Jesus and the Taxman

Preached on 30th October 2016 in St Salvator’s Chapel, The University of St Andrews

By The Reverend Kevin Maddy MA GMusRNCM FRSA,

Priest in Charge of St Stephen’s Canterbury, Chaplain to The Archbishop’s School & Honorary Minor Canon, Canterbury Cathedral.

I want to begin with the rather banal observation that no-one likes the taxman.  The Gospel presents us today with the story of Jesus and one such taxman, a chief tax-collector called Zacchaeus.  Just so that we are clear what we are reading about when reading this story, I want to concentrate for just a few moments on what the New Testament means by tax collector.  Of course, the Jews were no stranger to taxes having had temple taxes at the heart of their religion ever since the Deuteronomic reforms after the exile, even if not before.  However, the taxes that the New Testament concerns itself with are the taxes that were levied by the occupying Roman power, and collected through a network of locally hired subjects who, as one commentator put it, were regarded by their fellow Jews as ‘petty tyrants, renegades and extortioners’.  The New Testament refers to tax collectors in the ordinary – in Greek ‘telones’ – and in the particular case of chief tax collectors – ‘architelones’ – or what the Romans called ‘publicani’.  These publicans, or chief tax collectors like Zacchaeus, tended to be rather rich and, because of that, were hated even more than their ordinary tax collector colleagues.  The Roman taxman was charged with collecting a 1% income tax, but this was compounded by many additional taxes: import and export tax; crop taxes; sales tax; property tax; and that great coverall emergency tax.  Unlike our automated tax payment system, these taxes were collected personally and, because it was a system open to abuse, there were many who charged a mark-up and made themselves even more unpopular through intimidation.  The dislike of the taxman In Jesus’ time, then, was perhaps not such a banal affair, but a legitimate dislike of the corrupt and the intimidating, those who had sold their souls to the devil by collaborating with an occupying power.  No wonder the Pharisees regarded tax collectors in the same category as sinners – they were not only traitors, but breakers of God’s law.

Now, we needed that preamble to show us just how shocking such an incident like the story of Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel from Luke chapter 19 would have been, not just to the religious establishment but to ordinary Jews in Jesus’ time also.  When Jesus is called a friend of tax collectors and sinners in Matthew chapter 11 verse 19, he is being called the equivalent of a sympathiser with refugees in today’s terms in Great Britain.  Incidentally, you may wish to know that, since he began his support for the refugees in Calais last year, the Bishop of Dover – my boss – has received more hate mail than he could have ever imagined.  Those who sympathise with outsiders and outcasts are vilified and subjected to the most hateful spite, and all because they exercise a heart of compassion and care.  To be a friend of tax collectors and sinners – of Polish and Romanian immigrant workers – is a dangerous thing to be, and it is no surprise that these sorts of dangerous attitudes take people to the place of the cross.  In today’s Gospel story Zacchaeus, a man who is considered a dangerous outcast, a tyrant, renegade and extortioner, finds himself in a tree being confronted by Jesus.  He is perhaps in the tree, not only because he was short and in a crowd of people, but in order not to be noticed by those who would have hated him or at least avoided him.  The critical thing about this story is that Jesus notices him – a man in a sycamore tree trying to hide from hateful spite – and not only does he notice him but he speaks to him and invites himself to dine with him.  Suddenly, the outcast and the outrageous one have become the centre of attention and, not only the centre of attention, but the victim of one of the Gospel’s great moments of pathos.  The outcast in this story becomes the host – not that he expected it – but his story is an amazing turn-around in which the one shunned and hated becomes the one chosen to entertain and play the welcoming friend.  Oh, how the Gospel overturns our usual expectations, for that would be like the Bishop of Dover asking to be invited into a Calais refugees’ tent in order to dine with him – something, I believe, which may have happened!

