March 26, 2007

Sunday shopping and temple taxes

We took an elderly friend for lunch yesterday. After we ate, she wondered if we could stop at a grocery store so she could pick up one item. As we pulled into the store parking lot, she said, “We don’t have to do this if you have a problem with shopping on Sunday.”

I didn’t think much of it at the time. She needed some food and we wanted to help her. We don’t have a problem, mainly because the law of Christ sets us free from “rules” especially if those rules would keep us from doing good for others.

However, this morning’s reading makes me think about it again. In Matthew 17, Jesus and His disciples are met in Capernaum by the temple tax collectors. This was a small tax (about two day’s wages) put on all men over twenty for the upkeep of the temple. They asked Peter, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”

It seems a simple question, and, Peter, true to his “jump in without thinking” personality, replied “Yes” before he considered their reasons for asking it. The Jewish authorities were continually testing Jesus, trying to find something He was doing wrong so they could accuse Him of being a law breaker.

When Peter arrived where Jesus and the disciples were staying, “Jesus anticipated him, saying, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from “strangers?”’”

Peter knew that kings did not tax their own family. He answered correctly, “From strangers.”

At that, Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”

This story is not just about the miracle of a coin in the mouth of a fish. It is about the attitude Jesus has toward those who do not understand who He is and what He is doing. The Jews didn’t, and in this test, Jesus could have claimed His right as the Son of God and told them no way—He didn’t have to pay the tax, but He didn’t stick up for His rights.

Jesus also considered Peter. At this point, perhaps He counted Peter as a child of the King (at what point was Peter reborn into the family of God?), but the Jews certainly didn’t, and Peter would be in trouble for not paying his portion of the temple tax. He’d already left his fishing business to follow Jesus, and maybe didn’t have any money to pay it. Jesus graciously took care of it with the coin that was “for Me and you.”

Jesus had no intentions of making a big deal with these tax collectors over a small point. Instead, He simple complied. This story made me think about our friend and the Sunday shopping issue. Was she testing us? Or was she simply being thoughtful and not wanting us to do something against our conscience?

I think it was the latter, but this incident and this story are both reminders that those outside the kingdom of God have very little idea about how we live and why we do what we do. Like Peter and the tax collectors, I felt a bit stumped by her question. We didn’t want to be seen as “legalists” because we are not, but if this was an opportunity to correct a misunderstanding, or explain the gospel and our freedom in Christ, we missed it. However, if it was an opportunity to show the love of God and our affection to a friend, we did just fine.

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