by Mike Bowling
The revolution is on, but what kind of revolution will it be? Matthew gives us the long-awaited confession by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah (16:16). Yet, Jesus demands this revolutionary news be kept a secret (16:20). It’s going to be a weird kind of revolution: The revolutionary is headed toward his death, but don’t worry; God will raise him from the dead on the third day (16:21). We really can’t blame Peter for his outburst of “ain’t no way Jesus”— a revolution cannot hang on the thread of something as “iffy” as resurrection. Jesus names Peter’s emotional objection as Satanic, and proceeds to frame the required resumé for revolution participation...self-denial, cross-bearing, obedience (16:23-28).
Everyone needed to take a breath; this is starting to get serious! Six days pass before Jesus takes Peter and the brother duo “sons of thunder” on a mountaintop field trip. Reassurance was needed that the revolution remained on track; the Law (Moses) was being fulfilled and the prophets’ (Elijah) promises and warnings were playing out as Jesus had declared earlier. Yet again, the revelation coming out of the transfiguration event must be hush-hush (17:9).
The next act in Matthew’s drama (17:14-23) involves a distraught father begging Jesus to set his son free from bodily misery resulting from demon-possession. Jesus was brought into this situation after the disciples’ failure to achieve physical healing and spiritual liberation for the suffering boy. Jesus attributes their failure to a lack of mature faith. Later events chronicled in Matthew’s gospel reveal the disciples’ continuing confusion about the nature of the revolution. After Jesus heals the boy, there is a private conversation between Jesus and the disciples; they inquire about their failure. Healings and casting out demons are revolutionary Kingdom acts, and Jesus continues their instruction later with the second direct prediction of his arrest and execution as a revolutionary followed by resurrection. The disciples’ confusion and disbelief is revealed in Matthew's description of their state of mind: “And they were deeply grieved.”
Up to this point, the Kingdom of God looks exciting as it unfolds through the words and actions of Jesus. Crowds are growing and listening; demons are fleeing; pompous religious leaders are confounded; people are made whole. The revolution is on! But privately among the disciples, Jesus’ predictions about his death haunts them. What kind of revolution is this? How can suffering and dying result in ultimate triumph and liberation?
As Jesus’ gang moves to Capernaum, the preceding questions hang in the air. It always seems to happen that when folks are wrestling with life’s most consequential questions, the most irritating and inconsequential tasks pop up. Arriving in Capernaum, Peter is approached by the Temple tax-collectors. Does Matthew record this event as a former tax-collector himself, or is it an important event? When asked whether or not Jesus would pay the Temple tax, Peter seems to shrug off the question with a simple “yes.” But wait, there may be more to this situation than at first appeared. Jesus immediately confronts Peter with a tax question. Are the heirs of the powerful exempt from taxes? Do those with authority to levy taxes view those who must pay as friends, family and neighbors, or as strangers? “Strangers,” says Peter. Sounds like things are beginning to lead toward something defiant, maybe even revolutionary! Yeah, the Temple officials are in cahoots with the King; they are using their power to put heavy tax burdens on us. Let’s start the revolution with tax evasion (not exactly the Boston Tea Party). This bold act of civil and religious disobedience will send a message: We ain’t going to take it anymore! But here is the problem: It’s not a bold act; the tax was a very small amount of money (pennies in value) collected annually. Jesus is not concerned about the amount; he is concerned about what taxes too often represent— a hierarchy which is distant from fellow citizens. Maybe the nature of the Kingdom consists of all people sharing cooperatively and collaboratively in all aspects of life. However, the Kingdom does not come as a result of defiant acts; the nature of the revolution is revealed in the previous framing of participation requirements (self-denial, cross-bearing, obedience) and Jesus’ prediction of his own self-giving act.
Instead of reversing Peter’s response to the tax-collectors, Jesus humorously instructs Peter to pay taxes for them both. Is Jesus authorizing the miraculous provision of tax money from the mouth of a fish? Maybe, but not exactly like the circumstances of the miraculous feedings, and it’s not consistent with the one who refused to turn stones into bread. One possible interpretation of Jesus’ words is good advice for those of us enrolled in the revolution now…
In order to avoid offending (not really typical of Jesus), Jesus suggests the fisherman (Peter) should go fishing and pay the tax from the “first-fruits” of his catch. I know we all love a good miracle and we love a defiant act of disobedience (especially one that’s more symbolic than sacrificial), but the nature of the revolution consists of God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of one another and others. It’s a forgiveness which requires self-giving for the common good. So in conclusion folks, be faithful to revolution qualifications...and pay your taxes before April 15.