Readings: I Thessalonians 1: 1-10, Matthew 22: 15-22
A couple of weeks after hearing a sermon on Psalms 51:2-4 (knowing my own hidden secrets) and Psalm 52:3-4 (lies and deceit), a man wrote the following letter to the Taxation Department:
`I have been unable to sleep, knowing that I have cheated on my income tax. I understated my taxable income, and have enclosed a cheque for $150.
If I still can`t sleep, I will send the rest.`
First of all some apologies for beginning with a rather weak joke-I did search diligently for a joke about taxation and found some - but the subject is so sensitive for so many people that only a very few were funny. The second apology is because you have probably heard other sermons on the subject of taxation and wonder if anything can be said that you haven`t heard before. The third apology is that I should disqualify myself from the subject of taxation because I haven`t submitted a return for at least 5 years. (Being a non-earning pensioner has some advantages.)
But it isn`t very easy to simply ignore the tax issue because it features so often in the media-we have a state government which is desperately trying to raise more revenue, but the idea of an increase in gold tax failed, the GST issue remains unresolved and there is an outcry about an increase in payroll tax. I am not sure if the Federal Government has been able to extract tax money from the very large international companies who earn a lot of their money in Australia but deposit much of their profits elsewhere. The problem goes on all around the world with a report in last Wednesday`s paper that Daphne Carauna Galiizia, a Maltese investigative journalist who exposed the Island`s links to offshore tax havens, was murdered by a car bomb and I wonder how much of the money laundering scandal associated with the Commonwealth Bank included issues of tax avoidance.
Our reading from Matthew`s Gospel shows clearly that Jesus knew all about the problems of taxation. The Roman invaders demanded a payment of so much per head and this was supported by the Herodians who were given provincial power by the Roman rulers-on the other hand it was hated by the Jewish religious leaders who resisted payment to the occupying army. The purpose of the meeting of those who favoured the taxation issue, and those who opposed it, wasn`t to debate with each other but rather a joint effort to trap Jesus into saying something which could lead to his arrest by the Roman government. So the question is asked, `Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?`
If Jesus had replied that he was in favour of the tax the Pharisees would regard him as a traitor to his own people; if he was against the tax then he would be regarded as defying the Roman government. A bit like the old question, `Have you stopped being involved in domestic violence?` or more crudely `Have you stopped hitting your wife or husband?` A `yes` or `no` would always be very incriminating.
But the way Jesus, recognising their malice against him, answered their trick question by referring to the use of coins bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Caesar and telling them, `Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar`s and to God the things that are God`s`.
We are told that the Pharisees and the Herodians marvelled at the response from Jesus and we also know that echoes of that response have continued over long periods of time, for often the interpretation is that religion and politics should be kept firmly apart. Time and time again when religious people have made a comment or a protest about some issue of national or international importance-war, refugees, injustice discrimination, financial greed-they have been told to get on with their prayers and hymns but leave important decisions to the politicians. In some countries refusal to be silent has led to imprisonment and even to death. During the second world war there was a minority of German Christians who refused to go along with Hitler`s idea of creating a German Church. This minority met at Barmen from May 29, 1931 and created a Confessing Church, declaring that Jesus Christ was Lord and not Adolph Hitler, and that their obedience must always be to Christ. Karl Barth prepared a declaration which was supported by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Let me read just a few sentences from that declaration: `Jesus Christ as he is attested in holy scripture is the one word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and death. We reject the false doctrine that the Church could or should recognise . . . other events, powers, historic figures and truths as God`s revelation. We reject the false doctrine that there could be other areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other Lords.`
In making this declaration the Confessing Church, like Jesus, acknowledged the role of the state to maintain order and peace-taxes weren`t mentioned but it was implied that there was a legitimate role for the state to play. The Church should never assume the role of the state, and the state should never assume that it is the sole authority for the total order of human life. Not so long ago I asked a friend who is a Pastor of the state Church in Germany if he thought that the second world war could have been avoided if the German Church had opposed Hitler rather than the small confessing Church. He replied with two words: `Of course`. Perhaps millions of lives would have been saved if the German Church had `rendered to God the things that are God`s`.
I believe that if all the Churches in Australia were willing to speak with one voice about the way in which we treat refugees-the injustices inflicted on indigenous people, especially but not only in relationship to imprisonment-the widening gap between rich and poor leading to real homelessness and poverty-the way in which protecting the environment clashes with greedy development - then the Church would be rendering to God the things that are God`s. That of course, granted that we have such a variety of Churches, may be unrealistic but perhaps it is not impossible that at least the mainstream churches and the individuals who belong could at least speak out strongly and consistently.
In most churches the Lord`s prayer is spoken and it includes the words `your kingdom come, your will be done`. These words I believe are an expression of the hope that there will come a time when everything that belongs to God will be rendered to him-that his purpose for creation will be realised. In using these words, I believe that Jesus was calling on everyone to assist in the creation of God`s kingdom and if Christ`s church has no interest in doing this then perhaps we should omit these words and simply be satisfied in rendering to our modern Caesar whatever Caesar demands from us.