5 min. to read.
Today is the 7th day of Lent. I’m reading scriptures about Jesus curated by Brian Zahnd in his Lent devotional The Unvarnished Jesus. As a practice of my own, I’ll be posting daily (or near daily) short reflections on the scriptures chosen.
Today’s scripture is Matthew 17:24-27. A conversation about taxes turns into a teaching moment and a bizarre miracle.
The temple tax collector asked Peter if Jesus was paid up. Peter said yes, then went and asked Jesus about it. Cue teaching moment. Jesus asked Peter if the rulers of human kingdoms collect taxes from their children. Of course they don’t, but after making this point, Jesus takes a more accommodating stance with this justification: “So that we do not give offense to them.” Then he instructs Peter to go fishing, and in the fish he’ll find what is necessary to pay off the taxes for both Jesus and Peter.
Jesus seems to be making a point about someone not being required to pay taxes, on the basis of a familial relationship. Is he saying, “You and I, Peter, we’re children of God, and that means the temple tax doesn’t apply to us?” But if that’s the case, the temple tax applied to no one and shouldn’t have existed to begin with. Is he saying that taxes in general are something God’s not in favor of? The taxation-is-theft crew would certainly agree. Or, since this is a temple tax, is Jesus only talking about financial support of the religious system? The temple tax then, tithe now, and neither should be paid? Or perhaps tithe is fine since it’s voluntary?
Zahnd suggests that Jesus’ question about the king’s children being excluded from taxes is a low-key claim to divinity. If Jesus is the son of the God, then he would not be obligated to pay the temple tax. From there Zahnd moves sees this odd story as a whimsical example of God’s provision. Peter didn’t need to worry. Jesus had him covered.
What’s clear to me is that Jesus thought the temple tax didn’t apply to Peter and him, but Jesus also seemed to think this disagreement wasn’t worth getting into a conflict over. This morning, as I reflect on my own life and the call of Lent to let go of those things that get in the way for me, I feel drawn to the phrase, “However, so that we do not give offense to them…”
There’s no question that Jesus didn’t mind saying or doing controversial things. So, this is not a case of Jesus being conflict avoidant. It seems like Jesus just didn’t care about this one disagreement enough to make a scene over it. He had more important things to focus on.
We live in a culture where being right is paramount. Some of us will argue about nearly anything. And if anyone disagrees, or gets in our way, or denies us service, we go into combat mode. Think of the spate of “Karen” videos online, where someone is denied service and they throw a fit because they think their rights are being violated. It seems like we’re losing the ability to know whether a particular conflict is worth the cost.
Why do we do this? Perhaps because getting our way and being right has become part of our identity. Choosing to “not cause offense” is not an option. If we don’t “hold the line” we’re surrendering who we are. I struggle with this. Sometimes I have to make a conscious decision not to correct someone who’s wrong. It is a spiritual practice for me to not respond to every social media post I disagree with. I’m getting better by practice. Nowadays, I start and delete more posts than I actually post!
If Jesus thought the temple tax was wrong, wasn’t he morally obligated to protest it? Shouldn’t he have said something, maybe given a rousing anti-tax sermon in the Temple court? He could have. People would have supported that movement! But he didn’t. He paid it and moved on. I can only guess that he did this because it wasn’t worth his time and energy. He had other things to be focused on, things that were more important.
Not every disagreement is worth a fight. Not every ethical quandary is solved by protest. Sometimes you have to conserve your time and energy for fights that matter. This is by no means a call to avoid conflict. Conflict is necessary–especially when ending oppression and injustice are the focus. But we’re not obligated to show up to every argument we’re invited to. We’re not better people because we can’t let little things go.
Lent invites us to let little things go. This way is life.