“As Sure as Death and Taxes”

Matthew 17:24-27

We are reading through the Gospel of Matthew and we have come to the place in Jesus’ ministry where He has committed Himself to follow through with the purpose for which He came to earth in the first place. We read in chapter 16, while in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus revealed the process of death and resurrection He would need to endure. Remember Peter jumped in and tried to correct Jesus. Hadn’t Jesus read His Bible? 

What about Psalm 2 and Daniel chapter 7? 

When the Messiah comes to claim the kingdom, 

“You will break them with a rod on iron” and rule the nations? 

Jesus responded with, oh no, dear Peter, you are the one who hasn’t understood your Bible, especially Isaiah chapter 53. The part where the Kingdom of God will come with God’s servant being exalted and executed. 

It’s that upside-down kingdom model again. Where God’s style of kingdom doesn’t come through victory because of power, but rather by 

giving up power through death and sacrificial love. 

Jesus does His best to give it straight and truthful to the disciples and they just don’t get it. And we will see that almost every story from now until they arrive in Jerusalem is going to be Jesus having to correct misunderstandings, 

about the Kingdom and 

about what it means to be the Messiah, and 

especially correcting people’s misconceptions about Him.  

People haven’t changed much. We still have those who read the Bible and come up with the way they think Christians should behave. Interestingly, many have a similar interpretation as the disciples. They have missed the upside-down kingdom Jesus presented. 

Today’s story is another example of Jesus turning things upside-down. 

In today’s Scripture reading the group has made it to Capernaum. This city had been their home base for a while, but Jesus reminded them that they were on their way to Jerusalem. Remember, that is where they are going to kill him and He will be raised to life?

Jesus must know the disciples didn’t completely comprehend what was about to happen. 

But let’s stop and think about it ourselves. 

Why Jerusalem? 

Why would Jesus pick Jerusalem as the place to demonstrate the suffering Messiah?

Well, at this point and time Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish religion, because of the Temple. 

The Temple was to represent God’s presence and it was managed by the priests and teachers of the law, the leadership of Israel. Jesus knew He was on a collision course with these leaders. He has been in conflict with them for a while now. We have read quite a few stories where the leaders of Israel confront Jesus and in each of them it is clear that Jesus believes the leaders of Israel were leading their people astray. The religious leaders have compromised for their own gain and because of this the temple has become a place of moral corruption. So Jesus knows He needs to confront this head on when He gets to Jerusalem and He attempts to warn His disciples by telling them. They can’t wrap their heads around it because in their minds, Messiah’s don’t die, they conquer people, that’s what Kings do. 

Jesus doesn’t disagree. Yes, kings do conquer people.

However, Jesus knows that the chief priests and rulers of the law are going to use the Roman powers to get Jesus executed. But you see, in Jesus’ mind, their victory over Him will actually be their defeat. 

Jesus has spent the last three years creating a “Kingdom of God” movement from a place called Nazareth which the leaders of Israel saw as offensive. The leaders think they have a good thing going and they see Jesus and His followers as something that could mess it up for them. So they have a target on Jesus. They have their cronies looking out for Jesus and waiting to catch Him doing something that proves He was not who He said He was. 

Jesus totally comprehends the big picture. The only weapon the Jewish leaders have at this point is their threat of violence, punishment and death. 

This even reveals how clueless the religious leaders were because Jesus sees their attempt to kill Him as His moment of victory. 

Didn’t anyone read their Scriptures correctly? 

Jesus’ defeat on the cross will become the way He overcomes evil and the power of death. His resurrection is what empowers Jesus to resist and gives Him the courage to announce the Kingdom is here and to march to Jerusalem. 

This is so powerful! 

Jesus has a different story in His head of how the Messiah will give His life in service, to bring in the Kingdom of God. 

The disciples don’t get it. They were filled with grief when Jesus continued to talk about the leaders of the temple planning to kill Him. 

Then, who should appear?

The leaders of the temple, to collect a tax. 

They don’t come to Jesus directly but they approach Peter and question him. 

“Hey Peter, the temple tax is due. You are part of this Kingdom of God movement, how about Jesus, does He pay His temple tax?” 

