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SECTION IV. THE TEMPLE TAX: AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE SERMON

Matt. xvii. 24–27.

This story is a nut with a dry, hard shell, but a very sweet kernel. Superficial readers may see in it nothing more than a curious anecdote of a singular fish with a piece of money in its mouth turning up opportunely to pay a tax, related by Matthew, alone of the evangelists, not because of its intrinsic importance, but simply because, being an ex-tax gatherer, he took kindly to the tale. Devout readers, though unwilling to acknowledge it, may be secretly scandalized by the miracle related, as not merely a departure from the rule which Jesus observed of not using His divine power to help Himself, but as something very like a piece of sport on His part, or an expression of a humorous sense of incongruity, reminding one of the grotesque figures in old cathedrals, in the carving of which the builders delighted to show their skill, and find for themselves amusement.

Breaking the shell of the story, we discover within, as its kernel, a most pathetic exhibition of the humiliation and self-humiliation of the Son of man, who appears exposed to the indignity of being dunned for temple dues, and so oppressed with poverty that He cannot pay the sum demanded, though its amount is only fifteenpence; yet neither pleading poverty nor insisting on exemption on the score of privilege, but quietly meeting the claims of the collectors in a manner which, if sufficiently strange, as we admit,345345Jesus, we believe, did work miracles expressive of humor, not however in levity, but in holy earnest. Such were the cursing of the fig-tree; the healing of blindness by putting clay on the eyes, as a satire on the blind guides; and the present one, expressing a sense of the incongruity between the outward condition and the intrinsic dignity of the Son of God. But Dr. Farrar doubts whether a miracle was wrought at all. He thinks the translation of our Lord’s words concerning the fish might run, “On opening its mouth thou shalt get or obtain a stater;” such a use of the verb εὑρίσκω being quite classical; and suggests the possibility of some essential particular having been omitted or left unexplained. — The Life of Christ, ii. 46. was at all events singularly meek and peaceable.

The present incident supplies, in truth, an admirable illustration of the doctrine taught in the discourse on humility. The greatest in the kingdom here exemplifies by anticipation the lowliness He inculcated on His disciples, and shows them in exercise a holy, loving solicitude to avoid giving offence not only to the little ones within the kingdom, but even to those without. He stands not on His dignity as the Son of God, though the voice from heaven uttered on the holy mount still rings in His ears, but consents to be treated as a subject or a stranger; desiring to live peaceably with men whose ways He does not love, and who bear Him no good-will, by complying with their wishes in all things lawful. We regard, in short, this curious scene at Capernaum (with the Mount of Transfiguration in the distant background!) as a historical frontispiece to the sermon we have been studying. We think ourselves justified in taking this view of it, by the consideration that, though the scene occurred before the sermon was delivered, it happened after the dispute which supplied the preacher with a text. The disciples fell to disputing on the way home from the Mount of Transfiguration, while the visit of the tax-gatherers took place on their arrival in Capernaum. Of course Jesus knew of the dispute at the time of the visit, though He had not yet expressly adverted to it. Is it too much to assume that His knowledge of what had been going on by the way influenced His conduct in the affair of the tribute money, and led Him to make it the occasion for teaching by action the same lesson which He meant to take an early opportunity of inculcating by words?346346We invite the special attention of our readers to the above indicated connection, as for want of insight into the connection the incident now under consideration has received very scant justice. Weizsäcker, e.g., no extreme critic, holds that the incident in question has no connection with the group of incidents amid which it occurs, and says Matthew, brings it in here because it happened at Capernaum, because he could not get it in sooner, and must put it here or leave it out althogether. — Vide Untersuchunger über die evangelische Geschichte, p. 73.

