Sunday, 15 March 2020

A taxing question

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 15/3/20
Mark 12.1-17
I have long thought that numismatics, the study of coins,
            ought to be a lot more interesting that it actually is.

In theory, we can learn so much from these artefacts of money
            that previous civilisation have left behind,
            from their politics to their sociology to their religious beliefs.

But in reality, whenever I’ve got lost on the second floor of the British Museum
            and accidentally wandered into their (otherwise perpetually deserted) coins gallery,
                        all I can see are row after row of small and virtually indistinguishable coins.

Perhaps it’s a bit like stamp collecting, you either ‘get it’ or you don’t!

Anyway, work with me,
            because this morning I’m going to try and make one ancient coin, at least,
            a bit more interesting.[1]

This is a tribute penny from the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
            who was emperor of Rome from 14-37AD,
            which covers the whole of Jesus’ adult life.

The story we just heard read from Mark’s gospel
            is on the surface a controversy about taxation policy,
            but there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

There were a variety of taxes that the Jews of the first century had to pay:
            There was the temple tax, a tithe, or tenth, of a person’s income,
                        that went to support the temple, the priests, and the sacrificial system;
            There was the tax payable to Herod,
                        which was a kind of local tax to the local ruler;
            And then there was the Roman Tax,
                        which was basically a poll tax
                                    payable by everyone who was subject to Roman rule,
                        and those of us who are old enough to remember the 1980s
                                    will know how popular poll taxes are with the general public.

The Roman version was a powerful reminder
            that those living in Roman-occupied lands were not free,
            which from a Jewish perspective was a very sore point.
From the time of the Babylonian invasion nearly 600 years earlier
            the Jews had been ruled over by a succession of foreign powers,
                        all of them reminding the people of Israel at every turn
                        that their promised land was not truly theirs.

And, of course, where Rome ruled, Rome taxed.

Since the time of Herod the Great,
            Rome has been taxing the population of Palestine,
and in addition to this,
            the Herods, the Jewish puppet-kings, had added their own levies
            which they used to maintain their court, their military troops,
                        and of course their luxurious building programs.

Taxation had been a central issue in the brief Jewish rebellion
            which had happened at the time Judea
            first came under direct Roman administration,
                        when Jesus was about ten years old.

Throughout the decades, the burden of the tribute tax, as it was known,
            had been borne disproportionately by the peasants,
                        who of course could least afford it,
            and it was a major course of the rise in bandits in the countryside,
                        as those who didn’t, or couldn’t, pay
                        were forced from their land or smallholding,
                        making them homeless and penniless.

But it wasn’t just the financial burden and the symbolism of foreign oppression,
            that caused the Jews to have such a problem with these coins,
            that were used to pay the Tribute tax.

The ‘obverse’ or ‘heads’ side of the coin
            has on it the profile of Tiberius Caesar, the emperor,
and the inscription round it, in slightly abbreviated Latin,
            says, ‘Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.’

Then on the other side, the ‘reverse’ as I think it’s technically known,
            you can see Pax, the embodiment of the empire,
            and the inscription there calls him the ‘High Priest’.

As Tom Wright puts it,
            ‘If the Romans had gone out of their way to be offensive to first century Jews,
            they could hardly have done it better.’

Interestingly, the only other place in the gospel
            where the word ‘inscription’ appears, is at the crucifixion,
where the notice of Jesus’ conviction is posted over his head,
            declaring him to be ‘The king of the Jews’ (15.26)

As with the reference we saw last week
            to those getting the places of honour at Jesus’ left and right hands,
this is another example of Mark asking his alert readers
            to see the shadow of the cross
            in the stories he tells of the way to the cross.

So here we have Jesus, who Mark’s gospel is trying to convince us is the son of God,
            standing in the temple ruled by the high priest,
            asking for a coin with the son of a god and the high priest on it.

The message is clear:
            this is a religious question, not merely a social or political one.

Many first century Jews would try to avoid
            using, owning, or even touching these Roman tribute coins.

It’s interesting the Jesus doesn’t seem to be carrying one,
            and he has to ask his opponents to produce one for him to look at.

You can just imagine the person who had to reach into their pocket,
            and admit to carrying one of these blasphemous, traitorous coins.

Jesus’ demand to see one was carefully targeted
            to cause maximum embarrassment to the person who produces it.

And of course, someone does have one,
            because Jesus’ opponents were trying to both have their cake and eat it.
They were chasing both religious purity and Roman money,
            and this coin in the hands of Pharisee or a Herodian
            represented collaborative politics at its most blatant.

This is what Jesus is highlighting
            as he sets about evading their trap.

They were hoping that he would either support paying taxes to Rome,
            and so lose the popular support of the crowd,
or denounce the tax and face a charge of treason from the Romans.

But Jesus is several steps ahead of them,
            and to understand what he does next, we need a bit of context.