Before we go on, I think we should recognize this was not just a question passed on while walking to the temple one day. This question was a significantly politically charged moment. This man was hired by the religious leaders of the Temple of Jerusalem to go around and collect taxes. He was a member of the IRS of his day. It was April 15th of their time. The temple taxes were due and this man was hired to go around Capernaum and collect taxes from every Jewish person in order to keep the Temple in Jerusalem running. 

Peter realizes there could be a conflict depending on the way he responds. You can bet he stopped to think before answering. Peter knows this is a loaded question, at a loaded moment. Let’s take into account what is going on in Peter’s mind. He knows that Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to wage battle with the religious leaders. Jesus keeps telling the disciples He is going to die, so Peter at least recognizes this is going to be a bloody scene. Any confrontation with any temple leader at this point is not going to be good. 

What exactly is the temple tax anyway? Take a look at the handout I have given you of the picture of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. In the middle of the right side of the city you will see the temple. The long buildings on the right side of the temple grounds is where the Israel leaders in charge of the money did their financial exchanges.

That castle on the left of the temple grounds was actually built by Rome to keep peace. There would have been guards on those turrets at all times keeping an eye on the temple.

Looking at this complex, who do you think pays for everything? Grounds and maintenance, the staff for the facility. Then there were the priests who watched over everything. Who pays their salary?  Yes, there were tithes and offerings but in order for them to live the life they wanted to, they had established a temple tax. It’s like who pays for someone to clean town hall and work there to take care of our town business. We do, with our taxes. Same thing. 

The plot begins to thicken. Jesus is on His way to a collision course with the religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. 

They have already targeted Jesus and were getting ready to set a price on His head. Someone comes along and asks the disciples, “Hey you group of rebels. You are on your way to Jerusalem, do you realize it’s time to pay the temple tax? Well, is your leader planning to pay it?”

Okay, what is Peter supposed to say? 

At this point Jesus sees the temple of Jerusalem being taken over by a group of men who have destroyed the very purpose for its presence. The temple was built to recognize the presence of the holy God of Israel. This was a place where the God of Israel was to be worshiped and honored. The religious leaders had corrupted the very life of the temple and even worse, have been leading the people astray. 

So, from Jesus’ point of view, should He pay the tax? Think about it, should Jesus pay into the system He knows is planning to murder Him?

Let’s take the tax collector’s point of view. Basically, they are asking the question, “Is Jesus a loyal Jew? Is He loyal to the history and tradition of the people of Israel?” If Jesus doesn’t pay the tax does that mean He is against the temple, against the very God of Israel? Would that be something the Messiah would do? And why is He going to Jerusalem? To pay the tax? Or if He doesn’t pay the tax then that would mean He is rebelling. Is He therefore going to Jerusalem to start a war? You know He says He is the Messiah. Is He going to take over the place? 

Here you go – first century politics – at its best. 

Death and taxes. 

Poor Peter, what luck. 

He gets caught right in the middle of the whole thing. Now we aren’t told why Peter answers yes.

It could be that Peter has been with Jesus for a few years and He has always paid the temple tax before so why wouldn’t He do so again this year. We also know when push comes to shove, Peter is not above telling a lie. In a few more chapters Peter will out and out deny he even knows Jesus. So he could be trying to avoid a conflict at this point and says yes to get rid of the tax man. You know the scenario, tell the IRS whatever you need to in order to get them off your back. Whatever the reason, it works. Peter walks into the house where they are staying without the tax man. 

Jesus is the first one to speak. He calls Peter, “Simon” his Jewish name, and asks him this question: 

“What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

Peter responds, “Other people.” 

Poor Peter again. He has just had to be the spokesperson for their merry band in a charged moment with a tax collector and the first thing Jesus does is hit him with another parable? Parables, parables, always parables. 

Actually Jesus was being pretty straight forward this time. Peter walks into the house and Jesus asks him, “How do kings in this world run their governments?” Well, they need money. Where do they get this money? From the loyal subjects of the king, right? Oh, and if you aren’t loyal well, and don’t pay your taxes then the king will take your property, break your kneecaps,  put you in prison, whatever. That is how the system worked in Jesus’ day. There was a threat or punishment imposed should one not pay their taxes. 

