Have you ever allowed yourself to ask “what if” questions? I do. What if Christians really lived sacrificially? What if I could get over myself long enough to be really effective in serving Jesus? How different would the world look?
There is this story in the Gospel of Matthew that I’m sure I’ve read, but hasn’t gotten my attention until recently. Matthew 17:24-27. In Jesus day, there was a 2 drachma temple tax placed on all people over the age of 20. This tax was collected by temple representatives and was used to pay for temple expenses. This was not a new tax, it seems all the way back in Exodus 30:11-16 where God through Moses is explaining to the people about this financial “sacrifice” of atonement. Exodus refers to the tax as a 1/2 shekel sacrifice.
The scene opens with Peter standing outside the house where Jesus is staying. He is speaking with the tax collectors, and they ask whether or not Jesus pays the temple tax. When Peter enters the home, one gets the feeling that Jesus overheard the conversation, and asks Peter a pointed question so he could further teach his disciples what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.
Matthew 17:25 (ESV)
25 …And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?”
Of course, Peter’s response is correct, Kings don’t collect taxes from for their children, but from their subjects. To which Jesus responds that the sons of God are exempt from the temple tax. This is a profound statement. Jesus is announcing that he, and those who follow him, are exempt from this tax because he is the Son of God. By right, Jesus is not required to pay that tax.
Yet here we find Jesus doing something that is rather un-Jesus like. Up to this point, we see repeatedly Jesus brushing off the rules of the Pharisees. He really doesn’t care if they get upset by him. He upsets them regularly. Yet here, he tells Peter they will pay the tax despite having the right not to do so. Why? Because Jesus understands that the way of the cross is the way of obedience and freedom and slavery.
What non-sense is this? Jesus capitulates to a rule? Yes he does, and for several reasons. First, the “rule” was a law of God, and Jesus took his Father’s righteous demands very seriously. The temple tax was not just some rule created by the Pharisees to preserve their version of righteousness. The tax was part of the sacrificial system that Jesus came to fulfill and make obsolete. By right, Jesus didn’t have to pay this tax, but by choice he did to fulfill the purpose for which he was to us from the Father: to fulfill the law, and replace the sacrificial system with his one time sacrifice. Jesus is sufficient once for all.
Second, Jesus told Peter to pay the tax to not cause offense. Jesus has never shown particular care when it came to offending his opponents, but these tax collectors are not his opponents. They represent faithful followers of God seeking to be obedient. Jesus chooses to serve them even though he knows their system will be replaced, and even though he knows he is not compelled by anyone to pay this tax. You see, Jesus knows that real freedom is the freedom to serve others without care for your rights or your reputation. In Christ, freedom is servanthood. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but freedom in Christ is the freedom to not care about your rights, and to simply to do what is right.
Our world sees freedom as the unfettered ability to make any choice, to do anything, to be anyone. The hedonist encourages us to pursue pleasure and fun. The problem, of course, is that unbridled pleasure is a slavery unto itself. As the excitement from one pleasure wears thin, we are called to find a new one. As it goes until one day we are left in despair. In Jesus, we have freedom, but I’ve always found it curious that the apostle Paul refers to himself as a “slave” of Christ. Romans 6 is all about being either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. Everyone is a slave to something, but there is only one sort of slavery that leads to freedom, because slavery to righteousness leads to true freedom.
(I owe this illustration to a young woman named Erin who is in a class I teach.) If someone wants to become an excellent pianist, he must submit herself to the rules and obligations involved in learning to play the instrument. There is a willing slavery in this. Practice every day, learning new pieces, sessions with a teacher, and recitals all point to submission to a master. However, when the goal is reached, there is a freedom found in it. The pianist is free to make beautiful music that others can not make because they did not allow themselves to become a slave of the piano. This is like what it means to follow Christ. We willingly submit ourselves to him and becoming slaves to righteousness, we find freedom to be who we were created to be. We are free to live authentically without fear of judgement. We are free to serve without concerns for our rights. We are free to express who God wants us to be. In becoming slaves, we find freedom.
Third, Jesus tells Peter to go out and catch a fish, and in its mouth he will find a four drachma coin, twice the amount needed to pay the tax. Jesus tells Peter that he will pay for both his own tax and for Peter’s with this coin. In this we see a glimpse of what Jesus’ sacrifice will accomplish. Jesus came to make the temple system obsolete, and he does so by once for all paying the debt owed by every person. This is grace, and this is mercy.
But now it is sitting there in front of us. Jesus is showing us that though we have many rights, the way of Jesus is the way of sacrifice. But that sacrifice is really a sign of our freedom. We no longer have to defend ourselves. We no longer have to fight for everything we consider ours. All things are placed under the feet of Christ, and the day will come when his rule is fully realized in this world through the hearts of all people. When the day comes, we will receive all that has been promised to us by the Father. There is no need for fear, no need for defensiveness. What you have now are mere scraps and crumbs, but what we are promised is a feast in glory. So go. Give freely. Live freely. Become a slave to Christ, and find the freedom to be who God meant for you to be by His grace, and for His glory.