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JESUS AND THE TEMPLE TAX

Matthew 17:24-17:27
Key Verse: 17:27

Thank God for our Lord Jesus’ amazing promise that if we have faith as small as a mustard seed, we can move mountains and nothing will be impossible for us. May we keep these precious words of our Lord Jesus in our heart and live by them. Today’s passage is about Jesus and the temple tax, accurately speaking the conversation between Jesus and Peter regarding the temple tax. On the surface it seems to be an ordinary story. But in depth it is an extraordinary story which discloses who Jesus is in an interesting and exceptional way. Let’s delve into this story.

Look at verse 24. “After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’” Capernaum was the place where Jesus began his public ministry and headquartered. Matthew 4:13 says, “Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali.” It was the place where Jesus called Peter and his brother Andrew and James and his brother John, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mt 4:18,19) Now on the way to Jerusalem to be crucified Jesus made a last visit on this place with his disciples, coming down from the North.

Arriving in his hometown Capernaum, Peter must have been very happy. He was however soon annoyed by some people. The collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” Tax has always been a hot issue. In our country many people are burdened by 13% HST (Harmonized Sales Tax). It is very burdensome and troublesome and can make our lives not harmonized, though we know that we should pay it for the country. At that time the Israelites had to pay taxes like poll tax to the Roman government. Matthew was a collector of this tax. The temple in Jerusalem was a very important part in the lives of the Jews and the temple tax had a long historical background. The LORD said to Moses in Exodus 30: 11-16, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them…Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half-shekel…This half shekel is an offering to the LORD. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the LORD…Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the Tent of Meeting…” This commandment of the LORD directed that at the annual census, each person over twenty had to give a half-shekel offering to the Lord for the support of the tabernacle (Ex 30:11-16). This offering was later applied for the support of the temple. The half-shekel temple tax was the equivalent of the Greek silver di-drachma, a “two-drachma piece” coin. But the most common coin used among the people was the denarius, equivalent to a day’s wages. So those coming to collect the tax from one person would have received two denarii.

We don’t know why the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” They probably wanted to catch Jesus at his fault. How did Peter answer to this question? “Yes, he does,” he replied. Later we see that Jesus did not pay the temple tax until that time. We don’t know why Peter answered this way. Yet, probably in Peter’s mind Jesus was doing more than paying the temple tax, devoting his whole life to God. Jesus once said of himself to the Pharisees, “…one greater than the temple is here” (Mt 12:6). Then the temple tax should have been given to Jesus, not received from Jesus. Anyway, Peter’s answer, “Yes, he does” worked and the collectors of the temple tax left without any other further questions. This could have been the end of the story. However, after this the conversation between Jesus and Peter started, and the dialogue brought forth a wonderful revelation of Jesus. We can think of two things.

First, Jesus was the first to speak. Look at verses 25b. “When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked…” The collectors of the temple tax were gone and Peter came into the house, most probably his house. Peter may have thought it was the time to rest, and said to Jesus, “Lord, please, take some rest in this house, even for a while.” But Before Peter speaking, Jesus was the first to speak. Jesus brought back the issue of the temple tax, when its collectors had gone. Jesus knew that this problem had not yet resolved in Peter’s heart and had remained in it bothering him. So Jesus spoke first to Peter, calling him personally, “What do you think, Simon?...”

The clause “Jesus was the first to speak,” is a very meaningful description in the light of the whole Bible. We call this God’s initiative. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He made the Garden of Eden for man’s happiness. When Adam did not know about himself who needed a companion and coworker, God knew his need first and made Eve for him as his lifetime companion and mission coworker. God began the redemptive work for fallen mankind. When we could not come to God, he came to us first by sending his Son into this world. He first loved us. When we were helpless, powerless and ignorant in our sins, Christ died for us.

There are many beautiful stories concerning God’s initiative in the lives of people. There was an Egyptian maidservant of Sarah named Hagar. Something happened in Abraham’s family and Hagar fled from mistress. Her life was in jeopardy. She did not know what to do and where to go. In the desert there was no one to whom she could speak; there was no one who could understand her situation. At that time the angel of the LORD found her and said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” The angel reminded her of her identity, “who she is” and her origin and drifting. And the angel gave her a clear direction, saying, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel also promised God’s blessing upon her life. When she heard the words of the LORD, everything was resolved in her heart and her soul was lifted up. She confessed her faith, giving this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me.” (Ge 16:7-13) God did not choose the Israelites because they were great people or more numerous than other people. In fact they were the fewest of all peoples. Yet God set his affection on them and chose them because he loved them and wanted to keep his promise given to their forefathers (Dt 7:7-8). For the Israelites God’s love beyond their human conditions was the initiative.

Jesus was once teaching to a crowd by the Sea of Galilee. They were listening to the word of God. But one man was indifferent to what was happening near him. He was Simon Peter. He did his own job of fishing many hours. He was not interested in hearing Jesus’ words. But Jesus came to him and spoke to him first, “Put out in deep water, and let down the nets for a catch” (Lk 5:1-4) When Peter responded to it with obedience and a humble learning mind, that was the beginning of his life with Jesus which lasted forever. There was a wayward woman. She went through five husbands in her youth and was now living with a boyfriend. She had many wounds and scars in her life and made others wounded. She was tired and thirsty in her soul with no prospect for her future. All seemed to turn their eyes away from her, despising and condemning her because of her past life. No one even greeted her. She could never imagine that someone would come and speak to her. But one day she came to draw water at a well in the heat of the day. Without her perceiving, Jesus was there after talking a long walk in the desert. To her surprise Jesus spoke to her first, “Will you give me a drink?” This first talk changed her life forever, leading her to a spring of water welling to eternal life (Jn 4:7-26). God’s initiative was so obvious in the life of Matthew. He was a notorious tax-collector. His job was secure with high income. Yet, he was hated by his own people and had no joy of life at all. He lost God in pursuit of money and happiness in this world. He was dying inside and crying for help, though nobody knew it. Then while he was sitting at the tax collectors’ booth, doing his job, Jesus saw him and spoke to him, “Follow me.” This was the voice of God to him. When he accepted this word of Jesus who spoke to him first, it was the moment of St. Matthew’s birth. Jesus’ initiative was the unforgettable grace of God to Matthew.

