Friday, June 27, 2014

A Journey With Matthew - Day 27

Read Matthew 17:22-18:14.

We are still a week away from the familiar story of Jesus asking whose head is on the coin and then suggesting that people "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's"  - too many folks forget the second clause, but we'll get there in due time! Today's conflict with the religious leaders is about the temple tax. When we reach this point in the lectionary this August we'll skip right over from chapter sixteen to chapter eighteen. And it's only in Matthew. So it's one of those readings that never comes up on a Sunday morning, even if you go to church every week for your whole life.

There's a lot of good stuff here in chapter eighteen, but that stuff does come up and is probably more familiar to most of my readers. So it's worth pondering this strange "fishing story" about the coin in the mouth of the fish. I don't know what it means. It's interesting that only Matthew has it - maybe as a former tax collector he's interested in this kind of thing. Or maybe the other gospel writers found it too fanciful. Regardless of what one does with the story it's pretty clear what the issue is. The disciples are torn - on the one hand why prop up an old system when they are in the new-wineskins business? On the other hand, to not pay the tax is to become cut off from their Jewish heritage and roots.

One thing I notice from the outset is the triangle that is created; I'm getting used to triangles in diocesan work! The tax collectors have an issue with Jesus, but they go to Peter about it. Peter says "yes, Jesus does pay the tax." But that's not the end. As often works in triangles, now Peter and Jesus need to talk about it - except what is interesting here is that Jesus brings it up first. What follows makes it clear that Peter himself is struggling with whether or not they ought to be paying this tax; since they are children of God they should be free. So Jesus comes up with a clever way to pay the tax, but have it not cost them anything. Cool trick!

The process of getting there raises a whole other set of questions. Perhaps Matthew has organized this material about children so it's all together here, but Jesus raises the question (clearly rhetorical) about where the kings of the earth get their resources - from their own children or from others? Obviously from others. Jesus uses this move to suggest that the disciples are children of God - but it's worth lingering a bit on this reality of how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

There are other texts from the prophets and throughout the New Testament from which to talk about economic justice, but this would be an interesting place to start. The world is built so that those in power take from those who do not have power. They find other people's children to fight their wars. What can, or should, the church say about that?

Check out this recent news report from Vermont for one way. (Of course it helps to elect Senators that want to have these conversations!)

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