Matthew 17:22-27

As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 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?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 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.” Matthew 17:22-27

As we reach the end of the 17th chapter we still remember how the chapter began, the mountaintop vision of Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah as the voice of God said to those gathered, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

What does it mean to “listen” to Jesus?

Any of us who have tried to communicate with a child, or a spouse, or a co-worker, knows there is a big difference between “listening” and “listening.” Listening doesn’t mean waiting impatiently for the other person to quit speaking so you can offer a counter-argument. Listening doesn’t merely mean hearing the words a person uses. The old, “in one ear, out the other.” It certainly doesn’t mean hearing their words and then running them through our own filter to twist them into what we believe they really meant by them.

No, listening means hearing what the other is saying. Receiving what they say from a place of trust and good will. Internalizing what they are trying to communicate. And then, again from a place of trust and good will, acting appropriately in response to what we have heard.

If that, in fact, is what it means to truly listen to someone else, let alone Jesus, then it is no wonder that we sometimes throw our hands up in despair and wonder why no one listens to anyone any longer. Especially when what is being communicated is difficult to hear.

As I said yesterday, the mystery of the ministry of Jesus, the good that he did in the lives of people, is not simply that he was misunderstood, it is that he was strongly opposed and actively resisted. For the disciples, listening to Jesus today means taking seriously his words, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” They heard him. No wonder they were greatly distressed.

Do we hear him? Do we realize that following Jesus will take us to a place where we can be strongly opposed and actively resisted? Or do we cling to the idea that following Jesus will lead us to a comfortable and secure life here with the promise of eternal bliss to follow?

Then the story turns toward the payment of the temple tax. Did you see that one coming? We are following Jesus through the gospel of Matthew and it just so happens that today we find ourselves reading about taxation when our elected leaders in Washington are grappling with tax policy. Isn’t that interesting?

The temple tax was expected to be paid by every Jewish male over the age of 20. It wasn’t a huge tax, about two days wages for a laborer (let’s say $160 for someone making $10/hour), and most people paid it. Even Jews who lived far from Israel would send their temple tax back home. The tax itself wasn’t an issue for Jesus. He saw that it was paid. What we need to hear is how Jesus points out how the taxation system was gamed by the “insiders.”

The children of the powerful, the “insiders”, get off scot-free while everyone else pays their taxes. The temple tax (two days wages for the poor) would be chicken feed for the children of the rich. But what if it meant paying two days wages for the rich? An annual income of $1 million would amount to daily wages in a five day work week of about $3,850 or a temple tax of $7,700. Not quite chicken feed anymore. But it doesn’t matter. The children of the kings of the earth don’t have to pay taxes anyway.

Jesus, so as to not give offense, pays his taxes. He leaves it up to us to listen well and notice how sneakily injustice works in the real world. And if these words are well received by the poor, and rejected by the well-to-do, it only proves his point. Welcome to the struggle.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you create us for relationships with you and with one another. You create community. With that community comes sharing the burdens of life. One way that happens is by our pitching in through paying taxes. We pray today for those who make decisions about taxation, that they do their work wisely, justly, with concern for all, even if that leads them to a place of struggle and resistance, knowing that doing what is right for all will often be rejected by those with the most power. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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One Response to “Matthew 17:22-27”

  1. Dave Armstrong Says:

    I wish we had tax system as simple as the Temple Tax of two days wages! Such a tax I could really support and willingly pay!

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