Jesus is like this sometimes. Sometimes, he really does want you to do something that seems stupid and unnecessary and difficult (like paying the temple tax). Sometimes he really does invite us to just go fishing, (or whatever your personal equivalent of that is) and trust him to deal with a situation. And especially, he is like this: he was willing to pay the debt you owed, though he did not have to.
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Matthew #60. Matthew 17:22-27
In Matthew 17:22, Jesus predicts his own death once more. We don’t need to spend a great deal of time on this verse, other than to note that Peter has learned his lesson, and this time, the disciples don’t argue, but instead, are deeply distressed. I do want to mention something interesting, however. Jesus predicts not only his own death, but also his resurrection. However, the disciples appear to only pay attention to the part about his death. Although his warning is of hardship and suffering and fear, he is also giving them something for which to have joyful hope. Even so, the disciples focus only on the bad. There is no evidence that they rejoiced in his talk of resurrection to the same degree that they were distressed about his talk of crucifixion.
Obviously, the crucifixion was horrible for Jesus, and very traumatic even for his disciples. However, even that horror turned out to be the means by which grace and salvation were brought to the world. Through this horrible thing that Jesus predicted, God conquered sin and made it possible for love to thrive. Not only that, but after the crucifixion came the resurrection, and Jesus told his disciples about that also. The resurrection was to be proof of victory, the power of God revealed. Yet the disciples, hearing about all this, were distressed.
I wonder how often I am like them. I face something difficult, utterly failing to see that God uses such things to accomplish his purposes in the world and in me. I hear the good news about what will come after the trouble, but I pay no attention to it, or I don’t even believe it. Lucky for them (and for us) human doubt does not stop God from doing what he plans to do; even so I wonder if we could have more peace and joy in the moment if we paid as much attention to the good promises of God about the resurrection as we do to the warnings of hardship and trouble.
Next, comes this little incident concerning a particular tax. Jewish men were required to pay a tax that was used to maintain the temple in Jerusalem, and keep it running; in Jesus’ day it was known as the double-drachma tax (some bible translations might simply call it the “temple tax”). The amount collected was equal to about two-days’ wages for a manual laborer. During the time of Jesus, there was a certain amount of wiggle-room in paying this tax. It was a religious tax, not a civil one, and so the Roman rulers did not require it, or enforce its collection. It was an internal matter between Jews, and a Jewish man would be safe from any official penalty if he chose not to pay it. Jewish groups like the Sadducees, who were fairly secular, typically did not pay it. On the other hand, many Jews felt it was the patriotic Jewish thing to do. After all, the temple was the heart of Judaism at the time.
Before we get into the text itself, I want to make a note about what this passage means for history. It means that when Matthew wrote his gospel, he expected that the temple-tax, and also the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, would have been of interest and concern for his readers. In addition, he makes no attempt to explain these customs, so he assumes that readers were quite familiar with all of this background. This makes it virtually certain that the gospel of Matthew was written before the temple was destroyed permanently in 70 AD. Once more, this is very strong evidence that contradicts the popular (and ignorant) idea that the bible was made up or changed long after the time of Jesus.
Now, let’s look at the passage itself.
When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the double-drachma tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your Teacher pay the double-drachma tax? ”
“Yes,” he said.
When he went into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? Who do earthly kings collect tariffs or taxes from? From their sons or from strangers? ”
“From strangers,” he said.
“Then the sons are free,” Jesus told him. “But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for Me and you.” (Matt 17:24-27, HCSB)
In the first place the tax collectors were looking for money to keep the temple running. They ask for it from Peter, but also specifically, they ask if Jesus pays the tax. Not only that, but I suspect that their question was a kind of political litmus test. The Sadducees were faithless and arrogant, and their lack of support for the temple was a symptom of those things. However, if you were Jewish, but not a Sadducee, people were quite likely to regard you with suspicion if you did not pay the temple tax. The question behind the actual words was “What kind of Jew are you? Are you a real Jew?”
It would be as if you were running for public office in America in 2015, and someone asked you, “Are you in favor of helping the poor?” Poverty in America today is a complex subject, and often the reasons for it are not strictly about economics. But the only possible answer a politician could give in such a situation is “Of course I am in favor of helping the poor.” A politician who tries to go into detail, or to tries to actually explain what that might involve, is likely to be misunderstood and attacked by large numbers of people who prefer not to think too hard. In the same way, the only possible answer Peter could give the tax collectors is “Of course we support the temple.”
Jesus knows what Peter has just encountered. Before Peter can even broach the subject, Jesus brings it up himself. His first question to Peter is one more place where Jesus reveals that he thought he was in fact, the Son of God, divine in nature. He clearly means that he himself is the Son, and should not be required to pay tax for the temple built for the glory of his Father and Himself. I want us to get the irony here: When God came to earth in human flesh, they wanted to tax him to pay for the temple that they built in his honor. But there is even more. The temple always pointed toward the nature of God. The layout, and the sacrifices, told the story of Holy God who is gracious, and yet whom cannot be approached by sinful people. The tabernacle and the temples built on its pattern were put in place to point people to Jesus Christ. The meaning of the temple, all of its symbolism, was fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
But they wanted to tax Jesus Christ himself to keep it going, even though he came to make it irrelevant.
