Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Render unto Caesar

The Second Sunday before Advent
15 November 2020
10.30 Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

I have been riveted by a programme on BBC 2 recently called “Surgeons: At the edge of life”

You may have seen the programme but it follows surgeons at Papworth and Addenbrooke’s Hospital – working at the very margins of science

In the third episode we watched a double lung transplant where a donor lung was still in-bound at the time the surgeons had already removed one lung

It was nail biting

In the other hospital, surgeons were performing complex surgery

The patient had a tumour on his spinal cord which had to be removed

One slip of the knife and the patient would have been paralysed

I got up from the sofa after watching the programme and simply said “we are so lucky”

Indeed we are – because this life saving surgery is available for us all

Furthermore, we don’t have to worry about the cost because we pay through our taxes

Taxes which bring about a fairer and more humane society so movingly illustrated by this programme 

The programme is even more compelling for me in the light of my own personal experience:

In 2007 we were living in Cyprus one of our congregation fell ill and had to be admitted to hospital in Limassol

We went to see her and spent about an hour at her bedside

She was clearly still unwell but was unable to stay in hospital any longer because it had cost her £9000 –

And that was just for the first week

Closer to home, in 2014 my Mother had a stroke

My parents had an aversion to public medicine and were paying private medical insurance

The National Health Service were absolutely marvellous, literally picking her up from the pavement

When my Mother had to recuperate I rang up BUPA to see if they would meet the cost of the rehabilitation

Unsurprisingly, it was not covered by the policy

It had been my Mother’s taxes which had saved her and not private medical insurance

I mention these medical stories this morning because the New Testament reading is about the payment of tax

None of us like paying tax but, as Jesus points out this morning, it is our civic duty to

“To render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar”

The story is perhaps more nuanced because Jesus’ interrogators were testing his loyalty to the State

Sure footed as always, Jesus replies in a way which does not implicate him

However, the issue of taxation does have a moral dimension which is worth reflecting on this morning.

The usual retort when dealing with political issues is that that Church should not venture into the political arena – I strongly disagree

When prophets, such as Amos, rebuke us for grinding the face of the poor into the dust (Amos 2:7)

The response should be to try and stop it happening

And when Jesus tells us that we should love our neighbour – we are not expected to pay lip service but to do something about it

To be fair, generally, speaking we are pretty good at giving

To charities, foodbanks, shelters and to a whole assortment of worthy causes

But sometimes we need to think about why these problems arise in the first place?

Martin Luther King said:

True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It eventually comes to see that the edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it this way

“There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need instead to go upstream and find out why they are falling in”

It is arguably the case that a large part of that answer is taxation

Take homelessness for instance

When the pandemic struck homelessness was largely eliminated through spending of public money

The grotesque spectacle of people living rough on our streets was solved by the click of a minister’s fingers

Just like that and they/we have lived with this misery for years

Broadly speaking, there are different political philosophies when it comes to tax

There are those who believe in a low tax economy, generally from the right, who believe that wealth creation and therefore greater prosperity will follow and have a trickle-down effect

We are now seeing very clearly that this does not happen – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer

Then there are those from the other end of the spectrum, generally from the left, who believe in a tax and spend economy

They believe that this engenders greater fairness in society and stimulates prosperity through public investment

There are those however who think that this makes us poorer as a country

I am not here to judge between the two but want to share some thoughts from a new organisation called Church Action on Tax

They seek to examine and challenge the tax system and have come up with three overarching principles

Namely – Sustainability, Justice and Transparency.

Sustainability is about what kind of world we want to create and how we find the resources.

Most people want a society where there is at least a safety-net for the poor, the sick and aged.

We provide for the sick which is wonderful

But just look at the poor and social care and you will a gaping hole

Justice is about who actually pays.

At present, if you put together direct and indirect taxes, the richest tenth of the population pay 35% of their income in tax, the poorest tenth pay 42%.

Meanwhile many multinationals hide in the tax shadows,

Is that just?

And when it comes to Transparency.

a significant number of those who should pay the most tax hide their wealth away

At least thirteen of the worst tax havens in the world are under the British Crown

This is deliberately engineered so that we don’t have to pay to support them

In London you will find that whole rows of houses are just left empty having been acquired by off shore trust funds and companies

Jesus’ answer this morning has often been used by those who want to separate the religious and secular, and keep God in a box

I believe that the exact opposite is true

It is an invitation to us to create a better world for all mankind

A world that can be part achieved through a fairer tax system

As for the argument that we cannot afford this, I would revert back to the stories about the health system at the beginning of this sermon

The National Health Service is one of this countries great institutions

However, the Health Service was created at a time when this country was on its knees at the end of the Second World War

A time when our debt was 250% of our GDP which dwarfs the current 100%

We could ill afford a Health Service but we achieved it

And everyone benefits to this day.

If we can collectively share our resources and create such a wonderful and compassionate service, we can do so much more

Even in times of crisis and perhaps more so

And if we do “render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar”

We might all be able to say “we are so lucky” at the same time