This telling of the story of Zacchaeus, then, like many of the stories in the Gospel, has to do with the principle of inclusion – who belongs in the kingdom of God and who does not.  Unlike the Pharisees and teachers of the law who narrow the limits of the people of God to those who believe and do the right things, Jesus extends the limits to include all those who have been cast out or defined as outsiders – lepers, sinners, mad people, Samaritans, women, the disabled and, here, those collaborating with the Roman Empire: tax collectors and traitors.  In the other story that Luke tells about a tax collector – the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector – we can hear the voices of exclusion and discrimination sounding against the voice of despair quite clearly.  The Pharisee announces to God his thanks that he is not like the tax collector, a sinner and an outcast, one who has been thrown out of God’s people because of his collaboration with a foreign power.  I can almost hear the voices of many of my compatriots in present day Britain saying ‘thank God we’re British’, because being British of course means that we are not ignorant and stupid like foreigners.  Now, that is a dreadful voice and I want to distance myself from it immediately for I do not think it has a place in civilised society.  Place alongside that the voice of the taxman who recognises that he is an outcast and a sinner and asks God for mercy, and we can almost hear the voices of those from other parts of Europe who have come to work and study here and who have now become aware that they may no longer be welcome.  I have friends in that position and they feel very uncomfortable – perhaps not unlike the discomfort of the tax collector at the wall of prayer.  Luke has Jesus tell this story as a story against those who imagine they are inside the people of God and who yet exclude others.  It is a story that demonstrates that to be part of God’s people means to include those who are different, who are foreign, who are in some way disabled, disturbed or disordered, because all are in need of God’s mercy and none are worthy of it.  This is a vision of God’s kingdom that includes rather than excludes, that incorporates rather than casts out, and that welcome rather than judges and snubs.

When I sent up the title for this sermon for it to be advertised in the term’s programme I included a sub-title with a question about Jesus’ attitude to tax: robbery or redistribution?  Although Jesus does not directly discuss the question of tax per se, he does hint in Matthew chapter 22 that it is lawful to give tax to Caesar, and therefore to fulfil one’s duties to the occupying power.  Paul certainly believed that one should try to live peacefully within the bounds of statutory authority and, in his letter to the Romans chapter 13, advises his hearers to ‘render to all their dues’.  Now, I don’t want to go into the question of semantics here – Paul uses the word ‘opheilos’, which means ‘dues’, whereas the Greek word for tax is ‘phoron’ and the word for tribute is ‘telos’ – because I want to divert our attention away from Scripture for a moment to look at the question of whether there can be a Christian approach to tax or not.

There are some, many of whom may be in the Trump camp in the up-coming U.S. election, who believe that to tax is basically to rob people of their hard-earned wealth.  There have been plenty stories in recent times about those corporate companies who have tried to avoid paying taxes, and there are now large campaigns that argue for the ending of tax havens and tax loopholes because many of the rich decide to hide their wealth rather than risk paying tax.  At the heart of this attitude that sees tax as robbery is the following sentiment: why should I give of my hard-earned wealth to help those others who cannot be bothered to work, or who are not motivated enough to do something with their own lives?  In other words, why should the rich bail out the poor, after all it is not the fault of the rich that the poor exist?  There is a moot point here about whether the wealth creating activities of the rich and successful create poverty as a side effect, but that is not for this morning.  Someone on the political right wants low or no taxation because to tax means effectively to take what belongs by right to him – I have worked for my wages and they are mine by right; what right do you have to take any of that from me?  The point here has to do with being forced to something against one’s own will: someone asserting a claim against what I hold as a right.  I want to come back to that in a moment.

On the opposite side of the fence to those who see taxation as a means to rob legitimate earnings for purposes that have not been agreed to are those who believe taxation exists to redistribute the proceeds of excessive wealth creation in order to try and even things up a bit for everyone.  Long gone are those idealistic and utopian theories that believed that a fair system of taxation could create an egalitarian state – it may have been a nice dream, but it was never going to work in practice.  Most modern states have a graduated system of tax in which those at the highest level of income subsidise those on the lowest, indeed those who are unable or unwilling to work at all.  Those who support a system of redistribution point to the Biblical principle of a Jubilee Year – every fiftieth year – in which acquired holdings were returned to those who held them fifty years earlier to prevent the excessive holding of land and properties in just a few hands.  Whether the Jubilee Year was ever a principle adhered to in the ancient world is uncertain, but it could not have been designed to create a state of equality, nor would it have affected the poor very much. However, it would have prevented uncontrolled monopoly and the squeezing out of small-holders.  Nevertheless, there is a constant refrain in the Old Testament that money dealings should be fair, and that justice requires that orphans and widows are looked after.  After all, no-one could object, could they, to supporting those who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own – widows and orphans in the ancient world?  Many do have difficult today with those who seem to take advantage of the benefits system by claiming redistributed taxes by right when they may be perfectly capable of working or claim some long-term debilitating condition that prevents them from working.  In our society, it is not just the taxman who gets accused of robbery, but the perceived illegitimate beneficiaries of tax redistribution too.