At this point in the story we should be grateful we live in America, right. Because Jesus adds to this story, what about the families of the one in charge? Are they required to pay taxes? Do they need to pay part of what they earn? 

Well in America, we would have to say, “Yes.” That is what it means to be “grown up.” You graduate from school, get a job and start paying taxes, no matter who your parents are. There aren’t any special privileges, this is a democracy, haha. 

Not so in Jesus’ day. Now Jesus wasn’t endorsing this procedure, He was just making the point that in His day the children of the king did not have to pay taxes. Why?

Because as a family member of the king, you were taken care of by the king. He would share what he had with his family and one day when he gets old and needs support, they would in turn support him.  

It was understood that there was an intimacy that was shared with the king if you were in his family. There was a closeness and bond that meant you would take care of one another. That puts them in a different category, they don’t get taxed. Jesus agrees with Peter, He states, “The children are exempt,” If you are a child of the king, you don’t have to pay. 

Okay, do you catch Jesus’ logic? 

Who is the king of the temple?

The God of Israel. 

In fact, no matter what nation had captured Israel, the Persians, Babylonians, or Romans, they all allowed the Israelites their way of worship. There were some moments of disgruntlement but overall the other nations understood that the Israelites had their own way of worshiping their God and they allowed them the dignity to do so. 

Jesus wasn’t talking about Caesar being paid the tax money at this point. That story will come later. This is about paying the God of Israel tax money. So if it is true that the children of the king don’t pay taxes, can you see what Jesus was getting at with this parable? 

Who does Jesus think He is in relationship to the God of Israel? 

Well, we’ve heard Him call the God of Israel, “Father.” 

Matthew has also provided us with two stories where the God of Israel speaks and tells us who Jesus is in relationship to Him, remember. 

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when He was being baptized by John a voice said, 

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 

At that point Jesus hadn’t preached a sermon or healed anyone. God was simply proclaiming the fact. 

It had to have been a significant proclamation for Jesus because He immediately goes into the desert for forty days to find Himself or to figure out who He was. He comes out of that experience of being tempted and has a confidence of who He was and what His calling was to be. 

Again, earlier in this chapter, while Jesus was transfigured God said, 

 “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Did you notice the addition of “Listen to Him.” God knows the disciples aren’t getting it. 

There we have it. Jesus was God’s Son. 

This is what made Jesus’ movement so significant. Other rabbis called the God of Israel, Almighty, Holy One, but no one else called Him, “Abba, Father.”

No other rabbi claimed to be “one” with the Father, whatever the Son did was of the Father’s will. And whatever the Father wills, the Son brings into reality. 

What’s even more amazing about the movement Jesus had started was that He invited anyone who followed Him and believed in Him could also call themselves, sons and daughters of the Father of Israel. 

Think about it, when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, how does the prayer begin, “Our Father.” Jesus invites His disciples into the same close and intimate relationship that He has with the Father. That is part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. 

Wrapped up in this discussion with Peter Jesus is letting Him know that to be a part of the family of God, you don’t have to pay. It’s a gift, it’s free. God’s not a king that makes His children pay. 

That’s why it’s called, “Good News.” 

Can you see Peter looking at Jesus and putting this all together? 

What if the story ended right here? Do you think Jesus would pay the temple tax? Would the disciples have to pay the tax, according to what Jesus has just explained? Basically, no, I don’t think they would have to. But look at the next verse.

So that they might not cause an offense, Jesus told Peter to go fishing, he was a fisherman by the way, and the first fish he catches will have a coin in its mouth. He was to take the coin and go pay the temple tax. End of the story. 

Okay, since when was Jesus concerned with offending someone? Especially the religious leaders of Israel. He’s had a beef with them all along. But at this point, Jesus is in this place where He doesn’t feel compelled at all to pay the temple tax, but His reasons for not doing so are so complex that it’s just going to send all the wrong signals as He makes His way to Jerusalem. At this point, it’s much simpler to pay the tax and be done with it. 

He also had a very strange way of paying the tax. What kind of a miracle is it to have the first fish Peter catches be one that has the money in its mouth? Maybe this is God’s way of providing as Jesus certainly doesn’t have the money on Him. It is one of the miracles that Jesus doesn’t perform publicly or as a sign of the kingdom. What is even more odd is there is no information as to whether or not Peter did what Jesus said. We can assume he did. 

