Lectionary readings: Ecclesiastes 12; Matthew 22: 34-40
How might we assess and respond to the Government’s long awaited Comprehensive Spending Review? Not perhaps a question that you would expect Jesus to be addressing in first century Palestine. And indeed he’s not – at least not directly. But this reading from the Gospel of Matthew (22: 33-40) has a striking relevance.
Since George Osborne’s statement in the House of Commons on 20 October 2010, a political row has been raging over the idea of ‘fairness’. The Institute for Fiscal Studies weighed in saying the cuts are regressive. Nick Clegg responded by backing the Chancellor and saying the cuts are progressive, meaning the richest will bear their fair share of pain.
We might be tempted to join with the teacher in Ecclesiastes who, in apparent despondency, brands it all “Meaningless...” But in our Gospel reading we discover what might be a more positive response.
Jesus too is embroiled in a political debate. The Pharisees, we are told by the writer, have just heard that Jesus has dealt a significant political blow to their coalition partners, the Sadducees. He has also just had a couple of skirmishes with the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians over taxation.
There is a big discussion going on. On the one side is the uneasy coalition: the Sadducees, the Herodians and other parties who are in bed with the Romans. They, for obvious reasons, think it is OK to pay taxes to Caesar. On the other are groups such as the Zealots, who believe that paying taxes to Caesar is collaboration and tantamount to treachery.
So whose side is Jesus on? Does Jesus support the coalition or does he side with the opposition? Jesus is set a political trap, the Gospel writer tells us. And whatever answer he gives it seems, he will be damned. He’s either going to be seen as a collaborator or a dangerous subversive.
Jesus, however, confounds them with his response, and refocuses the political agenda. Cutting to the heart of the matter he holds up a coin and asks whose head is on it. It is of course Caesar’s. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” he says.
In contemporary terms, it’s a bit like asking if you support the Government. Jeremy Paxman wants a straight answer – “yes, or no”. But the issues are complex, and Jesus instead refocuses the discussion. What is the basis of your question? Who is ultimately important here – is it God or Caesar? What are the values involved? What are God’s priorities? These are the kinds of questions that Jesus’ response throws up.
Theologians have debated what exactly Jesus meant on the question of taxation. But whatever was meant, it seems to have confounded the questioners. So the Pharisees have determined to lay another political trap.
This time, it’s a bit like Osborne’s spending review. They are trying to get Jesus to set out his priorities. If he’s so clever, then what does he think is most important? Is it child benefit and working families tax credit? (Honouring one’s father and mother?) Is it the Ministry of Justice and frontline policing? (Thou shalt not steal?) Should the age of Sabbath rest be raised to 66?
Jesus once again refuses to accept the premises of their questioning. He goes instead to the heart of the matter. First and foremost this should be about love – love of God and love of neighbour.
The idea of love seems ill-suited to realpolitik, both then and now. But moving swiftly forward to 21st Century Britain we might conclude that contemporary debate is more or less on the right lines. The discussion about cuts after all seems to be revolving around ideas of ‘fairness’. This debate is all about love of neighbour and how we treat each other. "We’re all in this together", after all. The only disagreement is whether the spending review has achieved the fairness that we all hoped it would.
But all is perhaps not as it seems.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests hopefully:
“God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.”
Indeed, this is what Jesus has also been doing in his responses to the questions that have been posed. He has been drawing out and revealing what really lies beneath the debates into which his opponents have sought to draw him.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies, too, could perhaps be interpreted as doing God’s work, as it seeks to expose the potential impact of the Government’s cuts. It has attempted to reveal those hidden things which we might not have otherwise spotted. And there is an important tradition of speaking truth to power into which it falls.
But a closer examination of the ideas of ‘fairness’ which are being used by all sides, suggests that everyone may be somewhat at odds with a Christian conception of fairness.
When Herodians ask the question about taxation and the Pharisees ask about the law, Jesus’ response brings into sharp relief how their priorities and perspective are intimately related to how they understand God and how they treat those around them – their neighbours.
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus brought the politics of two thousand years ago into sharp question. If we allow him, he might bring even the Spending Review under close scrutiny, too.
In the Christian tradition, ‘fairness’, is that which is found in the character of God. The extent of our love and devotion to God is evident in how that fairness is demonstrated in the treatment of our neighbours.
Christianity, along with Judaism, holds that all are made in God’s image. Consequently, fairness demands that there is a special and particular regard for the vulnerable, the weak, the poor and the excluded.
We are all in this together. Yes. But God’s approach suggests not simply that the rich should carry an equal, or even greater burden. When considered in the light of God’s commonwealth, the bar is raised still higher. The question becomes whether the poorest and most vulnerable should be shouldering any of the burden at all. True fairness, incorporating the Christian idea of bias to the poor, might be better seen as the poorest being protected completely and entirely. Indeed, God’s fairness might demand that the poorest emerge even better off than before the spending review began.
So what might Jesus’ response be to a question about Government cuts? Jesus might not be drawn into the budget setting on a department by department basis. But perhaps, as was his habit, he might use an example or tell us a story.
He might tell us about a man. A man who is on the minimum wage. It's just gone up by 13p an hour and that gives him £237 for a 40 hour week to live on and support his family. That doesn't go far these days so he is grateful for the housing benefit and the controlled rent. Mind you, the area he lives in isn’t that great. But it’s the only one he can afford to live in. You can't really be choosy when you don't have cash to spare. So far there have been plenty of police on the beat to keep the anti-social stuff under control. But with the cuts in the policing budget and the freeze on recruitment, he is starting to become frightened.
He’s particularly anxious about what might happen to his children. He wants them to grow up without getting into trouble or getting hurt. He’d like to move away to an area where they'll be safer and the schools are a bit better. The trouble is, he can't imagine where he might go. Social housing seems to be getting scarcer, and buying is unaffordable. Even now if something were to happen to put his rent up it would be hard to imagine how he would cope. He’s already anxious about the cost of keeping the place warm this winter.
His eldest though is doing really well at school; she'd like to stay on, do 'A' levels, go to university. But it’s going to stretch his means. The £30 'staying on' grant has been done away with so he’s not sure how he will find the money to buy her books, what with the fares for the travel into work going up, the increase in VAT and his own pay freeze.
And come to that, his job isn't too secure either. He’s heard that benefits are being cut too. He loves kids, and would have loved to have had more, but that would have been irresponsible. He wonders what the cuts will do for his existing children’s futures? He’s concerned too what the university fees are going to be like by the time his daughter is 18? Perhaps he’d better not encourage that aspiration.
He’s grateful though that the Child Tax Credit is going up £30 a year. It will help now that the £30 a week he got to help with childcare has gone. But it might mean that his wife has to give up her job because it only just covers the shortfall as it is. And it’s just possible that she might be able to help by doing a bit of cleaning work without declaring it.
And as for his elderly mother’s care, he does wonder what is going to happen to her now that the local authority is having its budget cut so severely. What will it be like if there isn't anyone to get her up in the mornings and wash her?
Such a story would certainly help to refocus abstract debates about fairness, and highlight the need to relieve, not increase, the loads of the already burdened.
(c) Jonathan Bartley is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is slightly adapted from a recent address given in the chapel at Worcester College, Oxford.