Render to God the things that are God’s

IN January 2015, I shared this story about giving.

In light of the latest amendment to the Income Tax Act 1967, I am looking at it from a different angle.

In one of his sermons about the cheerful giver, the late preacher Ray Stedman told this little narrative in his usual mirthful way: “Dr H A Ironside used to tell the story of an old Scotsman who inadvertently dropped a gold sovereign in the collection bag at a church service.

“In Scotland, when the ushers take up the offerings, they use a long pole with a bag at the end of it, which they pass among the pews.

“This old Scotsman put in a gold sovereign by mistake when he meant to put in only a shilling. As soon as he realised his mistake, he tried to retrieve his sovereign.

“But the usher pulled the bag back and said, nah, once in, always in! The old man said ah well, I’ll get credit for it in glory. The usher replied nah, you’ll get credit for the shilling!”

After all, deep down his heart, that was all the old man intended to give.

On the home front, effective today, religious bodies shall see a new ruling to “income” exempted from tax via an amendment passed in Parliament on Nov 23 and approved by the Senate on Dec 16.

A senior lawyer commented that the key words of the amended ITA are “income in respect of contributions received for charitable purposes” which means at the time of receipt of contributions, it has to be stated the monies are for charitable purposes.

Hypothetically, had Stedman included in his sermon the amendment in question, then the old Jock would have been required to state for what purpose was the gold sovereign (or shilling) he dropped into the collection bag.

In any event, based on my understanding of the amendment, starting today, when you put your money into the collection bag while attending service in a house of worship, regardless of denomination or affiliation, you will have to state for what purposes are those offerings.

In which case, do the churches have to come up with two types of bags – one labelled “donations for charitable purposes” and the other “contributions for different purposes?”

I may be wrong in my interpretation. But given the situation in the nation now, many like me, the lawyer and other concerned lawmakers, believe no amendment is needed to the ITA since the law is very clear on tax exemptions for charities unless there are some hidden agendas.

The general perception is that the government needs more money, and thinking that religious bodies are rich, it is trying to get them to pay.

One lawyer believes that is why the amendment slipped through silently, especially at the time when the lawmakers were at the height of debating the Hudud Bill.

The lawyer justified his observation by stating no discussions had been held with stakeholders, tax specialists and agents prior to the amendment.

The explanation given by Minister of Finance II Datuk Johari Abdul Ghani that the amendment was necessary to fix a loophole in the Act to ensure religious bodies will not use the contributions from donors to make profits from business activities while enjoying no tax, is generally not accepted not only by the stakeholders but also the general public.

When I reflected the wishes of the general public that there was a need for IRB to issue a “Public Ruling” to allay fears over arbitrary penalisation later, and that stakeholders, tax consultants and lawyers should meet on clarity and preciseness of the amendments, Johari’s reply was “for your information, amendments have already been passed by Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara. IRB are very clear in their interpretation.

“So religious bodies should not worry. All donations to religious bodies are tax exempt. Only investment income is being taxed. If you are not happy with that please get the religious body concerned to write a letter to IRB and they will reply.”

There is certainly no issue on being “happy” or “not happy”.

I am just a journalist trying to fulfil my obligation to my readers.

The minister was, however, quick to clarify that “happy” was not the correct word to use, rephrasing it to “if you want to be very sure”.

For the record, tax collectors – from the ancient New Testament era to the Inland Revenue Board (IRB) agents of today – are receiving more than their share of scorn and distrust from the public.

The low regard for tax collectors in the ancient era stemmed from the fact that they were seen as traitors to their own countrymen. They enriched themselves at the expense of their fellowmen by helping the Roman oppressors.

By hook or by crook, these Jewish tax collectors – or republicans as they were called – would collect more than required and keep the extras for themselves.

No one likes to pay money to the government, especially when the government is an oppressive regime like the Roman Empire of the First Century. People generally feel the same about modern day tax collectors.

But our Lord has said this: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

We need to rise above the level of tax collectors. If our life is only reciprocal, then we are no better than a tax collector.

This is the first day of the year. The things that happened yesterday are irrevocable.

I look back with mixed emotions. There are joys but also sorrows – just like there are assurances as well as regrets. But we should be rejoicing with all praises when we think of God’s faithfulness which is new every morning.

I started with a story and let me end with a story to provide some food for thought.

A brilliant young lawyer was given a copy of the New Testament of the Bible. He came to this account in the book of Mark and read with great interest.

He was astonished and dropped the Bible, saying to himself: “That’s the most amazing wisdom!”

Here is the account in the book of Mark.

When the Lord was asked whether “it is right to pay the tax to Caesar or not,” He did not try to answer the question. Instead, he asked for a coin and asked “whose picture is on this coin?”

They said “Caesar’s.”

Jesus said: “All right, then, it must be Caesar’s money. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

“But God has His stamp upon you, so render unto God the things that are God’s.”

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s – certain things do belong to Caesar, give to him. But other things about us belong only to God, so give those to God. And He will show the way.

On behalf of my colleagues in the newsroom of The Borneo Post and Utusan Borneo, I would like to wish our readers a happy and blessed New Year.

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