Tag Archives: tax

9 May: The Jesus Problem, Part II

Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey continues her reflections on God, money, politics and good faith.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (Matthew 22:15-16).

Today we’ll continue our lectio reflection on Matthew 22:15-22. If you weren’t here yesterday, I recommend that you scroll back and see what we were thinking about. Today, I’d like us to use our imagination, and try to picture the group Jesus is talking to. These disciples of the Pharisees: what are they like? We need first to acknowledge that they are not the finished product, they are still in training, still students of the Pharisees; they will probably be young men, therefore. This suggests that some of them will still be impressionable, idealistic, and sincerely seeking the truth. As is the case in any group of people, they will not all be made of the same stuff and won’t all have identical mind-sets. Many – even most – will have been completely prejudiced against Jesus by the Pharisees. But some, surely, would be young men with more independence of mind and character. Despite the Pharisees’ attempts to brain-wash them, the young men of this stamp will have retained some willingness to listen to Jesus, and to test not Jesus so much as the Pharisees’ idea of Jesus. They will want to find out for themselves if Jesus really is the strange villain he has been made out to be. You might say that this sub-group within the larger group is ‘on the fence.’

Now, imagine yourself a member of this sub-group. You do not know Jesus first-hand. You don’t quite know what you think of him yet. This is the first time you have even seen Jesus and dealt with him, but you are a little ashamed of the way some of your peers are behaving toward Jesus.

So you try to study Jesus, physically, to see what story his body may tell. Jesus is broad-shouldered and lean. You know he had been a carpenter before. His muscular body shows that he’s no stranger to hard physical labour. Jesus’ face is arresting in the energy it seems to radiate. His colour is high, but his deep-set dark eyes look tired – although they are clear, and they seem to take everything in. He scans the little group of young men now. Is there even one pair of eyes willing to make sympathetic eye-contact with Jesus, you wonder? The Herodians are a lost cause: not one of them will meet Jesus’ gaze. Some of your peers meet his eye with a hard, belligerent stare, particularly the speaker. You’ve seen that look on the face of your fifteen year old cousin when his father tells him something he doesn’t want to hear. Others fold their arms over their chest and, after a brief glance at Jesus, pretend that there is something interesting on the ground to look at.

What do you do? You are struck by Jesus’ posture. It is open. It is vulnerable, yet strong. There is no evasiveness in him – nor any aggression. He is fully present. You can’t help it: you are impressed by Jesus. You sense his goodness, intelligence and integrity. This is no charlatan. But there is something in him you can’t quite understand. A sort of longing. And an indescribable sadness. You meet his gaze. You want to know what he will do next and you find that you are on his side.

Jesus seems to understand you – or you deeply hope he does. You feel a connection with him. He has been silent for several long moments. He is not rushing this. And, surprisingly, no one interrupts this silence. This is unusual; the cut and thrust of debate is what this little group of men loves. Usually, silence in their opponent is interpreted as a win for their side. But no one regards this silence as a win. This Jesus has an uncanny ability to hold a group’s attention. At last he says something odd to the speaker: ‘Show me the money you pay the tax with.’ Now it’s the speaker’s turn to try to hold the crowd’s attention. He decides he’ll take his time, too. He doesn’t react at first. Then he wags his head slightly in mockery, narrows his eyes, smirks, glances to the side, but otherwise doesn’t move. The crowd, though, isn’t with him, and he suddenly realises this. Someone makes an impatient noise from the back, and pushes forward to show Jesus a denarius. That someone is you.

You hold out the coin in your open palm. You feel strangely emotional. Jesus is looking around at all of them again, but he is soon looking straight at you, and says: ‘Whose portrait is this? Whose title?’ Of course, it is Caesar’s. You don’t answer aloud but you continue to look at Jesus, who is now looking at the crowd again. Someone shouts out the obvious answer. Jesus slowly shrugs a bit and says in an off-hand way, ‘Then give to Caesar what belongs to him.’ And here he pauses and looks you fully in the face once more. Your eyes are streaming now. You feel as though he knows you, your past, your present, your hurt, your deep desire for meaning and love. The group is completely silent behind you. No one even moves. Jesus speaks quietly: ‘…and give God what belongs to God.’ He takes your hand that is still stretched out with the coin in it, gently rolls the fingers around the coin, and gives it a firm clasp with both his hands. Then he disengages.

The stunned crowd quietly leaves Jesus. You stay behind. What has just happened to you?

SJC

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8 May: The Jesus Problem, Part I.

Roman city gateway, Lincoln. The Romans came to Britain soon after Jesus’ time.

After Pope Francis’s prayer about money, let’s join Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on a discussion on the subject that Jesus refuses to get drawn into needlessly, though his answer puts the question back in his questioners’ court.

The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. They sent their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you. Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ (see Mt. 22:15-16).

