Sermon for November 24th, 2019
Matthew 17:24-27 (NT p.19)
24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”
Coins: Fishy Money
A man with an ice-chest full of fish was stopped by the local game warden on the shores of a lake well known for its stock of rare and exotic fish. The game warden asked the man, "Do you have a license to catch those fish? The man replied to the game warden, “No, sir. These are my pet fish.”
“Pet fish?!” the warden replied, with an incredulous look on his face.
“Yes, sir. Every night I take these fish down to the lake and let them swim around for a while. Then I whistle, and they jump back into the ice chest, and I take them home.” The warden gets out his notepad and begins to write a ticket. But the man said, "Wait! I’ll prove it. Watch..." And he poured the fish into the lake. After several minutes, the game warden turned to the man and said, “Well?”
“Well, what?” the man responded. “When are you going to call them back?” asked the game warden. “Call who back?” the man asked. “The FISH,” the warden said sternly. “What fish?” the man asked.
In some ways, our scripture passage today (about Jesus, Peter, a fish and a coin) functions like this joke, but in reverse. We've been talking for the past few weeks about coins in the Bible, and the way Jesus uses them to illustrate his point, and to transform the perspective of his followers.
Like last week's story, this one seems on the surface to be about taxes, but in reality is so much more. In fact, this story has just four short verses, but within those verses we find religion, politics, vocation, confrontation, two miracles, two parables (or metaphors), and a model for how to be generous, compassionate, and save the world in the process.
Have I got your attention yet?
Let's start with taxes. The story begins with tax collectors coming up to Peter to ask if Jesus pays taxes. But unlike last week's story, this is NOT a trap. These aren't Pharisees and Herodians out to get Jesus. These are lowly tax collectors, the messengers, not the authorities, not the power-brokers. Elsewhere in the gospels, we see that Jesus is pretty fond of tax collectors, precisely because they are hated and rejected by everyone else. He is often accused by the powerful of eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (the assumption is these are one and the same).
And these tax collectors are humble, strangely deferential in their questioning. First, they don't even approach Jesus directly. They go to his right-hand man, Peter. They phrase their question cautiously, "Your teacher doesn't happen to pay taxes by any chance, does he?" There's a good chance that by now, they have heard about Jesus, about his amazing miracles, his clever teachings, his ability to heal the sick, and command the wind and waves. I suspect they are just as afraid of Jesus as they are of their masters, their employers, the ones for whom they collect the taxes in the first place. So the tax collectors, this time, are the ones between a rock and hard place. If they push their luck with Jesus, for all they know, he might rain down fire from heaven upon them. And if they go back to their masters empty handed, their fate could be just as bad.
Peter reassures them that yes, Jesus does pay his taxes. Or at least, he will. And then he goes home, presumably to make sure. "We do pay taxes, don't we, Jesus?" But before he can get the words out of his mouth, Jesus raises the subject first. That's the first miracle, and the first lesson: God knows our questions, our doubts, our fears and our needs, even before we ask. And it's still okay to ask.
Then comes the first parable, the first metaphor:
What do you think, Simon? (This is Peter's given name. In Hebrew, it means "listen," which is ironic, since Peter is one who tends to speak first, and listen later--kind of like he already has in this story).
What do you think, Simon? Who do kings collect taxes from? From their own children, or from other people, outside their own family?
Peter is not always the sharpest tool in the shed. I imagine he had to sit there and think about that one for a moment, but eventually he says, "From...others." Then the children are free, says Jesus. And "free" here has the sense of "exempt" or "not obligated to pay."
Usually I wait until the end of the sermon to ask the question, "who are we in this story?" But we'll cut to the chase today. Jesus is saying that Peter, along with himself, and all of us, is a child of God, the greatest king of all. And therefore we are not obligated to pay this particular tax.
Now, before you start rejoicing and burning your tax return forms, let's talk about what kind of tax this is. Go back to verse 24. It's the temple tax--not the tax paid to the Roman government, but the money paid to the Jewish government for the upkeep of the temple. This is a religious tax. And as we saw two weeks ago in the story of the Widow's Mite, Jesus is not a big fan of the Temple at this point in history, or the religious leaders who use it to extort money from the poor.
Which makes what happens next all the more surprising. Jesus tells Peter to go down to the sea, catch a fish, and he will find a coin in the fish's mouth. Give that coin to the tax collector, for you and for me. In other words, pay the temple tax.
Why? It's not because we have to. It's not because we support what the Temple represents, or those who lead it. It's not out of sense of guilt, or shame, or because we're afraid what will happen to us if we don't. We, the children of God, are free, exempt, not-obligated, off the hook (pun intended).
HOWEVER, says Jesus, in verse 27, "so that we do not give offense to them..." The word offense is one of those words that has changed a lot over time. We tend to think of people getting angry, defensive, self-righteous (something we do a LOT these days) but that's a pretty recent understanding of the word. And in any case, the Greek word Jesus uses is actually σκανδαλίζω (skandalizo), which is were we get the word "scandalize" from. So, "in order that we don't 'scandalize' them."
