Today’s Gospel gives us a bit to chew on from Matthew
When they came to Capernaum,
the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said,
“Does not your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes,” he said.
When he came into the house, before he had time to speak,
Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon?
From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax?
From their subjects or from foreigners?”
When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him,
“Then the subjects are exempt.
But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook,
and take the first fish that comes up.
Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax.
Give that to them for me and for you.”
What is the tax that people had to pay. Scholars debate this but it may be a punitive tax placed on the Jews to support either the Roman God’s temple or maybe a rabbinical school built on the backs of the poor.
Jesus seems to rail against this idea at first but then cooler heads prevail. This was probably an issue that his followers faced long after the Ascension and Matthew’s readers may have been familiar with this.
But what does it mean for us? The past few days I’ve been mulling over the hatred that seems to exist in our modern culture. Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, etc. As an old teacher I know used to say about Racism: “Whites hate blacks, the blacks hate the Puerto Ricans, the Puerto Ricans hate the Mexicans, the Mexicans hate someone else! It never ends!”
Jesus seems to say that not paying the tax is more of a bother because of what will come of it than the burden of paying the tax. Easy for him to say, he can create money in the belly of a fish! But there seems to be some wisdom in this. We need to be shrewd sometimes and pick our battles and try not to make enemies at first glance. There’s enough fighting in the world. Sometimes it’s just easier to pay the guy off and call it a day.
I find this often comes into my mind when I deal with those whom I disagree with. Sometimes it’s just easier to let them have their opinion and not worry about having them see the wisdom that I espouse to. They’ve heard me but don’t have to accept my opinion. It will be easier knowing how we see each other, for sure, but conversion might not be necessary–in fact, it might prevent any kind of reconciliation.
Today let’s look for the coin in the fish’s mouth that can bring us together and bring peace. Where might we need to sink our lines in order to keep people talking with each other just a bit longer before all hell breaks loose in a fight. That one little coin might just be enough to prevent a whole lot of heartache.
And that is bound to be worth it.
God always uses what is right at hand for us. In this case, fish are always attracted by shiny objects (like a hook, in this case a coin), perhaps Jesus knew where there was a coin that nobody was using and I’m sure it brought much relief to the fish to have it dislodged from it’s insides–even with the pain of the hook. Maybe Peter threw him back too? What do we have at our disposal that allows us to diffuse those who might even be trying to cheat us? What keeps us in conversation with little expense to us? Where might we be called to relieve a bit of pain from one of God’s creatures so that we might live a bit more harmoniously with others and not end up in a fight.
It may very well be an opportunity for us to listen carefully to the needs of those who we think might not have our best interests at heart. So we might see something good in them–or something that’s not as big of a deal to us as we thought. I know today, I found much relief in letting go of a big project so that I can pay better attention to other relationships in my life and my ministry. And that wasn’t that hard to do. In fact it was freeing.
What price might we pay for that freedom? Sometimes it seems the price we try to pay is what keeps us enslaved by our own bigotry, hatred, and inflexibilities. As the weeks move forward, perhaps we’d be better served by simply paying a bit of attention to what we really need, as opposed to what we think we want.
Now if we could only get congress to see it this way….