I find Jesus’ response quite interesting. Basically he says, “Look, I don’t have to pay the tax. In fact, the tax is collected more or less on my behalf. But let’s pay it, anyway.”
In a way, this exemplifies the entire mission of Jesus on earth. He came to pay a debt that he didn’t owe. In fact, he paid the debt that was owed to himself by all people on earth. But where we should have, and yet couldn’t, atone for our own sins, he did.
There is a practical aspect to all this, also. This wasn’t a small tax. This was two days’ wages for Peter, and another two days’ worth for Jesus. But Jesus, Peter and the other disciples did not have paying jobs. Luke 8:1-3 records that Jesus and the twelve were living on what other people gave to support their ministry. Two days’ wages were tough to give up for a poor working stiff, but what about for two people who had no regular income?
So, to summarize, and put ourselves into Peter’s shoes: we do not have the money sitting around to pay for this tax. Even if we did, we don’t have to pay it, and it is almost silly to do so…and Jesus says, “Let’s pay it anyway.”
Next, comes the fun part. Jesus tells Peter to go fishing, and get the money out of the mouth of the first fish he catches. I used to read this and nod my head wisely. I am a fisherman, and I know that larger species of fish often strike at flashing pieces of metal, thinking they are struggling minnows. So, if a bright coin fell into the water, it wouldn’t be so crazy to think of a fish swallowing it.
Recently, I realized how stupid this really is. I have been fishing whenever possible for roughly forty years, and I have never caught a single fish with any amount of money its mouth, let alone four days’ wages. This isn’t a likely occurrence – it is a miracle.
As a fisherman, bear with me as we consider this in more detail; I think we might learn some interesting things. In the first place, skeptics sometimes scoff at the idea that anyone fished with a hook and line in those days. However, long before the time of Jesus, both Isaiah and Amos referred to fishing with a line and hook (Isaiah 19:8, Amos 4:2). In addition, actual fishhooks dating from ancient times have been discovered in archaeological digs in Israel. Once more, bible-skeptics seems to be lacking knowledge of the actual facts.
However, (and I think this is the important part) it would have been unusual for Peter to fish with a hook and line. Peter was a commercial fisherman before he met Jesus. The easiest way for him to catch large numbers of fish (and thus to make enough money to support himself) was with nets. Fishing with lines is pretty inefficient compared to netting. On the other hand, if you fished with a line and hook, you could choose your bait, and be more selective about what you caught. If your goal was to catch a big fish, you could improve your odds by using a hook and line. What it amounts to is this: In general, Peter would only fish with a hook and line for the fun of it. Therefore, Jesus was not telling Peter to go back to work and find the money by running the fishing business again for a while. He was telling him to take the day off and go fishing – to go do something fun. And while he relaxed in this way, the Lord would provide what they needed.
I have a friend who is a scholar. He reads a lot for his work. But he also enjoys reading “for the fun of it.” It would be like Jesus telling my friend, “Go the library and pick out a book you want to read for fun. Go ahead and read it. In the pages of that book you’ll find six $100 bills.”
So, Peter got to relax and do something fun, his taxes were paid by doing it, plus he brought dinner home for his family and Jesus.
Now, I love this story because of these things. However, we need to be careful in application. Does this mean that we should just relax and go do something fun, and God will provide for us while we do it? I bet I could build a pretty big church preaching something like that. But let’s look at this carefully. Right now, that’s what Jesus told Peter to do. This was a particular day in Peter’s life. On another day, Jesus told him to deny himself, take up his cross and follow him. On another day, Peter went to prison for the sake of Jesus. On one other day, Peter gave up his life rather than deny Jesus. In other words, Jesus did this thing for Peter. He said, go fishing, don’t worry about it. Enjoy yourself. But it was not a life direction – it was a wonderful moment, but we should not get the idea that point of following Jesus is to have only moments like this. Once more, I quote C.S. Lewis:
“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” — CS Lewis, the Problem of Pain
This was a refreshing, joyful time for Peter. As Lewis’ says, the Lord scatters these throughout life, and we do well to enjoy them and thank Him for them. But they are not meant to constitute all of life. We aren’t meant to forget that our real home is heaven.
You might ask, how do I know when Jesus is inviting me to relax, or when he’s calling me to do something I don’t want to do. I could give you seven steps for knowing this, but it would be a waste of everyone’s time. There isn’t a manual. We need to follow Jesus, we need to let him tell us these things. These days, we start with reading the bible, praying conversationally, and hanging out and worshiping with other Christians who are trying to the same. Add some solid bible teaching, and then be consciously listening for what Jesus is telling you. There is no formula – it’s about following in faith.
I think the real message here is this: Jesus is like this sometimes. Sometimes, he really does want you to do something that seems stupid and unnecessary and difficult (like paying the temple tax). Sometimes he really does want us to just go fishing, (or whatever your personal equivalent of that is) and trust him to deal with a situation. And especially, he is like this: he was willing to pay the debt you owed, though he did not have to.
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