Monday, Proper 6
Looking through the Gospel readings for this week, I stopped at the one for tomorrow, Matthew 17:22-27. First there were the cold words predicting the death and rising again of the Son of Man, and it caught my breath as if I had never heard them before. As it must have stunned those with him in Galilee, although it was not the first time they had been told. And then the whole exchange about the temple tax. What others? And the fish. We all know from the bumpers of thousands of cars that the fish is a Christian symbol, one of the oldest. ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys) fish, as in ichthyology, study of fish. An acronym for “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr).” Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. And all the fish references (fisher of people, the bread and fish to feed the multitudes, the broiled fish Jesus feeds his apostles after the Resurrection, and all those huge catches of fish). So, a fish. With a coin in its mouth. No problem with that. After all, in the passage for today, Jesus heals an epileptic, and chides his own for their lack of faith to do it themselves. With enough faith you can move mountains. A fish with a coin in its mouth is a small miracle, but a significant one.
This passage has it all, prophesy, politics, and all the twists and turns, ambiguity and confusion that Jesus always presents us with in parables and in teaching. Jesus makes us think, not just with logic, but beyond logic to the mystery of deeper understanding. Join me as we stumble through. Jesus and the disciples arrive in Capernaum, and Peter is accosted by the temple tax collectors. The question they ask is pretty provocative. “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” You can almost hear the muttering, Please say no, and we’ve got him. But being a good Law abiding Jew, Peter says, yes, of course he does. When he comes into the house, Jesus doesn’t ask what happened. He already knows and immediately asks that question. The one we need to ponder, and twist, and turn. “What do you think, Simon?” he asks. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” It helps to frame it as, does the state charge a tariff on domestic goods or imports? And who are the kings of the earth?
The kings of the earth are those with power. Here, they are both the temple authority and the Roman occupying army, Rome, and the Emperor. The children are the chosen, the temple priests, Roman citizens, the rich. The others are, well, us, mostly. Poor or getting by, but not much more. Others are the ordinary Jewish man, the less than privileged in the Roman Empire. And even if the tax referred to is a temple tax for the upkeep of the temple, you better believe that Rome got a piece of it. Who is the king of the earth? Any powerful person or group of them. The temple priests and scribes. Who is the true King? He who is the Son of Man who will die and be raised. So Jesus is repeating his statement about his own death and saying that he is king of heaven and earth. His own don’t have to pay taxes. But in this case they will, just to keep the peace. Jesus will know when his time has come, but not today. Now we see a new meaning; the King over all will pay the tax for his own on the Cross, and the others, they will pay their tax in the pit for turning from the Son of Man.
Now the fish story. Peter, the fisherman by trade, is to go and catch a fish. And his fish will have a coin of the amount to pay Peter’s tax and Jesus’ as well. The fish, a symbol for Jesus, provides earthly support, as the Father, the Creator provides for us all, fish to eat, the Ichthys that saves us all, and our temple tax.
A lovely story and much to ponder, just twisting “children” and “other” around. And what has this to do with us? Now, in the mess of the first quarter of the twenty-first century? In the middle of what looks like an impending trade war, and that means more drachma from us for those who don’t need it. And who are the kings of the earth? Do I need to belabor that? Probably not. That is the obvious earthly answer. And we are free, children of the Most High. We are free of taxes. But there is another answer.
Let’s reconsider what the taxes are and what they do, and no, it isn’t stewardship season yet. We may be free, beloved by God in Jesus’ name and Spirit. But we are also called to do some fishing of our own. Our taxes are the lifetime project of being children and not other. This is a fine theological line, because we believe that God loves us unconditionally, but God doesn’t love some of what we do. Those who were the kings of the earth in our story are still with us, and they may or may not go down into the pit, or be redeemed (I suspect that is a personal choice at the time of the Parousia), But we all can be kings of the earth in our own minds, big fish in the small pond of our circle of friends. That does not make us tax free children, but freeloaders on the bountiful grace of God. God is ever calling to us to turn to him in our sin, in our self-centered lives. We are called to be servants, slaves, if need be, totally God’s, totally living in Christ, and that is a hard job, even with prayer and God’s help. We pay our taxes in kind and are never free of them, because we are a fallen people clinging to the Cross and Resurrection which Jesus predicts for the Son of Man at the beginning of the reading.
And once again the meaning of “children” and “other” changes. The more we strive to be children, tax free, the more we must be the others, paying in love, in obedience to God, receiving God’s love. We are free and not free, and so not to give offence, we, too are told to go fishing, to find the coin in the fish’s mouth, a coin from the bounty of our God. Once again, it is a circle of love. Jesus and us. Jesus and his Father. We the adopted children. We who spread the Word by Jesus’ commandment, and by our willingness to pay the tax, so that the Temple of Heaven can be served. Because, even in the glorious light of Christ, we pay the tax to keep the lights on.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.