Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Taxing Questions - By Kevin Bright

Mark 2.13-22, 2 Corinthians 3.1-6, Hosea 2.14-20

With about 3 months to go until the general election tax was in the news a lot this week. Our country needs more money to keep public services going and increased taxes after the election seem almost certain.

The accountants PwC have come in for criticism because they have advised large corporations on how to minimise their tax bills. When we see the deductions at source in a pay slip or transfer self-assessment payments to HMRC does it bring a smile to our face? Well at least we can see hospitals, emergency services and schools providing valuable resources to us even if we often suspect it could all be done a lot more efficiently.

It wouldn’t have been like this for Levi, the Jewish tax collector, called Matthew in Luke and Matthew’s gospels. The Romans would auction districts and the man buying it would have to provide them with a set amount of money from the area in taxation. Of course many tax collectors were considered to be cheats and profiteers who collected far more than they handed over to the hated Roman authorities.

We can see why Levi was an outcast, the Jews would pay temple taxes but saw the money collected on behalf of the Romans as pagan taxes forced upon them.

As we have come to expect it is the nature of Jesus to align himself with the outcasts and he shares a meal with Levi, his tax collector mates and others which the Jewish authorities considered to be sinners. Clearly this is going to upset the Pharisees and the tension between them and Jesus continues to build.

Then the Pharisees want to know why Jesus and his followers don’t fast in the way that they do.

In addition to no eating, no drinking and no sex, they would cover their hair, their faces and their clothing with ashes. The whole purpose was that all should be clear that these Pharisees were fasting, they would pray publicly and noisily, it was important that others saw and acknowledged their behaviour. For many the most important aspect of their faith had become religious rituals, rules and regulations and they became very angry when others didn’t comply.

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians states that "...the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." We have the phrase ‘doing things to the letter of the law’. Blindly following every rule just because it is there is life sapping, not creative or energy giving in the same way as when good things are done because of positive motivation. We see the effect when unions choose to ‘work to rule’, production slumps and goodwill disappears.

Jesus challenges the Jews knowing they considered Israel as God’s bride when he describes himself as the bridegroom, what you the man who doesn’t even follow temple rules! He infuriates the Pharisees further and their determination to make him pay grows. Jesus knows that his message will have painful consequences and says ‘ the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away..’

Jesus wants to bring new life, new ways, new ideas, new energy to people’s lives and he needs to get among them to share and explain this which is why he is a ‘doctor for the sick and for sinners’.

If Jesus was to sit down with us now what is the everyday sort of stuff he might engage in conversation about? Sport, traffic congestion, health problems, money, education? Maybe, but food and wine would still be up there wouldn’t they.

It’s funny how certain things can trigger memories from long ago. As I read ‘how no one puts new wine into old wine skins’ it made me think of how my father and his neighbour used to do home brewing and making their own wine. I think the trigger was the bit where Jesus says ‘otherwise, the wine will burst the skins’. Several times as a child I was  awoken by exploding alcohol and cursing voices as the fermentation process caused another cork to mark the ceiling and stuff, which looked like no wine I have ever drunk, poured out making a smelly mess.

The amateurs Jesus tells of may well have got a wet back and a great sense of disappointment when the old goat skins they were carrying like a rucksack didn’t prove flexible enough for wine that was still expanding and therefore burst when being carried.

Strangely enough Jesus didn’t tell us this because he wanted to encourage and educate Home brewers and wine makers he wanted us to have minds that still had room for expansion to take on new truths and recognise God’s love for them in new ways. 

Similarly he tells that patching old clothes with new material will cause them to tear when the material shrinks. The time for patching is over and the opportunity to recreate has arrived in Christ, though of course many minds were not open enough to recognise this.

Our reading from the prophet Hosea is a poetic parallel where his wife became a prostitute representing the unfaithfulness of Israel to God. After falling into sin and worshipping false gods the part we heard today gives an insight into one element of God’s character as a husband who can’t stop loving his wife despite the betrayal and shortcomings.

We hear the language of a tender and merciful love that entices, a seductive love that wants to restore the relationship and offer the possibility of a new future. Again we need minds that are not closed to new possibilities if we are to recognise that this is offered to each one of us.

Perhaps in the way that Jesus chose a tax collector as a disciple it may serve to remind us all to be open to the potential of each other rather than labelling people or leaping to assumptions because of their appearance.

Listening to the radio yesterday I heard of a project called ‘street pianos’ where pianos which are surplus to requirements are left in public places such as St Pancras station covered in artwork saying ‘play me I’m yours’. There are loads of videos of people playing on You Tube but the one that has had millions of hits really challenges our prejudices as people are blown away by a scruffy looking homeless man who sits down and plays beautifully.

Why is it so difficult to see potential in each other and to want to see this flourish into the best it can be?

I was recently reminded how far removed I am from church politics and the people within it that must have minds like inflexible wine skins when I read an article by Jane Williams . I was initially bewildered by the fact that after all the progress made in connection with women bishops she still felt it necessary to state ‘God calls women to be disciples of Christ, just as God calls men. Women can’t be disciples just through marriage or through relating to men who are disciples, our discipleship is about personal call, just as it is for men.’ Then I felt a bit lazy for not staying engaged enough to realise how deep many divisions remain and how truly hurtful the actions and words of some can be.

I wish I could say come and have a look at the world of commerce and we’ll show you how people should behave but a recent survey showed that large numbers of women are still being paid significantly less for the same work as men.

The problem manifests itself in a cross cultural ways as well. I have attended several meetings over recent months with people of other faiths where they are prepared to shake my hand but refuse to do the same with my female colleague who simply smiles and gets on with business regardless.

As soon as any of us think we are better than other humans and take action to keep ourselves separate from them we are saying ‘I don’t want to be tainted by you’. It’s quite hard to come up with a worse insult.  As soon as our tradition and customs stop us from including everyone they are killing off the phenomenal potential for good that the spirit has given us.

When we do separate ourselves from others whether it be because of preconceptions and prejudices, tradition and customs or simply because people seem different from us we draw a line between us and them. On which side of the line do you think we find Jesus?

Despite all our shortcomings God doesn’t give up on our potential to respond to his love and we should take this into the week ahead keeping in mind that this response has to begin with the way we relate to each other.

During lent I shall be exploring prayer over a number of weeks and the first session will be ‘prayer as relationship’, thinking about our relationship with God and drawing insights from our relationships with other people. Today feels like a good start on that.  Anyone interested will be most welcome.


Kevin Bright

8 February 2015


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