About two hundred years earlier,
            there had been a Jewish revolt against the Syrians,
                        who were ruling them at that time.

It was known as the Maccabean revolt,
            and the slogan of the revolutionaries was:

            ‘Pay back the Gentiles what they deserve,
            and obey the commands of the law’ (1 Maccabees 2.68)

This slogan captured nicely the Jewish duty to both the Gentiles, and to God,
            and it suggested that as far as the Gentiles were concerned,
            the policy was to give back as good as you got.

In other words, vengeance,
            prepayment in kind for violence received.

So, fast forward to the time of Jesus,
            and we’ve got him skirting the edges of revolution and revolt.

As we’ve seen, the disciples keep waiting for him to call them to arms,
            to march on Jerusalem and re-take the city.
But Jesus keeps telling them that his revolution is non-violent,
            and that he is attacking a deeper evil than simply Pagan domination of Israel.

So he’s not going to fall for the trap about the coin and the taxes,
            and he refuses to engage in the should-we / shouldn’t-we argument
            that they are trying to lure him into.

There is wisdom here that many people in our world could learn,
            about not getting sucked into superficial and binary arguments,
            especially on social media!

It’s also worth noting that Jesus doesn’t lay down some timeless ethical ruling,
            on the relationship between the church and the state;
although many have mistakenly tried to build such a theory
            on the basis of this passage.

Rather, Jesus hits the ball back over the net
            at twice the speed it arrived.

Firstly, he says, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's’
            which a superficial reading could simply interpret as, ‘yes, pay the tax’.

But to take it in this way is to take it in isolation from what follows,
            where Jesus says, ‘and give to God the things that are God's.’

This is not a simple analogy,
            between paying Caesar and paying God.

Rather, Jesus is setting the competing demands of Caesar and God against each other,
            rather than harmonising them.

The fact that Jesus has just drawn everyone’s attention
            to the blasphemous image of the emperor on the coin
gives his response a sense of
            ‘send this filthy stuff back where it came from!’

He’s being contemptuous of the Romans,
            but not directly enough to get him into trouble.

What Jesus says nicely echoes the Maccabean slogan,
            of ‘Give the pagans what they deserve’,
            or ‘pay the Gentiles back in their own coin’
And it could easily be heard as a coded revolutionary slogan.

The kingdom Jesus was proclaiming
            was one where the one true God becomes king of the world,
            and where all other pretenders to power,
                        whether they be petty Herods, High priests, or even emperors,
            are demoted to being the last and the least.

Jesus’ opponents had framed their trap
            as a conflict between the competing demands of ‘God’ and ‘Caesar’ (v.14)
and Jesus escapes it by considering these to claims:
            Give to Casesar what is Caesar’s,
            and to God what is God’s

But what if Jesus is here presenting not two compatible statements,
            - give to Caesar and give to God -
but two incompatible demands,
            inviting the Pharisees and the Herodians
            to act according to their allegiances.

The Pharisees would have known that, according to their scriptures,
            all humans bear the image of God,
and so God’s claim over a person was total,
            inseparable from the money they held in their wallets.

The conclusion they should have drawn from his reply
            was that the debt they owed to God was their whole selves,
            to be handed over to God, just as one might give a coin to the emperor.

And the setting of the conflict, the temple courtyard,
            sets it firmly in the context of the Jewish sacrificial system,
            which was the mechanism for making offerings to God.

Jesus’ inference that God’s demand is total over humans,
            might have been heard as a critique of the sacrificial system,
            inferring that it should be superseded by a more complete offering of worship.

This is Jesus turning the challenge back on his opponents in no uncertain terms,
            calling their hypocrisy into account,
                        challenging their status quo of religious and political compromise,
            and asking them what position they are going to take on this issue,
                        not in some theoretical question,
                        but in the very real reality of their wallets:
            what will they choose?

And of course this is why we get such a strong reaction from them.

They thought they were putting Jesus on the spot in a no-win scenario,
            but they discover that this is rather exactly what he has done to them;
and, their answer is already clear:
            they had the tribute coin already in their pockets, ready to pay the tax.

In this seemingly innocuous response,
            Jesus is radically opposing the divine reign of God,
            to the human reign of the emperor.
He’s not harmonising them,
            this is no neat doctrine of obedient citizenship,
            it is an invitation to choose where your ultimate allegiance lies:
                        with God or with the emperor,
            with the nonviolent demands of the peaceful kingdom of God,
                        or with the empire sustained by the imperial armies,
                        paid for by the tribute tax.

The vineyard parable that preceded this conflict with the Pharisees and the Herodians
            makes it clear where Mark wants his readers’ loyalties to fall.

His answer to the question of ‘What belongs to God?’ is found in this story,
            where it becomes clear that all leaders are only tenants,
                        and that God owns the land of Israel, not Caesar.

