Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Matter of Moral Indifference

The setup is this: in Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approach Simon Peter to ask if Jesus is in the habit of paying it.

Presumably, like the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, they are looking to catch the Lord out in some way. Or, like many officials, they are simply being officious. Or more charitably, perhaps they are merely doing their job.

In any case, Peter says “Yes”, the Lord pays the temple tax.

Maybe Peter knew this with certainty, having previously seen the Lord pay it. Maybe he was guessing. Maybe he was trying to avoid embarrassment. Matthew doesn’t tell us.

But what follows is interesting. We read that when Peter came into the house immediately after this encounter, Jesus spoke to him first. In other words, he didn’t need Peter to tell him about it (and perhaps Peter, if he had been speaking out of turn to the tax collectors, might have avoiding bringing it up at all). Jesus already knew what had happened, and he asks Peter this question:
“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?”
Peter replies, “From others”. (Evidently in those days income tax was not yet universal.) And Jesus continues, “Then the sons are free”.

The Lord was using an earthly lesson to illustrate a heavenly reality. The kingdom he really has in view is the kingdom of God. The two-drachma temple tax was for the service and upkeep of God’s house. In declaring himself exempt from it, the Lord makes an explicit claim to be the Son of God. This would come as no surprise to Peter, who had heard God himself declare this truth on the mount of transfiguration only a little earlier. Surely the lesson was still ringing in his ears.

The Lord adds this:
“However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
On the freedom of sons and the matter of not giving offense, William MacDonald writes:
“If any divine principle had been involved, Jesus would not have made the payment. It was a matter of moral indifference to Him, and He was willing to pay rather than offend. We as believers are free from the law. Yet, in nonmoral matters, we should respect the consciences of others, and not do anything that would cause offense.”
I like that phrase, “a matter of moral indifference”.

It’s an interesting principle. As children of another kingdom entirely, in one sense we are not truly bound by human law. But children who love and respect their Father are inclined to do those things that please him, which for us means following any number of laws that address areas of life in which the authorities of this world do not rightfully exercise jurisdiction: marriage, the home and so on.

More importantly, it means following the example of the Lord Jesus, who knew that the Father’s work was far more important than the distraction he would cause by making a case for his very legitimate rights.

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