Sermon given at a Service to celebrate the work of HMRC

23 September 2014 at 12:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

When Monty Python evolved into the Life of Brian it caused something of a stir. A bishop went on television to despise the film. So, I wonder whether the Life of Brian has ever been quoted from this pulpit before. John Cleese – Reg – asked a rhetorical question. 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' But his audience began to answer one by one: aqueducts, sanitation, the roads – 'obviously the roads; well the roads go without saying don't they' – medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, the fresh water system and public health.

'All right', says Reg, 'but apart from the sanitation, aqueducts, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?' Someone pipes up, 'Brought peace?' 'Oh, peace - shut up!'

Not all the subjects of the Roman Empire were as reasonable about paying taxes to Rome as that little audience. In Israel at the time of Jesus, tax collectors were not very popular; they were seen as traitors and extortioners.

Provided they remitted the expected returns to their superiors, and they to Rome, they were all expected to exact as much as they liked. They have a bad name in the Gospels. St Luke tells us that some tax collectors repented and came to be baptised in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. He instructed them to collect no more than what was due. Then there was that little man Zacchaeus. He must have been working at a higher grade than the average tax collector. But he was small and wanted to see Jesus, so he climbed a sycamore tree. To his amazement, Jesus invited himself to dinner with him. He was changed and promised to give half his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone he had defrauded four times as much. He must have had a large legitimate income.

It was not just the fraud and extortion. Unlike that little band in the Life of Brian, the Gospels suggest that the people of Israel found it hard to detect the benefits that accrued to them from Roman rule. Tax collectors were hated as agents of the imperial power. 

And yet, Jesus is seen to have made a point of spending time with them and dining with them. Disgusted, upstanding citizens, the scribes and the Pharisees, grumbled at Jesus' disciples. But he said he was much more concerned about the wicked than the good, 'I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.' That message is eternal.

But the times have changed. That was then. This is now. And things are different. Fraud and extortion are not the means whereby Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs collect taxes. Even so, however friendly and helpful the process is of settling how much is to be paid and however easy it is actually to pay, we would be naïve to be surprised that there is lively political debate about the level of taxation and tax credit. 

In 1789 Benjamin Franklin wrote to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 'Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.' Paying revenue and customs is never likely to be exactly popular. Our essential selfishness is always bound to find better things to do with our money than pool them for the public good; even pooling money for our own good is tough enough.

It is right and good to pay tax. For Christians, and for many people of goodwill, the authority of Jesus on the question is encouraging. Spies were out to trap him. But Luke tells us 'he perceived their craftiness and said to them, "'Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor's." He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."'

We could not possibly imagine what life would be like if there were no centralised and controlled system of collecting revenue and thus enabling Government expenditure. Private philanthropy might flourish to a degree but so much on which we – and all those others who benefit from the services provided by Her Majesty's Government – so readily and almost unconsciously rely simply would not be available.

Two days ago, another enormous congregation assembled here in the Abbey. We remembered then the Battle of Britain seventy four years ago, in the presence of lively veterans in their 90s, and we prayed for the Royal Air Force. Next Sunday, we shall welcome the Captain and crew of HMS Westminster to worship here. We give thanks for the Forces of the Crown. Who could doubt the importance of their engagement in promoting justice, peace and freedom in these islands and beyond the seas? The security of the realm is the first duty of Government and the peace of the world is our daily prayer.

Education, public health, community building, promoting prosperity – the list could go on and on. Oh! and the roads – 'obviously the roads; well the roads go without saying, don't they' – as so much does, taken for granted: the vital role of tax.

So it is absolutely right to celebrate and to give thanks for the work of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. We honour the manner and means by which taxes are collected. We celebrate what the money raised achieves. We give thanks for public servants. We honour public service.

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