Jesus and the Tax

And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received the half-shekel came to Peter, and said, “Doth not your teacher pay the half-shekel?”
He saith, “Yea.”
And when he came into the house, Jesus spake first to him, saying, “What thinkest thou, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? From their sons, or from strangers?”
And when he said, “From strangers,” Jesus said unto him, “Therefore the sons are free. But, lest we cause them to stumble, go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a shekel: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matthew 17:24-27).

Jesus is often described as a radical and a revolutionary, someone who seeks to actively disrupt the system. And, in many ways, Jesus is radical and revolutionary. He is living and preaching the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom, and that proclamation is radically opposed to the aims and actions of the world. He is constantly at odds with the religious authorities, partly regarding their teachings, and partly regarding their hypocrisy.

But Jesus is not radical for the sake of being radical; He is not revolutionary just to stir things up. There are times when Jesus, despite having an opportunity to further challenge aspects of the system, instead demurs. One such incident is recorded in Matthew 17:24-27.

The Jewish collector of the half-shekel Temple tax was in Capernaum. The tax was commanded in Exodus 30:11-16 to provide for sacrifices for atonement. The collector asked Peter if Jesus paid the tax; the tax, and Peter indicated that yes, He did.

Jesus then takes an opportunity to teach Peter. He asks if kings receive toll or tribute from their children or from strangers. The answer is easy enough: from strangers. Kings are not in habit of taxing themselves or their family members, but they receive money from taxes levied on his subjects, tribute from conquered nations, and/or tolls from transportation of commerce. The king’s family, however, remains free from taxation.

The implication is evident: since Jesus is the Son of God, which Peter recently confessed (Matthew 16:16), He is not under compulsion to pay the tax. He would be in the right to refuse payment and to declare why. Yet He does not want to cause offense; He provides, through money to be found in a fish, the shekel to pay the tax for both Peter and Himself.

That Jesus handled the situation through miraculous means is noteworthy; did He not have a shekel on Him, or could He not have found one in another way? We cannot be sure; it is possible that He was just out of money at that particular moment and that was a convenient way of handling the circumstance. Yet that seems rather unlikely; Jesus could have come up with the money in much easier ways. Perhaps since Jesus, as a Son, has no need to pay the tax, and no need for atonement anyway, that He has no need to expend the effort to obtain the money for the tax; Peter, who is liable, should at least do some work in his own profession (fishing) to pay the tax.

But this should not distract us from the thrust of the story. Does Jesus have confidence in the Temple system? Absolutely not; He will soon go to Jerusalem, will ritually cleanse the Temple, and then set forth the prophecy of its condemnation (Matthew 21:12-16, 24:1-36). The chief priests will use the Temple money first to pay Jesus’ betrayer, and then to pay off the soldiers in an attempt to deny His resurrection (Matthew 26:14-16, 28:11-15). Even its ability to atone has been bankrupted; the curtain between the holy place and the most holy place will tear when Jesus dies (Matthew 27:51).

But does that challenge really concern the Jewish men who collects the Temple tax? Jesus does as He does to not cause them to stumble (Matthew 17:27). Regardless of the state of the Temple system and those making the sacrifices, the tax is lawful under the Law of Moses, and this is not an issue where Jesus believes it is worth it to challenge for His right or to make a stink regarding the system. Therefore, even though He does not need any sacrifice made for His atonement, and even though He is free as God’s Son from the tax, He pays it anyway. It does not hurt, and making it an issue causes more difficulty than it is worth. Furthermore, the explanation is more for Peter’s benefit than anyone else’s– Peter blithely assumed that Jesus paid the tax, but Jesus wanted to make sure that Peter understood that it was not because He was somehow responsible to pay the tax, but in order to not cause offense.

This lesson is important for us as well. There are times when insisting on liberties and rights is simply not worth it; to cause any fuss may make people stumble in ways that are unnecessary (cf. Romans 14:1-23). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a stumbling-block for many people because of its essential truths and what it takes in order to conform to the image of Jesus; we should not add any more stumbling-blocks. Like Jesus, we must think about the ultimate goal for ourselves and those with whom we interact in life. Is our stand really honoring Jesus or is it just to assert our own rights? Is this really going to help someone become better acquainted with the path of Jesus or not?

Jesus, even though His message and work were radical and often revolutionary, always had the goal in mind. He wanted people to change their hearts and minds and return back to God (cf. Matthew 4:17). Many times that demanded strong stands and strong words; other times it demanded to go along with some things so as to not cause unnecessary offense. He was not radical for the sake of being radical, nor revolutionary just to keep the pot stirred. And so it should be with ourselves: we should not insist on things just because we can, but only when it is necessary for the advancement of God’s purposes. Let us seek to glorify God in all we do, learning when to take the stand and when to not provide a cause for stumbling!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Profit of the Many

Give no occasions of stumbling, either to Jews, or to Greeks, or to the church of God: even as I also please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).

