Bank of England. The only promise worth betting your life on is a promise of God himself, because his promises, and only his promises, are eternal. So, when we get our money from our job, our family, our pension or the Government, were receive a promise that we can trade for things, but as we say of the Lord in our offertory prayer, ‘all things come from You, and of your own do we give You.’
So, here’s the explanation: however much or little money you have, all of it – the whole lot – ultimately came from God, just like the sun, moon stars, the world and you. We truly own nothing, not even the air we breathe. It all comes from God.
Once we realise that, it changes our view about money, and hence it changes our view about taxes. Any money we have all ultimately belongs to God. In his generosity, in the Old Testament, God could have rightly demanded it all, but He gave 90% back to each person, only asking them for the first 10%, the tithe, to fund the priests and the poor. People were free to give more if they wished. In the new testament we are encouraged to give cheerfully, but really we’re only giving back what already belongs to God, so if we give 10% to the Church and to God, with every decision we make we’re only deciding whether the 90% we haven’t already given back to God will be spent on others, or on us.
So that’s the first point. We own no money – it all belongs to God and he lends back to us what we haven’t already given him. It is Him that commands our love, not money. Money on its own is soulless and heartless. Anything God allows us to have temporarily in this life just another sign of his love. No amount of money would be sufficient to pay Him back. We will always be in His debt.
So what has this all got to do with paying taxes?
My second point is that it is actually a privilege to be asked to pay taxes. Yes, a privilege! Why? Because whatever money we may think we have is actually just lent to us from God and surely some of that can be for the benefit of others and to pay for things society does for us - and that’s why we can love paying taxes!
Think about it, so many people think that taxes are something other people should pay (or at least pay more than they do) so they can enjoy what the Government provides (which really means other mugs who actually pay taxes). What a negative attitude! Those people are missing out on the privilege of contributing to society.
Naturally, the Government decides what tax we pay and who pays what taxes, and whoever the Government happens to be, they are all human beings, so the payments may be unfair and we may disagree with the allocations, but that’s the system, we are all part of society, and if God tolerates these leaders, then I must too.
If you don’t like our Government, think for a moment about who was the Government in Israel at the time of Jesus. They were a brutal occupying power (Rome) who played fast and loose with the lives of their subjects and the nations they conquered, and taxed them heavily. They kept people in slavery. Their tax collectors sometimes swindled people and pocketed the profits themselves. They enriched themselves at the expense of the poor. Trust me, in most countries other than those suffering under extreme tyranny today, you would prefer whoever we have in Government in modern times, to the Romans.
So, taxes are fundamentally a way of redistributing the goods and services across all of society. If leaders are good, it’s done fairly, if they are bad or greedy, it’s done badly, but it’s still done. If we didn’t have taxes we couldn’t enjoy buses, trains, roads, schools, the NHS, security, education, local services and a hundred other things the Government spends taxes on. So, if the Government asks us to pay taxes, we pay them so across all people, we can share the burden of funding society. We render to Caesar what’s Caesar’s. Governments are merely God’s instruments of showing His love on earth, and at least here in the UK, if people don’t like what the Government is doing, they can vote them out at the next election. How blessed we are compared with Caesar’s subjects!
But can you see a theme developing here? We have a prayer: ‘All things come from You and of your own do we give You.’ Our Government is just as responsible as we are for being good stewards of our society. They are spending money that they have taxed from us – but that money wasn’t really ours – if we give away 10%, it was part of the 90% that was lent back to us by God! They are spending His money, not ours. We have merely entrusted that money (by earthly decree) to the Government, but they are answerable not only to the people but whether or not there is a democracy, they are actually answerable to God. Please pray for our leaders that they spend God’s money wisely.
But Jesus didn’t even have two pennies to rub together. When the Pharisees asked him ‘Is is right to pay the poll tax (that was a tax to conquered peoples) to Caesar or not?’ Jesus had to ask them to bring them the special coin used to pay it. They brought Him the coin. Knowing their hearts, Jesus answered these hypocritical questioners with a question of his own – whose face is on the coin? and when they answered ‘Caesar,’ his reply left them amazed. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
Which brings me to my third and final point. We’ve looked at our first point – all money we have is merely lent to us by God, we never really own it, we just look after it. Our second point was that when we pay tax, it really is a privilege to do so, because under God, with the goods and services they fund from tax our leaders are helping society. If you are rich then you pay more - which is even more of a privilege. If you are poor you still pay some tax on the goods you buy, and even if you are a net beneficiary, you have still made a contribution that has helped all of society.
And so to our third and final point, and the one of which I’m going to find it most difficult to persuade you.
You see, if you view all money has having first come from God then the answer Jesus gave makes total sense and we can love doing it. If you pay tax to the authorities you are paying to them something that God already owns. It may have been lent to us as a reward for our labours. It may have been won by us in the lottery or even stolen from someone else, but because it came from Him first, not just us, Governments themselves have only been lent this money that if they are good, they will use to help the functioning and improvement of society.
As a consequence, when each one of us pays the myriad of taxes the Government has inventively selected for us to pay, we can pay it cheerfully just like we give cheerfully, because we’re merely finding a new way to give back to God something that He first owned anyway.
As a consequence, the answer Jesus gave ‘Render to Caesar what’s Caesar’s and to God what’s God’s’ means we can pay taxes – and give away even more - and love God for all he has given us all at the same time. After all, it was God and not man who first provided the gold of the coin on which Caesar’s face was first struck!
So there you have it, the only two sure things in life are death and taxes – but Jesus has conquered death and all taxes really belong to God anyway, so we can all go in peace, love one another, be industrious, serve others, earn, give, spend, don’t worry, and be happy – to pay our taxes!