By: Melba Padilla Maggay
Text: Matthew 17. 24-27 Jesus subjects himself to temple tax
Comments on the text:
This passage is sandwiched between the second announcement of Jesus that he will suffer and die and his teaching that to be great in the kingdom of heaven, one needs the humility of a helplessly dependent child.
The temple tax of half a shekel is required annually of every adult male Jew for the upkeep of the temple. (Exodus 30.13-15) The half-shekel is the equivalent of two drachma in Greek coinage, and the four-drachma coin found in the mouth of the fish is good for two
persons. It is roughly equal to four days of a laborer’s wages.
Jesus’ question to Peter, “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes – from their own sons or from others?” has behind it the Roman Empire’s practice of exempting its ‘sons’ – or citizens — from taxes and collecting only from its allies, provinces and satellite kingdoms.
Jesus as ‘son’ of God and as one even greater than the temple is under no obligation to pay the temple tax. (Mt. 12.6) But so as not to cause offense, he instructs Peter to go to the lake. Out of the mouth of the first fish he catches, he will find the coin which is enough for paying the tax for both of them.
Implications on issues of our time
It is often said that Jesus was indifferent to the politics of his time and did not engage the despotic colonial rulers who represented Rome. While this is true, it is not because he was indifferent, but because he lived in a time when absolute rule was the norm, and he was, like his contemporaries, subject to the laws of both the Jews and the Roman Empire.
This line of thinking fails to recognize an important meaning of the incarnation, that Jesus as a human being was subject to the circumstances in which he was placed historically.
Quite willingly, he made himself subject to the cleansing ritual of baptism, sign of Israel’s repentance, even if, as John the Baptist himself said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” To which Jesus replies, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3.13-15)
Even if Jesus is Son of the Most High, he was prepared to be subject to the customary laws of Jew and Gentile. To the temple authorities he paid his tax, just like any devout Jew. To the ungodly Caesars, he ruled that they be paid their dues. Note, however, that this submission to state and religious authority does not mean uncritical obedience. Jesus was not afraid of confronting the powers. He denounced the Pharisees and teachers of the law as hypocrites and directed to them his most biting criticism and rebuke. (Matthew 23.13 ff.). When Herod tried to run him out of town, he said “Go, tell
that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” (Luke 13.32) Jesus will do what he sets out to do, and at his own time. Because Jesus became just like us, he was prepared to fulfill all the duties required of a Jew who is subject both to God and to an alien empire. But because his kingdom is from somewhere else, he took issue with earthly powers whenever their kind of governance ran counter to that of his.
Today, we are also faced with the challenge of discerning when to be subject to human authorities and when to raise our voices in prophetic critique in obedience to a higher Power before whom all are accountable.
Christians in government like Chief Justice Sereno who will have similar courage to be both supportive of the state when it acts according to the rule of law, and prophetically subversive of forces that seek to undermine justice and righteousness in our governance.
Discernment among the leaders of our churches as they guide the flock in making right political choices.
Gather the members of your church who are in government and get to know their responsibilities, and encourage them as they face challenges and opportunities to influence their branch of government for good. Help them discern when to be obedient to their bosses and when to challenge the practices and systems at work in their offices. Pray for them and support them in whatever way possible.