To say that we live in a self-aggrandizing world would be an understatement. It certainly seems as if most people are out for “#1,” and “#1” is not God or family. According to worldly standards, we must work toward our own best interest, advancing our own agenda, because if we do not stick up for ourselves or try to get a bigger piece of the pie, then others will come in and take what could be ours. Television is now dominated by oversized personalities, and while they may have certain ideologies or causes, much of what they are attempting to do boils down to self-promotion. The more coverage– positive or negative– the greater the “media personality,” and the greater the benefit.

The world of first century Corinth was probably not much less based upon self-aggrandizement, and therefore Paul’s message to the Corinthians must have sounded as shocking and radical then as it does now. Paul does not call believers to self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, or even concern for one’s own agenda. Instead, Paul calls believers to not cause offense or stumbling to others. They are to be like he is, not seeking his own profit, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. Our goal should not be to please ourselves, but to please others.

In context, Paul addresses how the believers in Corinth should handle a situation in which they have been informed by a well-meaning pagan that the food they are eating together was sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 10:14-33). Had the pagan said nothing, there would have been no difficulty– everything belongs to God, idols have no real substantive existence, and food is food (1 Corinthians 10:27). But if he does inform the believer that it is meat sacrificed to an idol, then the believer ought to abstain from eating, not because he would violate his own conscience, but on account of the conscience of the pagan (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). The believer should not be giving the impression that he is honoring any form of pagan idolatry!

But Paul knows that he is walking on a razor thin wire. Jews consider meat sacrificed to an idol abhorrent, no matter the circumstance; Greeks eat it without any concern whatsoever. The church of God at that time is made up of both groups, and 1 Corinthians 8 has already established how the matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols has been contentious there! Therefore, Paul feels compelled to lay down these principles. Yes, his liberty should not be determined by another’s conscience (1 Corinthians 10:29). Since God has not condemned, in truth, Paul should not be denounced for eating meat sacrificed to an idol if he partook with thankfulness (1 Corinthians 10:30). Nevertheless, in all that believers do– eating and drinking, or whatever– all should be done for God’s glory and honor (1 Corinthians 10:31). This is why believers are to act without offense to any, seeking to please everyone in what is done, seeking the profit of many (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).

A word must be given about the idea of “pleasing everyone.” Paul is not saying that we should sin against our own consciences or against God in an attempt to please others; this is not a call for compromising God’s standards at all (cf. Romans 14:23, Galatians 5:17-24, etc.). Instead, Paul is advocating a conciliatory approach toward other people, seeking, whenever possible, the path of least resistance and greatest acceptance, while remaining within the law of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:21).

In short, we should not be seeking to be ornery or difficult. We must not be obnoxiously asserting our liberties and “rights.” Instead, we must give thought to do whatever we can do seek the spiritual welfare of the many, and not ourselves. As Paul told the Philippians in Philippians 2:3-4, believers should count others more significant than themselves in humility, seeking not only his own good but also that of his neighbor. As Christians, our goal should be the same goal as God’s– that all men may come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). As Christ’s representatives, we reflect upon Him, for good or ill (Matthew 5:13-16). Therefore, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that all we need to worry about is ourselves and our own salvation. We are expressly charged to seek the profit of as many others as we possibly can.

This seems like a pretty restrictive fence– we must not provide occasions of stumbling for the Jews, the Greeks, or the church. We can understand this today in terms of those who tend to at least look like they are self-righteous and sanctimonious in their knowledge of right and wrong, those who are of the world and who think as the world, and those who are of God. It is very easy to start pointing fingers at any of these groups: the sanctimonious are easy targets because of their hypocrisy, the unbelievers are easy to frown upon because of their ungodliness and immorality, and it is easy to bear down upon God’s people because of our love and our desire for us all to better reflect Christ. Yet, in the end, we must not do so. We must seek the profit of the sanctimonious, the unbeliever, and the fellow believer, and to do so at the same time!

This is quite counter-intuitive and counter-cultural; it always has been, and as long as the earth continues to exist it most likely will be. America’s myths of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and the icon of the “self made man” do not make this any easier. Ultimately, however, our goals must not be the same as those of the world around us. Many will not understand why we would live thus, but we do it to please the God who redeemed us. We must remember, at all times, that Jesus came not to please Himself but to please others, that He did not seek His own profit, but the profit of us all, and that while His cross is reckoned as a stumbling-block, it is only thus for those who refuse to believe– in truth, the cross kills the hostility and allows the Jew and the Greek to be one in the church of God (cf. Matthew 20:28, Romans 15:2-3, 1 Peter 2:1-8, Ephesians 2:11-18).

It is hard work to please others and not ourselves. It is challenging to not provide occasions of stumbling. But let us remember that as God loved us and gave His Son for us when we were alienated and unlovable, so we must love our fellow man, even if he seems unlovable (Romans 5:6-11). Let us not seek our own interest, but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved!

Ethan R. Longhenry