Matthew 17:24-27 – When The Mission is Bigger Than My Needs & My Rights

Posted: January 29, 2016 in Gospel of Matthew

Matthew 17:24-27 (Part 1)
The Temple Tax

We all complain about taxes. I just finished mine day before yesterday and have filed both my Federal and South Carolina income tax returns for 2015. It bothers me that in just income taxes withholding during 2015, I had more withheld on my wages this past year that I made in wages in 1986. And to boot, I only got a refund of my state and Federal withholding equivalent to 31% of what was withheld. Do I deserve more money in my pocket? Do I agree with everything that the government spends money on? We often treat the government as they? Many Christians talk about how God-less our government has become and complain about 400 dollar screwdrivers. Many Christians complain that the government does not represent us. We complain about our taxes and our government who spends it as if we are victims in a slave system. We act as if we are separate from the society in which we live. We act as if we are commentators on society and not players in it. We can debate the failure of Christians to vote at all. We can debate the failure of Christians to vote for people whose positions most resemble our Christian values. And we can debate the complete and utter failure of Christian men and women to take up the torch and run for office so that real change can be made at a later date. However, one thing is for certain, it is right in an organized society for the government to raise and collect taxes. It is necessary for the common defense and to provide needed social services and infrastructure for our society. Again, we can debate when government goes beyond what is reasonable and right at another time, but we would be foolish to say that there is no right of government to collect taxes from its citizens if we expect to have an orderly society.

Taxation has a biblical basis ordained by God. Say what? Mark, you’ve got to be kidding. One of the first things that God does when organizing His people into clans and prescribes the orderly organization of society and the building of the Tabernacle was to institute the temple tax. Just look in Exodus 30:11-16. It’s right there. Taxation to supply the tabernacle (later the Temple) with the needed funds for its operation. It was levied on all males 20 years of age and older. Everyone benefited from and participated in the temple activities and it was necessary for the orderly running of the Israelite society that there be a way to spread the cost of the temple operations among all the people. That is the background here, so now, let’s read the passage:

 
24 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?”

25 “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?”

26 “From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “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.”

 
So, what do we make of this passage? I think that there are three things that we must consider. First, Jesus is saying that He is the King’s Son and we are His children but we learn that He set aside His glory to live among us and to accomplish a mission. Second, Jesus recognizing our obligations and will make provision for us when we humbly follow Him. Third and finally, Jesus expects us to participate in the process. Today, we will deal with the first thing that we see in this passage is the discussion about whether Jesus pays the temple tax or not.

When Jesus asks Peter about how taxes are done secularly in the first century world. Peter replies that Kings do not tax themselves or their own children. The royal families were always exempt from taxes that kings or emperors levied on their own people or the lands that they conquered. This is and has always been the case throughout history when you have a royal form of government where power is vested in a king. The king and his family simply do not pay taxes for it is to the king that they taxes are due. In this case, the temple tax was instituted by God Himself. When Jesus says the children are exempt. He is claiming that He is the Son of the King. In Temple terms, He is saying that He is the Son of God the Most High. He is God in the flesh. So, technically, the tax does not apply to Him. Jesus could have asserted this claim but it would have alienated the temple tax collectors and the temple administration and led to his arrest. Why then does Jesus submit to the tax? Is He compromising the truth of who He is just to avoid conflict? Is He using situational ethics here? What do we learn from this moment of submission to an earthly rule instituted by God (of which Jesus is part of the trinity of the Godhead).

Jesus came to earth. He set aside His glory to live among us. He came to experience everything that we experience. Even paying the temple tax. He could have asserted His glory. He could have raised a stink about being God in the flesh and demonstrated that by calling down the wrath of heaven, but He didn’t. He simply paid the tax because He was God living among us. He submitted Himself to the tax because that was part of being a Jew in the first century. He was submitting to His Father in heaven. In our lives, we may think that things are sometimes unfair to us personally. For example, my children are grown now so technically the school taxes I pay do not really apply to me. I don’t get anything personally out of paying those taxes for the support of schools in Spartanburg Country District 5. However, it is good for our District, our county, our state, and our nation for me, without kids in school, to share in the burden of educating our young people. I guess I could make a stink about it and be selfish and start of revolution but the public good is met when I along with others without children pay to support our schools. Sometimes the mission is more important than personal preferences. Jesus was saying that His freedom not to pay taxes was less important than the need to meet the mission that He came to accomplish. There are hills to die on and hills not to die on. This was a valid tax on anyone who was a Jew. It was instituted by God in Exodus. Jesus was though God in the flesh. It was to Him the taxes were due. However, to dispute the issue at this moment would have short-circuited the mission that He was on. He was on His way to Jerusalem to do what has been the plan since the first sin in the garden was committed. The mission was greater than the moment. As Spock would say, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Jesus could have asserted His kingly exemption here and would have been right in His divinity to do so. But, the mission was more important than exerting His own rights. He had to go to the hill that was worth dying on, Calvary.

Does this mean we compromise truth just to avoid conflict? Do we deny Christ just to survive? Do we water down the gospel to make it palatable to the culture? Do we have situational ethics? No, that is not what Jesus is doing here. He is saying that just because we have a right does not mean we have to exercise it. Do I have the right to dominate my wife and make her feel like a slave because I am the sole wage-earner in my family? Maybe. Do I? No. My wife does so many things for me that I cannot even count because she does not work in an office or factory somewhere. She takes care of me. Could I according to worldly standards treat her without respect? Sure. Just because I have a right does not mean that I exercise it. The essence of being a Christian is placing the needs of others over my personal desires. To see the good that comes from me not being selfish in demanding what is rightfully mine. Just because we have the right to do something does not mean we exercise that right. To see the greater good that comes from me not exercising my salient right to do something is a mark of Christian maturity. Certainly, there are times though that we must draw the line. There are times where we must speak up. If we are being required to deny our faith in Jesus Christ, if we are being required to do something that we know is morally wrong, and against the very nature of God, yes we stand. Jesus had those moments too and expects us to do no less. However, in this situation is showing us restraint in exercising our rights. He is showing us that humility sometimes means seeing the greater good that comes from restraining the exercise of our rights for the greater good. Did He have to pay the tax? No. Would his restraining His right give Him an opportunity to speak the gospel to the tax collectors? Yes. Would his restraining of His rights allow Him to continue on with the greater mission? Yes.

May we always be seeking the greater mission in all we do and that is to glorify God and in so doing give us opportunities to share the gospel. May we see that exercising our personal rights to something or some act is not always what is called for when seeking to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. May we always submit our need for having our rights fulfilled to the needs of the kingdom of God.

Amen and Amen.

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