Who is the them? I think it's the tax collectors, the middle men, the messengers, the ones between a rock and hard place. In order that we don't get them in trouble, cause them to be scandalized, go ahead and pay the temple tax. This is the legendary compassion of Jesus at work, looking beyond the philosophical questions, the political implications, the "right vs. wrong" to see the real human, personal side of the issue. Jesus chooses to be, above all else, kind. Pick your hot-button political issue today--whether it's abortion, climate change, gay rights, gun-rights, civil-rights, impeachment or anything else. Sometimes it is better to be kind than to be correct.
Now on to the fish. Why a fish? Why couldn't Jesus just "poof" a coin from thin air and give it to the tax collectors? I think there are two reasons. One is practical, and one is a parable, a metaphor.
First the practical. Anyone remember what Peter does for a living? Right, he's a fisherman. Jesus tells him, essentially, "Go do that thing you do best, and God will answer your question, God will take care of your need." God has given us talents, abilities, skills, and has called each and every one of us to a holy and sacred vocation, whether you are a teacher, a lawyer, a stay-at-home parent, a soldier, a chimney sweep, or a salesperson. In your work, you will always have the opportunity to help other people, to further God's Kingdom, and to be kind. And maybe find a few coins in unlikely places to contribute to your friendly local neighborhood Presbyterian Church...I mean, temple. Freely, willingly, because you are a child of the King, and you believe in what the King stands for, even if you are under no obligation or compulsion. That's actually the best way to give.
Okay, what about that metaphor? Stay with me here, this is dense: In the second half of verse 27, Jesus tells Peter to go down to the sea and cast a hook. The Greek word for hook is "ἄγκιστρον" (ankistron). It literally means "little anchor." In the earliest days of Christianity and throughout the middle ages, the anchor was commonly used as a symbol for the cross. And of course the fish was (and remains today) one of the most common symbols for Christ. The letters for fish in Greek (ἰχθύς) were used as an acronym by early Christians: Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ" (Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior).
Jesus tells Peter to go down to the sea, take your little anchor, your little cross, and "raise up" from the depths the "first" fish. Jesus is also referred to in the Bible as the "first born" of creation. This is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in a symbolic nutshell. But there's more: Inside the fish--symbolizing Christ--is a valuable treasure, intended to be given to the world in order to "pay the price" for Peter, and for you, and for me. I told you there was a lot of depth to this little story.
But since we are in the midst of our annual pledge drive here at First Presbyterian Church, I want to end with a few notes on what this story teaches us about giving and generosity.
First: Peter makes a pledge to the temple on behalf of Jesus, not quite knowing whether or not he can really fulfill that pledge. Having put himself out there like that in faith, Jesus doesn't let him (or those collecting the pledge) lose face, and he comes up with a creative way to fulfill it. I don't advocate that you make hasty pledges or promises--but I also don't advocate letting doubts or uncertain circumstances prevent you from stepping out in faith and making a pledge, especially if you truly believe in the work that we are doing on God's behalf. If something changes a few months down the road, please know that, like Jesus, our church will respond with kindness, compassion, and understanding...never guilt, pressure, or judgment.
Second: Jesus and his followers did have some money, though not a lot. We know this because Judas was their treasurer. They used the money from their common treasury to feed themselves, and to take care of those in their midst who had great need. But Jesus didn't use any of *that* money to pay the temple tax. As I said two weeks ago, if it comes down to a choice between feeding your family or contributing to the church, please feed your family first. But...if you want to contribute more to the church, I believe there are always creative ways to do that. If you ask, God will give you opportunities through your talents, your skills, your vocation. If you are willing to fish, God may be willing to surprise you.
Third: God surprises Peter with one coin--not a bag full of them. In fact, while the English translation just says "coin" the Greek says the coin is a στατήρ (statyr)...which is the exact value of the temple tax for two people (Peter and Jesus). Some churches today teach that God wants you to be rich. Others teach that God wants you to be poor. This church teaches that God wants you to be whole--to have enough, no more, no less. Sometimes that means giving away when we have more than we need; sometimes it means working harder and relying on others when we don't have enough, and always it means helping each other to accomplish both of those things.
Fourth and Finally, Jesus wasn't a big fan of the temple, because the temple in his day wasn't perfect. It had a lot of flaws. Guess what? So does the church today. This one included. And yet, Jesus still gave, and encouraged Peter to do so as well. I would love to think that people give to our church because we are doing phenomenal things for God and our community. That's certainly our aspiration. But even when the church falls short, our generosity is still worthwhile. Peter gives what wasn't even his to someone who ultimately is just passing it on to someone else. But I imagine that in that small, unexpected act of kindness between a lowly fisherman and a despised tax collector...the world got just a little brighter, a little bit friendlier, and little more divine, for both of them. That only happens when we're brave enough and compassionate enough to give unconditionally, with no strings attached.
May each one of you experience that kind of bravery, that kind of compassion, and that kind of wholeness this thanksgiving season and beyond. Thanks be to God!