Our second reading (Luke 20:9-19) gave us a wealthy landowner whose affairs appear to be complex. We are not told if he was resident in the hypothetical place the story is set, or whether he had non-domiciled status – his home was elsewhere and while he was resident he was really only a visitor. He clearly has interests abroad and goes off to attend to matters in this other non-specified country.
The tax rules about non-domiciled status have been all over the news this week and they are intriguing. They go back to 1799 when William Pitt’s government first introduced income tax to recoup money from the Napoleonic war with France, war in Spain and America, as well as turmoil in Ireland. It didn’t take long for someone to raise the question about what income would be taxed, since some for the wealthy arose in the British colonies and of course that means its origin is linked with the slave trade and the colonial legacy. The result was some of these wealthy investors could claim that their permanent home was in these colonies, so only income that was brought into the UK was taxed. There have been several changes to the rules over the succeeding centuries, the most recent being in the Finance Act 2017. There is now a time limit, so after 15 years if the person is resident in the UK they are deemed to be domiciled here – this is their permanent home.
Clearly this has been in the press with the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s wife’s tax status and where she regards as being her permanent home, which is where it becomes a hot political issue. The implied questioning is of how committed the Chancellor is to the UK if there is some doubt about where his wife counts as her home, presumably he is included in this open question. How much are they just keeping their options open for the future? It is political kryptonite.
There is a principle of ethical business that whatever country someone trades in they recognise the wider obligations on that society and its people, its environment and long-term wellbeing. Trade is not and never should be seen as just about money and profit. It is a social enterprise and always has moral consequences. We have obligations to the common good and non-domiciled status is really now something for those who are only here temporarily, their home really is abroad, otherwise it is just an attempt to keep some of a person’s assets out of reach, which is why some want to end it, regard it as belonging to a time that no longer exists. Our taxes have come a long way since 1799.
One reading of the story Jesus told in the second reading is that the workers in the vineyard seem to be questioning the landowner’s right to a return on his ownership. He went away and when he returned those who lived there resented his absence and his profiteering from land they had come to see as their own. They don’t want to pay, and so after various violent responses, they end up murdering the landowner’s son. That brings a terrifying reaction; they are thrown out and destroyed. The vineyard is given to others whose stewardship is deemed more trustworthy.
We are used to seeing this story as being one of rebellion and revolution – the landowner is meant to be God, so they are bad people. But if you are from a place where your land has been occupied and a vineyard you could have regarded as being your land has been seized, then this story may well seem very different. The landowner becomes unjust, though I don’t think that is how it is seen by the gospel writer. Still, the colonial legacy is not seen as being neutral by those whose land it is or was before it was taken and exploited. In first century Israel, occupied by a foreign power, the same sensitivity may well have been in the air.
However we read this story, it touches on how we live and whether we give due allegiance to God, who is the true and ultimate landowner. Are we out for our own ends with no regard for what is due, no regard to our obligations? The implication is that the vineyard workers have rebelled and lived as though the land they work is theirs with no regard for who really owns it. But there is also a hint that the landowner is also making assumptions here and has obligations which come from being a temporary steward, so that challenge would bite both ways, if we take the landowner to be just that, and not God.
Psalm 24 sets the tone for us to find our way through this. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’. It ends with a song of God being the King of glory, the one to whom all allegiance is owed. It doesn’t matter what legal deeds we have, all of us are limited in our ownership, all of us are really tenants for a season, and God is the one who holds the land truly. The martyred Archbishop of San Salvador in the 1980s, Oscar Romero, referred to wealth as being borrowed from the poor and with it came an obligation to pay interest to the poor. With that recognition our first reading (Isaiah 5:1-7) brought obligations for justice and righteousness to the fore, and condemned bloodshed and what leads to cries of anguish.
Wherever we are, whatever the complexity of our trading and financial arrangements, they all come with obligations. These stem from our overarching obligation to God and when we live in harmony with that, justice and righteousness flow. When they don’t flow, then we have strayed and become ungrateful tenants who have usurped the true owners dues.
Sermon for Palm Sunday Evensong, Newport Cathedral, Sunday 10th April 2022