Friday, June 10, 2011

Tilapia and Tax Exemptions

Matthew 17:24-27

I just love this short story. Jesus’ adversaries are trying to catch him up, through Peter in this case. We know how the constant pressure of media attention exposes every flaw of our public figures. While Twitter, Facebook, and the 24 hour news cycle weren’t features of the first century world, Jesus was under incredible scrutiny every moment . . . and under the pressure of people who looked for ways to make him fail. Peter realizes he’s put Jesus on the spot, made an assumption in public, and Jesus doesn’t chew him out. Instead, Jesus bails him out.

And the question was taxes. You’d think that a couple thousand years later, we might have gotten past that question! But, no, we still talk taxes – deficit, stimulus, lockbox, progressive, regressive, tax and spend, fiscal conservative. What we really want, though, hasn’t changed. We want all the benefits, without actually paying taxes. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect taxes? From their children or from others?” Duh! “From others!” “So, the children are exempt [free]” (17:25-26). That is, the kids get the benefits of the taxes without paying a thing. They are privileged.

And, these taxes are taxes to the temple, thus taxes to God. The unspoken question in the story is . . . “And who are God’s children?”

Then, there’s the fish story. Wouldn’t it be great to get a catch like that? It was probably a kind of tilapia, now known and served up in Galilean restaurants as “St. Peter’s Fish”. They dig in the mud at the bottom of the fresh water lakes and wouldn’t be adverse to putting a large coin in their mouth. The trick, of course, is catching the one fish who is laundering money, and catching it in the act. Peter’s catch is proof positive that “the children are exempt/free.” Privileged.

Privilege is nice enough when you are the privileged one – though there is a downside to being the one that everyone else resents! But we’ve all experienced ourselves on the outside looking in, frustrated that someone else’s privilege is denying us what we’ve worked hard for – the teacher’s pet, the boss’s favorite, the mama’s boy. Privilege is a big dynamic in race relations in our nation and in our work places.

What is Jesus saying in regards to this privilege? “The children are exempt/free.” Is he saying, “Peter, as the Son of God I’m exempt, but this little fishing expedition will bail you out from your assumption, and pay your tax bill too.”

I don’t think so.

I think that Jesus is addressing the unspoken question in the story: “And who are God’s children?” Yes, Jesus is uniquely “the Son of God” yet he is – in this story – extending son/child/family/exempt status to Peter. The miracle is proof positive, and the tax paid is not because they owe the tax but “so that WE [Jesus and Peter] do not give offense” (17:27).

For me, this is the great gift in the story. Jesus desires to extend to each one of us this same privilege and exemption. Jesus wants each and every one of us to become the children of God, to become part of the family, and to know freedom and blessing.

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