Death and Taxes (A sermon on Matthew 22)

Then the Pharisees went and planned how to trap Jesus in conversation. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. They said, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and that you teach the way of God truthfully. You don’t favor any individual, for you pay no attention to external appearance. So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus recognized their wickedness and said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They brought him a denarius. Then he asked them, “Whose face and name is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” So he said to them, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. Then they left him and went away. That same day some Sadducees, who claim there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his widow to his brother. The same thing happened with the second brother, and then the third, and finally with the rest of the brothers. Finally, the woman died, too. Now in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be, since all of them had married her?” Jesus answered them, “You are mistaken because you don’t know the Scriptures or God’s power. For in the resurrection, people neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. As for the resurrection from the dead, haven’t you read what was spoken to you by God when he said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” When the crowds heard this, they were amazed at his teaching.

Nothing in this world iscertain, it has been said, apart from two things: death and taxes.

And who said it?

Benjamin Franklin is normally credited with the familiar form of the saying, though he was apparently reworking something Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame) said before him, though I think the saying finds its ultimate form in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”: “Death, taxes and childbirth! There’s never any convenient time for any of them.”

Now I’m not sure which character exactly said it, though it sounds like Scarlett O’Hara.  Even so, I take this as a good indication of the fact that ‘death and taxes’ are really the scourge of the landed gentry, or at least that it’s a middle-class problem!

Now I appreciate that death as such isn’t particularly class conscious, but even so, those living at a subsistence level tend to be more preoccupied with staying alive than with worrying about the hereafter. It’s those have everything else in life sewn up who tend devote the most time to trying to secure themselves a place in the world to come, which is why (I assume) the focal point of middle-class Christianity in this country has always been the Christian hope of a life beyond death.

And taxes?  Well, again, it’s the middle-class that is hit hardest by taxes. If you are struggling and have a low-paid job or no job at all you pay very little tax, and if you’re at the other end of the spectrum –one of the extremely rich – you pay no tax at all!

Death and taxes – the inescapable scourge of the middle-class – and so it comes as no surprise to us that Jesus was questioned very specifically about both these issues by the community leaders of His day (the Pharisees and Sadducees respectively). Indeed, it seems that he was questioned on both these topics on the same occasion, as recorded in today’s Gospel reading in Matthew 22.

I guess that reflects the fact that we’re getting to the pointy end of Matthew’s Gospel.  The earthly career of Jesus is fast spiralling down towards its inevitable bloody end. Time is running out. If you’ve got a big question, now is the time to ask it! OK!

“So do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

And we know the response of Jesus to these people very well, don’t we?

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”

And it is remarkable, I think, that we remember those words of Jesus so well, for they really give us nothing in terms of instruction about whether we should pay taxes!

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”

“OK. So do we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Now of course it wasn’t a serious question, but a trick question, and so perhaps we shouldn’t have expected a serious answer from Jesus, but a trick answer.

Even so, it would have been nice to hear something from Jesus on the topic of taxation and the way governments use taxation revenue, and whether we should simply accept our taxes and tax rates or whether we should be calling the whole system into question, not because we just want to save a couple of dollars, but because these questions impact on major issues of social concern that effect everyone on this planet!

Yesterday I believe quite a few hundred people gathered in Martin Place as a part of an ‘Occupy Sydney’ protest, and that an even greater number were ‘Occupying Melbourne’ – rallies that are a part of the greater ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement that started last month in the USA!

And I must say that while I was not in attendance yesterday, I do find these rallies deeply encouraging, as the protestors are not simply trying to catch the attention of the government with a list of suggested reforms, but are calling into question our entire system where individuals and governments alike have become enslaved to corporate greed.

‘Corporatocracy’ is the correct term, I believe, for our social and political system – a system that enriches 1% of the world’s population at the expense of 99%, and it’s a system that illustrates perfectly, I think, what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 6:

“For our struggle is not against a human opponent, but against rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers in the darkness around us, against evil spiritual forces in the heavenly realm.” (Ephesians 6:12)

 

There is something malignant, I believe, embedded deeply in our social system, and these people do well to draw attention to it.