The parable makes it clear that the gospel rejects the option
            of political co-operation with Rome,
and that the authority of Caesar and his tribute penny is invalid
            in the light of God’s universal kingdom.

So, what can we take from this story,
            which is so often used to justify Christian complicity with corrupt powers,
and a separation of the life of faith into two halves,
            where one half pays its taxes
            and the other half says its prayers.

Too many sermons on this text
            have concluded with a justification of a church/state partnership,
            and an exhortation on the responsibilities of the ‘Christian citizen’.

Is this really a call for Christians to do deals with power,
            to get Bishops or other representatives inside the corridors of power,
                        to influence Government from the inside?
Is this really a call for Christians to run charity programs and food banks
                        to compensate for the diminishing of the welfare state,?

Is this really a justification for Christians to ensure that we take advantage
            of our full range charity tax breaks from Chancellor?

I don’t think so.

In the preceding chapter in Mark’s gospel (11.27-33)
            Jesus has just been arguing with the religious leaders
                        about the authority behind John’s baptismal practice,
            which concluded with Jesus utterly rejecting
                        their right to judge his actions.

Similarly, in the parable about the vineyard which we heard earlier,
            we saw Jesus undermining any claim
            the Jewish leaders may make to authority.

So, by the time we get to the dispute over the coin,
            the Pharisees and the Herodians know full well
            that Jesus is entirely rejecting their legitimacy.

So the trap they set him is one laded with danger,
            and their rage when he escapes it is no less perilous.

What Jesus finds himself in the middle of here,
            is a crisis of allegiance provoked by the Jewish liberation struggle.

In many ways, the dilemma facing Jesus in this story
            is analogous to that which faced Mark’s community
            a few decades later.

The issue facing the original readers of the gospel
            was a rising tension between Israel and the Empire
            that would shortly lead to the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70AD.

Historical sources tell us that the issue of taxation
            was still a flashpoint at the time Mark’s gospel was written,
and his original readers would have had to negotiate their own path
            through the tensions around religious conviction,
            political rebellion, and economic choices.

Mark’s gospel, far from encouraging its readers
            to pay their taxes and be good Christian Citizens,
instead strongly asserts an ideology
            which rejects both the Roman colonial presence,
            and the Jewish violent revolt.

Just as Jesus resisted both these in his answer,
            so his followers are to do the same.

Bowing down to the emperor is not the way,
            but neither is taking up arms against him.

The third way of Jesus
            was to turn the political challenge back
            on those who are trying to force the issue.

It is the path of nonviolent resistance,
            of refusing to accept the legitimacy of the empire,
            but also of refusing to do violence to overthrow it.

In our context the issue is rarely the paying of taxes,
            although we are not immune to the imposition
            of unfair and unjust taxation.

But I find myself wondering whether the issue in our world
            is that many of us are simply not taxed enough.

In Sweden, often given as an example of one of the best places in Europe to live,
            taxation rates are higher than most other countries.

It seems to me that a progressive taxation system which benefits everyone
            is far more just than tax cuts for the wealthy
            and the scaling back of public services.

This week’s budget has been rather obscured by the coronavirus crisis,
            but in the midst of the politically loaded language about ‘levelling up’,
                        which rather sounds to me like it’ll be fault of the poorer regions
                        if they don’t rise to the challenge,
            there were significant tax breaks for wealthy business owners.[2]

So as we try to work out how to apply
            Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the Herodians
to a contemporary context which is in some ways very different,
            but in other ways very similar
            to that which Jesus would have known,

I wonder if our nonviolent resistance to dominating oppression
            might look something like generosity.

What if our response were to be the giving of time, energy, and resources,
            to projects that benefit the common good?

What if our way out of the trap that lies before us,
            is neither quiescent complicity to the state,
            nor extremist politics of social revolution,
but developing - actively working at - a culture of generous, loving care,
            for those who are disadvantaged in our world and society;
coupled with a commitment to speak out,
            to challenge those political and economic systems
            that impoverish the poor and enrich the rich.

Maybe the role of the church is to play its part
            in shaming the powers that be
by holding them to account for their empty promises,
            and hypocritical posturing.

What if, through our involvement in organisations like London Citizens,
            and through our partnerships with organisations like the Simon Community,
we can be part of shaping a new world,
            where the kingdom values of justice and compassion are foregrounded,
            and where futile arguments about legalistic religion are set aside.

What if we can learn to be those who see our money as a mechanism for liberation,
            rather than a trap that ensnares us.

What if we can learn the truth of our citizenship,
            which is that it is not with any earthly empire,
but with the kingdom of God,
            which comes to us on earth,
            as it is in heaven;

Can we answer in our lives the call of the kingdom of God,
            which draws us to acts of courageous resistance,
            and generous love?

[1] This sermon draws heavily from the commentaries on Mark’s Gospel by Tom Wright and Ched Myers.

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