Good morning everyone.
Several weeks ago activists in Montreal defaced and toppled over a statue of Sir John A MacDonald, one of the Fathers of Canadian Confederation. The reason given was Sir John A’s horrible legacy for his treatment of Indigenous peoples and the creation of the residential school system.
As followers of Jesus, what are we to make of this this? Should we participate in such acts of civil disobedience? Even more broadly, what is our relationship as Kingdom people to the culture and society around us? Especially as it grows ever more hostile to the message of Jesus and the gospel.
In our passage this morning Jesus addresses the rather mundane issue of paying a tax, a seemingly simple thing but there are some profound lessons that I think we can learn here. So, open your Bibles to Matthew 17:22-27 and follow along with me
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
At first glance I think that it would be easy to conclude that Jesus is saying that we just need to knuckle under, accept whatever civil authorities deliver to us. But there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Let’s dive in and have a look at the context.
First, I want to direct your attention to how this story opens: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him”
Last week Rusty talked about how at this stage of His ministry Jesus began preparing His disciples for His upcoming captivity and crucifixion. From our perspective 2000 years later we know the end of the story but the disciples had difficulty comprehending this, and Jesus has to remind them several times; this is the second time that Jesus informs the disciples of His impending death. What Jesus seems to be imminently aware of is that there is a conspiracy being plotted against Him. There are forces at play, mainly originating from the priest and religious officials who run the temple in Jerusalem, and these people are threatened by Jesus and His message and they are planning to kill Him.
With that as background, Jesus and His disciples arrive in Capernaum, which has been Jesus’ home base while preaching around the Sea of Galilee.
The Tax Collectors come and ask Peter if Jesus is in the habit of paying the temple tax. The temple tax was a tax imposed by the temple priests on all the Jewish people. It had to be paid annually and it was intended for the upkeep of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. You may recall that the temple at that time was the centre of worship for the Jewish people, it was created for the worship of the Living God, it was a magnificent structure built by Herod the Great, and it was expensive to maintain the temple and pay for the priests who performed the acts of worship daily. Hence, a tax to pay for its upkeep. So, the Tax collectors come to Peter and ask if Jesus is going to pay the tax.
I just love Peter’s response here. He probably had no clue whether Jesus was going to pay the tax or not so he made up an answer and hoped to figure it out later. He then goes to Jesus to find out what to do. But what does Jesus do? Verse 25, He asks Peter a question, “What do you think, Simon?” He asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” What is Jesus asking here?
At that time Kings and rulers collected taxes from their subjects, often by force. The king’s children of course were exempt because of their special family relationship with the King and so they were not expected to pay. So what is the point that Jesus is trying to make here? If the temple tax is a tax to be paid to the Living God—the One and only true King—to maintain His temple in Jerusalem, then Jesus, because He is the son of the Living God, more than anyone else should be exempt from paying the tax, right? Do you see what Jesus is saying here?
Jesus is saying, “Because I am the Son of God, because of my relationship with God the Father, I have the authority and the power to not pay this tax.” But also, by extension, the disciples? What has Jesus taught His disciples about their relationship to this King, the Living God? Think about how Jesus taught the disciples to pray; how does that prayer begin? It begins with “Our Father”. So they also are children of the Living God, and they too should be exempt from paying the temple tax.
Here is the point that I think Matthew is trying to make here: when Jesus was confronted with a question of how to relate authority and to culture in the world around Him, He started with His identity. Do you see the implications here for us? Where do we often start today when facing similar questions? We often start with our rights (ie: it is my right to not wear a face mask in public right now; you cannot stop me from hanging out with my friends during the pandemic, it is my right to do so). Our individual rights are often a starting point for relating to the world around us.
But then, what does Jesus say? “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line.” The word translated as “offence” here is actually the Greek word skandalizo, from which we get the English word “scandal”. “We are going to pay the tax so that we don’t cause a scandal.” Now wait a minute, since when is Jesus concerned about causing a scandal? His whole life has been one big scandal, from the day of his birth onward; this is the man who upset the moneychanger table in the temple, the man who said, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus lived and breathed scandal. He was in the business of preaching against oppressive rules and heartless religion, He challenged corrupt superficial worship of God, He taught compassion for the poor and oppressed; it is no wonder that people wanted to kill Him.
What do you think Jesus is saying here? What I take this to mean is Jesus saying, “This is not the battle I want to fight right now. In the overall arc of my ministry, if I do not pay the tax it will create a distraction from the overall mission of what I am trying to accomplish.” Jesus recognizes that He is free to not pay this tax but He does it anyway. So, Jesus directs Peter to go fishing and a miracle happens. Peter finds a fish with a coin in its mouth, enough to pay both Jesus’ and Peter’s tax.
Here is the thing though, circle back to first verse in passage. Jesus gives up His rights to be exempt from the tax, knowing full well that He is contributing to the very religious system that will imprison Him and eventually call for Him to be crucified. Jesus is so confident in His identity in who He is that He is fine doing what people expect of Him, even though He knows he doesn’t have to do it.
So let’s get back to Sir John A McDonald, “losing his head” a few weeks ago. How do we as Kingdom people relate to civil authority and more broadly to culture at large, especially when it seems to run contrary to the values we hold as Kingdom people? Some examples might be the opinions that people express either online or in person, or the decisions that our governments make.
I am not going to fill in the blanks here but rather give you some things to ponder.
- Recognize that our society at large is increasingly post-Christian. Jesus in His day knew that the rulers were conspiring to kill Him. Now, things are not that extreme today but I think it is important to be aware that our culture, our society, is increasingly embracing values that are post-truth and post-Christian. We are often influenced in subtle ways to discard Kingdom values for those of our surrounding culture.
Let me show you just one practical example: the internet. We use the internet extensively in our world today, and what we as a culture value about the internet is speed, choice, and individualism; the faster the download speed the better, choice means that I can jump from site to site and follow wherever my curiosity leads me, and individualism lets you believe you can do this all by yourself, that you don’t need anyone else, and that you can create online communities that you can hang out with in your own pace and time. But what is the result of that?
Pastor Jay Kim says speed has resulted in impatience; when your Netflix is slow to download a movie you grit your teeth in frustration. Choice has made us shallow with very short attention spans; we look for quick articles written by those we already agree with rather than thinking for ourselves. Individualism has led to loneliness and isolation. Where we are losing the ability even to be able to initiate and maintain meaningful relationships.
Rather, life in the Kingdom is where we value patience, depth in our understanding of God and His world, community over individualism.
So what is our response to this? Do we not use the internet? Of course not, but we need to be aware that much of what is communicated, both overtly and subliminally, is actually anti-Christian and we need to be wise and circumspect.
- When you look at your world and how to interact with it, begin with your identity as a child of God. Your approach should be from the perspective of a daughter or son of the Living God rather than focusing on your own personal preferences, your rights, or your intersectionality; the core of your personhood is rooted in God the Father. As a result, you trust in His goodness, His provision, and His purposes to be worked out in your life.
- Do it Together. Going back to the passage, Jesus said, “When you go fishing you will find a four dracma coin in the fish’s mouth, enough for yours and my tax. Let’s go pay it together.” You know, as individuals it is easy to get sidetracked, drawn into extremes. Let’s us together walk through these difficult and thorny times. There is wisdom in the people of God gathering together to pray and discuss.
I hope that I have given you some things to ponder and think about. I would be interested in your thoughts on this. Please email me (and/or comment here) and I would be happy to dialogue with you.
Have a great week everyone.