And I suspect that none of the ‘Occupy Wallstreet’ crowd are wanting to withhold from Caesar what belongs to Caesar. I’m sure we all accept that when there’s a new aqueduct to be built, that we all chip in!

Even so, what happens when it’s not the aqueduct that you’re funding but the war in Afghanistan? Do we keep rendering unto Caesar (or in our case ‘Cleopatra’) or do we object that Caesar has stepped over the line into the realm that belongs to God?

I’m conscious of the fact that any number of Christian people in the US refuse to pay that portion of their taxes that is earmarked for military expenditure, and that’s a gutsy thing to do. I’ve never heard of people trying that here. Indeed, I’d hate to think what might happen to you if you tried it here?  The protestors at the Occupy Sydney and Melbourne rallies had a hard enough time of it, with police tearing down their tents in order to prevent them from staying the night.

Evidently this protest strikes at the heart of our system as is making some people in power rather nervous. Even so, the only statement we get from Jesus explicitly on this subject is ambiguous at best.

Not so with question about marriage, of course, though it turns out not really to be a question about marriage at all.

Indeed, it’s quite bizarre when you compare the two questions.  The first seems like a serious question but it’s really a trick question and the questioners are not particularly interested in the answer. The second question takes the form of a rather silly story about seven brides for seven brothers (with the same woman playing the part of the bride on each occasion) with the crazy story masking a serious question for which the questioners are seeking a serious answer!

And if the story doesn’t make immediate sense that’s because you’re not as familiar as Jesus was with the traditional Jewish law that tried to ensure that every man had an heir.

The idea was that if a man had been married but died without children, his wife would have to marry the dead man’s brother, and the children born by him would bear the name of the dead brother.

Now I appreciate that part of the rationale here was to give the woman some protection – to ensure that she had children who would look after her in her old age. Even so, I am glad that while we’ve stood by some of the traditional laws of the people of Israel (eg. “Thou shalt not kill”) that we’ve let this one go!

I have two brothers, and God forbid that anything should happen to either of them, and yet I can’t imagine how painful and complicated it would be – trying to tend to your brother on his deathbed while simultaneously preparing the spare room upstairs for the new woman in case he doesn’t make it.

Even more painful, I think, would be me on my deathbed trying to work out which one of my brothers would be the best one to marry Ange, and simply expecting her to buy into that!

Yet, as I say, the story is not a serious story and the woman is not a genuine case study. It’s a story that is designed to highlight how illogical life after death is as a concept, and the story is told by the Sadducees who, we are told, don’t believe in life after death.

The response that Jesus gives here though is direct and unambiguous:

“You are mistaken because you don’t know the Scriptures or God’s power. For in the resurrection, people neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. As for the resurrection from the dead, haven’t you read what was spoken to you by God when he said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

Jesus answers very directly, doesn’t He? Whose wife will she be? Nobody’s!  Is there a resurrection of the dead? Yes, there is?

I had a fascinating conversation on this very topic with Miko Peled (the great Jewish peace activist) while he was here. And coming from a Jewish point of view he was very interested in discussing the topic of life after death, and he told me that Jews nowadays really don’t believe in any life after death at all!

I did a little more research and discovered that modern religious Jews are really at much the same point today as they were in the New Testament. Some believe in the resurrection of the dead and some don’t.

And I appreciate, of course, that it is hard to believe in the resurrection of the dead, as it’s not something that lies remotely within our experience, and our natural assumption is that tomorrow will be much like today and that the future will be just like that past, but this is exactly where Jesus challenges us!

The assumption is that what is to come will be some sort of continuation of what is now, and this is a false assumption, Jesus says.  And yet I think we’ll find that most religious beliefs about the afterlife do see a fair degree of connection between what is now and what will be.

If you’ve seen the tombs of any of the great Pharaohs, you’ll know that all Pharaohs household and servants were buried with him, so that when life started up again on the other side everybody would be able to resume their respective roles as cooks and cleaners and concubines, for what was, is now, and shall be evermore, amen.