The story of God’s initiative is endless. We thank God for Jesus who spoke to you and me first and has led us thus far in his initiating love. He still speaks to us first, especially when our hearts are broken and wandering. May we always respond to it and also practice his initiative to the people around us and those whom we meet. May the upcoming U of T freshmen come to know God’s initiative through us.

Second, “But so that we many not offend them...” Jesus asked Peter, “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are exempt.” When Peter heard this, he must have felt that Jesus had understood him, when he answered to the collectors of the temple tax, “Yes, he does.” He may have said to himself, “The point of my answer was that the Lord Jesus did not need to pay the temple tax. He was more than exempt as the Son of God.” In writing the genealogy of Jesus chapter 1, Matthew traces the kingly ancestry of Jesus, relating him to King David (Mt 1:6). Humanly Jesus is a descendant of King David. In Mathew chapter 2, there is the story of the Magi who at the time of Jesus’ birth came to Jerusalem seeking for the one who was born king of the Jews (Mt 2:2). In Matthew 28, after his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…” Indeed Jesus is King incomparable to any earthly kings. Kings in the world do not even have all authority on earth. But Jesus is the King with all authority in heaven and on earth. In Revelation the name “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” is written on his robe and on his thigh (19:6). He is King of kings and Lord of lords now and forevermore. So he is definitely exempt from the tax.

But what did Jesus want to do? Jesus said to Peter continually. Look at verse 27. “But so that we may not offend them, 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.” Here the word “offend” has the meaning of “put a stumbling block” in Greek. Although Jesus was more than exempt of the temple tax, he was willing to pay it and Peter’s as well so that they might not put a stumbling block before the collectors of the temple tax. How mindful and considerate Jesus is even for those who seem to be his opponents!

What did Jesus do for this? He commanded Peter, “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.” Wow! What a command! What a prediction! Money was supposed to be in the bank or bank-kind of that time, not in the mouth of a fish. No fish would swallow a coin. But there would be the coin in the first fish Peter caught. So Peter did not need to do it again and again until he could catch the fish in whose mouth he could find the coin. And the fish would have one exact coin of four-drachma, not two or more coins nor a bigger or smaller one. All these things indicate that Jesus was in complete control of the fish and lake and even money. He once calmed a storm in the sea quieting the tempest and surging waves of the sea (Mt 8:26). He walked on the water (Mt 14:25). He is the Creator. He is the Owner of the universe. John 1:3 says, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Colossians 1:16 says, “…by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”

Here then Jesus said to Peter, “Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Jesus did not use his mighty immeasurable power to challenge taxation system or to surprise people. No. He used it to obey the civil law so that he might also live as an ordinary citizen of the world. He is mighty and so humble. He is God with us, Immanuel. This is another name of Jesus an angel of the Lord announced to Joseph before his birth. Matthew really liked this name that he wrote in chapter 1 “‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us.’” (Mt 1:23). According to John’s gospel he is the Word in flesh: “In the beginning was the Word…The Word became flesh” (John 1:1,14).

He is the one who spoke first to Peter. He is the one who raised a dead girl as if he raised her from her bed (Mt 9:25). He is the one who fed the crowd of 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish as if a mother fed her several children (Mt 14:19-20). Many people say, “Where is God?” In July 22 there was a bombing in Oslo and 2 hours later a shooting in Utoya, killing at least 87 people according to BBC report. It was the worst event in Norway since World War II. When we hear this kind of event, we feel that the world is out of control, with no God in control. It is not easy to see God in this world. Yet, there is God with us. He is in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. There was a wedding between Paul Jr. and Lydia yesterday. Humanly speaking it was an ordinary wedding. But we could see that God was there and it was a godly marriage. God established the family as a shepherd family. We believe that a shepherd family is more precious and important than a royal family in God’s sight. The week before last week in M. Sarah’s company she felt that the working atmosphere was so hostile to her. Friday on that week it seemed to reach the climax that she did not want to go to work on the following Monday. But we prayed earnestly for God’s mercy and she did go to work this Monday. Then strangely enough one incident broke out. The tax department found out a big mistake which would cause TD bank to lose several tens of millions of dollars. At this the head of the tax department became frozen before his boss. The next day the problem was unexpectedly solved as they worked together. The head of the department rejoiced. Then strangely the company atmosphere toward M. Sarah was changed. I newly learned that God hears our prayers and he is in control even over a pagan company. He is God with us. He hears the prayer of his people, even the prayer of a child and works in the hearts of people. He wants to be involved in our problems, such relationship, school study, raising children and serving God’s flock of sheep, etc. Isn’t it amazing that the Creator of the heavens and the earth is willing to help us in our practical problems, big or small, in our lives?

Thank Jesus who spoke first to Peter. Although Jesus had not money to pay the temple tax, he prepared it through his mighty power so that he might not offend the people. He is might and truly humble. May the grace of “God with us” abound in us and may we share this grace with our neighbours and U of T students to be a blessing to them.

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