Although the issues of fairness and balance do not come up in our Gospel today, the issues of extortion and deprivation do.  Zacchaeus had been cooking the books, obviously for a long time because he was rich and powerful.  He was adding his own mark-up and he was probably not paying out the benefits of his taxes to those who should have been beneficiaries.  Jesus’ very presence reminds him that honesty and trustworthiness are some of the highest principles of a righteous man.  In a sense, Zacchaeus does stand accused of being one of the unrighteous – one of those outside the fold of God’s kingdom – but not because he is a collaborator, a tyrant, or a renegade.  He is unrighteous because he is dishonest and untrustworthy, an extortioner and a bully.  There is surely a play in this story between the dishonesty and untrustworthiness of the Pharisees to which Jesus continually refers and which is not recognised, and the dishonesty and untrustworthiness of a chief tax collector, or publican, which is recognised, repented of and repaired through restoration.  Honesty, truth and trust are the values of righteousness that Jesus teaches in this story – the outcast sees the lesson and is included, the Pharisees dismiss the lesson because they believe themselves to be already righteous and exclude themselves.

Now, I would end there my reflection on Jesus and the taxman this morning if it were not for two other important things that the Gospel teaches about money and property.  Firstly, there is the incredibly important principle that everything that we have comes from God and that everything that we own and possess is a gift from God.  What we have and hold – our earnings, our property, our possessions – is not ours by right, but is entrusted into our hands to be used wisely and well.  For those who believe that taxation is robbery a Christian would have to say this: nothing that we have and hold is ours by right, but has been entrusted to us by the grace of God.  We are merely custodians and beneficiaries and it is our duty to ensure that we deal with what has been entrusted to us in an honest and fair manner.  You could call this the old aristocratic principle of noblesse oblige – except that I believe the principle applies to us all.  Forcing people to give up their hard-earned wealth may be necessary in a cruel world, but it does detract from the principle that nothing is ours by right in the first place.  Enforced redistribution also detracts from the second Gospel principle that I want to mention – the principle of benevolence.  Since the earliest days of our faith, Christians have been encouraged to give generously and kindly and to look after those less well-off than themselves.  Benevolence, charity, call it what you will, does not work in the same way as taxation for it is not mandatory but voluntary, and it is not enforced but an act of free choice.  A better dream for a good society than that utopian dream of egalitarian socialism would be a society based on benevolent capitalism in which everyone not only spends and saves wisely and well, but gives wisely and well for the needs of others too.  Of course, that society is a dream and a utopian vision, but it is part of what constitutes the vision of the kingdom of God.

In God’s kingdom, all are included even though none are worthy – in fact, the recognition of unworthiness and humility is the entry ticket, as we saw today in the story of Zacchaeus.  In God’s kingdom, all recognise that everything they have and hold comes from God, that nothing is theirs by right, and that those things with which they are entrusted are to be used wisely and well – again a lesson that Zacchaeus had to learn.  Finally, in God’s kingdom, the giving principle reigns supreme for, at the heart of God’s kingdom, is the sacrificial giving of God himself for the good of all.  Zacchaeus, following his encounter with Jesus, gave back all that he had made to those whom he had impoverished.  This wasn’t an act of redistributive taxation putting right an act of robbery, but a voluntary act of sacrificial giving brought on by Zacchaeus’ recognition that he had been dishonest and untrustworthy.  Whatever our view on taxation may be – and there may not be a truly fair and just solution to the problems that give rise to taxation – we are called to be honest brokers and trustworthy custodians.  Let us pray that those in our world who currently try to avoid their tax responsibilities, and those who take advantage of our tax systems, may learn these kingdom values.