So what’s the point?

  • Jesus knows He is not obligated to pay the temple tax because God is His Father, which He accepts as a gift. He also invites His disciples to accept this as a gift.
  • And God is the one who provides the means to pay the tax, as a gift.

Okay, what do we do with this very strange story? 

I think we should see this as a moment when Jesus reveals who He really is to His disciples. He also wants them to see who they are. As children of the king there is a freedom that Jesus wants us to recognize and hold on to. Jesus demonstrates that it doesn’t matter what people think about Him. Not because He is so awesome, but because He was secure in His relationship with God. At some point, we’re not exactly sure when, maybe when he was 4 years old, or possibly at 12 years of age when He was in the temple talking with the religious teachers, Jesus understood who He was. He and the Father are one and Jesus came to earth to be the embodiment of God’s love and commitment to those He has created. Jesus wants His disciples to comprehend this sense of being so loved by God that there is a union between them that is unbreakable. Jesus wants His disciples to recognize that God is loving, caring, forgiving and with them always. 

Oh that we could be like Jesus. Matthew describes a very charged moment, that Peter manages to get through, but that Jesus remains calm and collected. He was not phased or disrupted by what anyone else thought about Him. Jesus bases His person, His vocation, His reason for being, His value, on what one person thinks about Him. 

The Father. 

And what does He know the Father thinks about Him?

God loves Him. 

God is utterly committed to Him.

Jesus invites His disciples into that same love and into that same confidence. 

Let’s bring this around to today, right now. Most of us sitting in this room came to worship today and felt welcomed. There were some greetings, handshakes, maybe a hug or two, but generally there was a warm feeling and we felt welcomed. That is important for us humans. It is by our nature to desire to be comfortable and accepted by other people around us. There is a sense of affirming one’s identity. That’s what humans do. We gain our sense of identity from others. Jesus came to turn all of that upside down. You can see it in this story. Jesus sees His identity, His calling, who He is and what He’s about based on the estimation of only one person, God. This allows Jesus to be calm, confident and settled. 

He is free to say what He needs to say no matter what people think about it. 

This is what Jesus invites us into. Jesus demonstrates not allowing anyone else to determine who He is. He lets the  Father’s love determine who He is. 

Okay, has anyone here ever met a child who was so confident in what that parents thought about them that they were arrogant? 

We have a great English word for this type of child…

It’s called a BRAT!

They take the love and protection of their parents so much for granted that they do whatever they want. But that’s not what Jesus is doing here. Jesus recognizes He is free from having to pay this tax, but He does it anyway. 

He doesn’t flaunt His freedom, or use it for His own selfish welfare. Instead, He looks at the situation and realizes how misunderstood it would look if He didn’t pay the tax and chooses His battle and this was a battle He decided not to engage in, so He pays the tax. 

What does it mean for us today? The same that it meant for the disciples with Jesus. 

We need to be as sure of God’s desire 

that each of us here, 

is able to see ourselves as a son or daughter of the King 

as we are 

in death and taxes. 

For some of you, being settled on who you are is difficult; it is one of your main battles.  Your worth or your purpose isn’t clear, maybe because of your family of origin or maybe it’s a temperment thing. 

Whatever the cause, you have a very difficult time understanding who you are so you spend most of your life letting other people determine who you are. 

Jesus is addressing this issue with His disciples and with us. As disciples it is our relationship with Jesus that should reshape our view of our value and our identity. Lord willing we would come to embody this sense of confidence of being a child of the king who loves us and has our back and is taking care of us, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

As we take part in the Lord’s Supper today, may we remember that we are eating the symbols of love and commitment that Jesus has for us, 

that the Father has for us. 

By participating in this communion we allow ourselves an opportunity to remind ourselves of whose we are. 

Let’s say this prayer as we take of the bread and the cup, “I am a beloved daughter/son of the King.” 

What does it mean to live that this week?

This is about receiving the Father’s love for us through Jesus and letting it teach us to embrace our freedom to spread this upside down kingdom which is given not through violence but through sacrificial love. 

How do we get the energy to live in such a way? 

This cup and bread demonstrates the way for us.