If you are king in this life, then you will move on as king into the next, if a slave in this life, then a slave in the next.  If you’ve been married to seven brothers in this life, then you’ve gotta be married to at least one of them in the next.

And that’s what makes the concept of reincarnation such an attractive concept.  It’s all logically connected.  If you owned property in this life – be it a house or a woman – then with any luck you’ll find that property waiting for you (in some form or another) on the other side.

Jesus challenges all of this.  The new world coming, he teaches, is not like this world at all.  It’s not just a continuation of life as we know it, with all its structures and traditions intact.  On the contrary, the new world is a complete revolution, where the first are last and the last are first, where death itself has been completely abolished, and where even the most precious god-given institutions of them all – marriage and family – will be a thing of the past.

We have limited imaginations.  We can only think about the future in a way that is based upon our experience of the present and the past.  That’s why we find it easier to believe in the immortality of the soul than we do in the resurrection of the body.

For Christ teaches us that the world of tomorrow will NOT resemble the world of today, and frankly this is as relevant to the question about taxes as it is to marriage!

Things are NOT going to go on and on in the same way for ever and ever, world without end, Amen – with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, in a world full of violence and inequalities and deep injustices.  This is NOT the final word on creation.  This is NOT the end of the story.

‘Behold I am making all things new’ the voice booms from heaven (Revelation 21:5).

The whole of the heavens and the earth are about to be recreated.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, and the world as we know it is about to get replaced by the bigger and better world that is to come.  This is the gospel of Jesus.  This is the good news, and good news it is, as while there may be some things in this world that only require fine-tuning if they are to be put right, there are other things – injustices that are so massive and heartaches that run so deep – that nothing short of an entire recreation of the cosmos is required in order to fix them.

And so it turns out that death and taxes are not the certainties we thought they were.  It turns out that love and mercy are the two things we can count on in this life,

Everything is about to change.  Pain and injustice are about to be wiped away.  The earth is going to be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  Death itself is going to be abolished, along with all taxes and ‘corporatocracies’, and marriage and family, it seems, are going right out along with the rest!  Like it or lump it, nothing is going to be like what it used to be, and if we are going to follow Jesus then we had better start adjusting our lives accordingly.

We live in a world where wise people live frugally and save carefully, but if we could really see the future – a new world where the first come last and the last come first – we would realise that this sort of behaviour is not nearly as wise as it seems.

We live in a world where clever people search for security – secure jobs and secure relationships – but if we could really see the future – where everything is going to be turned upside-down – we would realise how pointless such cleverness is.

We live in a world where there is no real justice, where war and terror can strike at anytime and anywhere, where the powerless get trodden upon, and where bigotry, vengeance and greed seem to have ultimate control of the universe.  But Jesus says ‘look up, for your redemption is near.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe. A new world coming, and all things are being made new!’

And if we are going to live for Jesus, then we have to live for this new world coming.  And I know we have to keep one foot planted in this world, but we’ve got to have the other foot securely planted in the world to come, and if that means shedding ourselves of old traditions and old prejudices, bad habits and bad friends, excess wealth and excess property, then so be it.  There is a new world coming, and if that means taking on new friends and new family, opening up our homes and opening up our lives, emptying our hearts and emptying our bank accounts, then so be it.

‘Behold I make all things new’ says the Lord.  He doesn’t say ‘behold, I am making all things slightly better’ or ‘behold, I am going to make a few improvements’.  He says ‘behold I am making all things new’.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the days to come are going to resemble the days that have been, where the only things that are certain are death and taxes. There’s a new world coming, where death and taxes and all the vestiges of a fallen world will be things of the past. The whole of creation – the things that we hate and those things that we love – the whole of creation is about to be recreated.  Everything is about to change. The only question is whether we are ready and willing to be changed along with it.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2nd, 2011. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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One Response to Death and Taxes (A sermon on Matthew 22)

  1. Agnes says:

    Now that’s one hell of a sermon Dave!

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