I read these lines from the Gospel of Matthew and it hits me: this spokesman for the Pharisees is really laying it on thick. This is an episode that occurs near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, when feeling against him among the Jewish leaders has reached the danger-point. Now, in their efforts to bring Jesus down, the Pharisees enlist the aid of their disciples – Pharisees-in-training, probably – to do some dirty work, which strikes me as being particularly cowardly. And also they have the help of the Herodians – because Herodians, as supporters of the Herodian dynasty, were the most suitable people to report Jesus, if he could be tricked into saying something against Rome. In which case Jesus would be arrested and conveniently removed from the scene. End of the Jesus Problem for the Pharisees. In this passage, the Pharisees’ disciples are attempting to present themselves as the loyal supporters of Rome – although in fact, none of the Jews were happy under the Roman occupation. But the facts are being manipulated now in order to stack the situation against Jesus. I re-read this passage from Matthew, and I feel anger on Jesus’ behalf as I consider the viciousness behind the overblown flattery of the words said to him. I see the speaker flicking conspiratorial glances at his peers while they all feign seriousness. Sickening.

I continue to ponder this scene, seeking a real encounter with the person of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit working in the sacred text. I try to imagine how I would react if I had been in Jesus’ place. Even at this remove, the main feeling continues to be anger – building up and up inside me. This, along with fear, would be overwhelming if I were really there; I see myself trying to suppress these emotions. I see myself acting – or trying to act – as though I don’t notice the group’s malice, while inwardly being so preoccupied by it, and the implied insult to my intelligence, and the threat to my very life, that I cannot actually answer their question with any show of competence. I see myself quickly trying to end the encounter and escape. The bottom line is that I would be way out of my depth if I were in Jesus’ place, and in the end, even if I managed somehow to preserve my dignity, I would be unable to come up with a response that addressed this complex situation or that impressed anyone – not even my best friend.

Jesus, however, is master of the whole situation. And his flatterers were right. Jesus is not afraid of them or of anyone. He will take them on, astute in every word and gesture. How does he handle things? First, he addresses their falsity. He exposes it. He wants their duplicity to be out in the open, obvious to all. ‘You hypocrites!’ he says. ‘Why are you putting me to the test?’ No one needs to explain why – and no one does. It’s perfectly obvious that they are hoping to trap Jesus, make him look like an enemy of The Establishment. In exposing this, Jesus he easily wrong-foots his questioners – and wins a small victory here. Now he has the advantage in the ensuing exchange.

Jesus clearly knows their game. Nonetheless Jesus has a ‘game’ of his own. He has come into the world as saviour. He will never turn away if there is even a remote possibility that someone present may be open to his person and message. He has been asked a question: ‘Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ Jesus sees that the question is a set-up. But he also sees something they don’t see – he sees that the question can be turned into one that touches the deepest spiritual level of the human being. There may be someone, perhaps only one person in that little group of Pharisees’ disciples, who is reachable. And so, Jesus gives them all a most beautiful answer to their question.

And here we are going to slow this reflection down. We know this story; we know the answer Jesus is going to give. But this is lectio divina. Lectio is about giving the text space to speak in a new way each time we read it, not pre-empting the Holy Spirit by rushing ahead to the end, then dusting off our mental hands, closing the book and dashing away unchanged. So, we’re going to pause this reflection here for today, and return to it tomorrow, perhaps with an even greater degree of openness to the message that Jesus, through his Spirit working in us, may wish to give.

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5 August, Little flowers of Saint Francis LVI: Saint Antony and the fish, 2.

anthony and Francis

What did you expect from a sermon to the fish? They got a brilliant theology of Creation, from Scripture to science without any contradictions. Laudato Si!

The fishes being set in order and array, Saint Antony began solemnly to preach, and so spake: “My brothers the fish, much are ye bounden so far as in ye lies, to give thanks to our Creator, who hath given you so noble an element for your abode; in such sort that as it pleaseth you, ye have sweet waters and salt; and hath given you many a refuge to escape the storms withal; nay more, hath given you a clear, translucent element, and food by the which ye may live.

God, your kind and bountiful Creator, when He created you, gave you commandment to increase and multiply, and poured on you His blessing: then whenas the deluge came and one and all the other beasts all died, you alone did God keep safe from harm. Moreover hath He given you fins that ye may roam where’er ye please.

To you the grace was given, by God’s command, to save the prophet Jonah, and after the third day to throw him safe and whole upon the land. Ye brought the tribute-money to our Lord Jesu Christ, who was so poor, He had not aught to pay.Ye were the food of the eternal King, Jesus Christ, before the Resurrection and thereafter, through a mystery wondrous rare; for all the which things much are ye bound to bless and praise God, who hath given you so many and so great blessings more than to other creatures.”

Antony with some of his fish, alongside Francis. Public Domain via Wikipedia.

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