Many years ago, the seminary I attended had an “off the books” work study program. Putting legalities aside for the moment, students were assigned some work to do for the well-being of the community. Some worked in the kitchen, some in the library, some in the day care. It was rather a Benedictine model of community forming a shared life together shaped by a rhythm of prayer, study, and work. So far, so good.
However, it was not a purely Benedictine model in that there was something in return for the work assignment, in this case a stated amount of financial aid or a tuition reduction. In other words, there was financial remuneration for the work assignment. We were paid for what we did, albeit minimally.
And that caused a problem. There were no employment taxes, no W-2s provided, and no declaration on anyone’s tax return. As good and holy as this program may have been, I doubt the IRS would have been that impressed by the virtues of Benedictine spirituality. It sure looked like what was going on was wages being paid in return for work performed on an hourly basis. I somehow doubt that the “under the table” quality of it all lent a lot of credence to the Benedictine reality of it.
At any rate, someone finally got concerned that this plan had run afoul of the IRS, and we all know the IRS is not an organization one wants to run afoul of. And the powers that be started to try to fix the mess without making it all financially and administratively impractical.
I have a vivid meeting of one meeting in which one of my fellow students protested that this couldn’t be taxable income since the seminary administration, when questioned, had said the payments were a gift. I remember her heartfelt protest: “But Fr. McReynolds said it was a gift. But Fr. McReynolds said it was a gift.” I think I may have pointed out that the IRS was unlikely to consider Fr. McReynolds’ opinion determinative.
I have always had a hard time sorting out what’s a gift and what’s not; what is earned and what’s not; what is a wage and what’s not. Generally speaking, I prefer earning.
I think that’s the same bias most of us bring to this week’s Gospel, John 14:1-14, especially verse 6: “Jesus said to [Philip], ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Most of us, certainly I, keep wanting no one to come to the Father, at least myself, except through me, not through Jesus. I want it to have something to do with what I’ve done, with what I’ve earned. I want it to mean no one comes to the Father except through what they believe or what they do in response to Jesus or what they think about Jesus. That, however, would to be to read into the text, and it is the reading into the text that makes it a bit problematic.
What the text actually says is that it is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who is responsible for coming to the Father. It pointedly does not say no one comes to the Father but by believing in Jesus, just through Jesus alone. In other words, it is a gift. That’s it. We come to the Father because Jesus gives us the gift of coming to the Father.
And what’s more, John doesn’t put any limitations on how Jesus gives us this gift. It could involve knowing Jesus by some other name. It could involve knowing Jesus by no name at all. As a Christian, I do not know how else to express this except through Jesus. I just don’t think Jesus is so limited that what Jesus does is very much limited by how any one of us understands him or whether one understands him at all. That’s just me, though; not the text.
So, it’s a gift. It’s just a gift. Fr. McReynolds said it was a gift. And this time it turns out he is right. It’s a gift. And gifts aren’t subject to tax at all.