This assumption, so far from being unwarranted, is, we believe, quite necessary in order to make Christ’s conduct on this occasion intelligible. Those who leave out of account the dispute by the way are not at the right point of view for seeing the incident at Capernaum in its natural light, and they fall inevitably into misunderstandings. They are forced, e.g., to regard Jesus as arguing seriously against payment of the temple tax, as something not legally obligatory, or as lying out of the ordinary course of His humiliation as the Son of man. Now it was neither one nor other of these things. The law of Moses ordained that every man above twenty years should pay the sum of half a shekel as an atonement for his soul, and to meet the expenses connected with the service of the tabernacle rendered to God for the common benefit of all Israelites; and Jesus, as a Jew, was just as much under obligation to comply with this particular law as with any other. Nor was there any peculiar indignity, either in kind or degree, involved in obeying that law. Doubtless it was a great indignity and humiliation to the Son of God to be paying taxes for the maintenance of His own Father’s house! All that He said to Peter, pointing out the incongruity of such a state of things, was sober truth. But the incongruity does not meet us here alone; it runs through the whole of our Lord’s earthly experience. His life, in all respects, departed from the analogy of kings’ sons. Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience; though He were a Son, yet came He not to be ministered unto, but to minister; though He were a Son, yet became He subject to the law, not merely the moral but the ceremonial, and was circumcised, and took part in the temple worship, and frequented the sacred feasts, and offered sacrifices, though these were all only shadows of good things, whereof He Himself was the substance. Surely, in a life containing so many indignities and incongruities, — which was, in fact, one grand indignity from beginning to end, — it was a small matter to be obliged to pay annually, for the benefit of the temple, the paltry sum of fifteenpence! He who with marvelous patience went through all the rest, could not possibly mean to stumble and scruple at so trifling a matter. He who did nothing towards destroying the temple and putting an end to legal worship before the time, could not be a party to the mean policy of starving out its officials, or grudging the funds necessary to keep the sacred edifice in good repair. He might say openly what He thought of existing ecclesiastical abuses, but He would do no more.

The truth is, that the words spoken by Jesus to Simon were not intended as an argument against paying the tax, but as an explanation of what was meant by His paying it, and of the motive which guided Him in paying it. They were a lesson for Simon, and through him for the twelve, on a subject wherein they had great need of instruction; not a legal defense against the demands of the tax-gatherer. But for that dispute by the way, Jesus would probably have taken the quietest means for getting the tax paid, as a matter of course, without making any remarks on the subject. That He had already acted thus on previous occasions, Peter’s prompt affirmative reply to the question of the collectors seems to imply. The disciple said “yes,” as knowing what his Master had done in past years, and assuming as a thing of course that His practice would be the same now. But Jesus did not deem it, in present circumstances, expedient to let His disciples regard His action with respect to the tax as a mere vulgar matter of course; He wanted them to understand and reflect on the moral meaning and the motive of His action for their own instruction and guidance.

He wished them to understand, in the first place, that for Him to pay the temple dues was a humiliation and an incongruity, similar to that of a king’s son paying a tax for the support of the palace and the royal household; that it was not a thing of course that He should pay, any more than it was a thing of course that He should become man, and, so to speak, leave His royal state behind and assume the rank of a peasant; that it was an act of voluntary humiliation, forming one item in the course of humiliation to which He voluntarily submitted, beginning with His birth, and ending with His death and burial. He desired His disciples to think of these things in the hope that meditation on them would help to rebuke the pride, pretension, and self-assertion which had given rise to that petty dispute about places of distinction. He would say to them, in effect: “Were I, like you, covetous of honors, and bent on asserting my importance, I would stand on my dignity, and haughtily reply to these collectors of tribute: Why trouble ye me about temple dues? Know ye not who I am? I am the Christ, the Son of the living God: the temple is my Father’s house; and I, His Son, am free from all servile obligations. But, note ye well, I do nothing of the kind. With the honors heaped upon me on the Mount of Transfiguration fresh in my recollection, with the consciousness of who I am, and whence I came, and whither I go, abiding deep in my soul, I submit to be treated as a mere common Jew, suffering my honors to fall into abeyance, and making no demands for a recognition which is not voluntarily conceded. The world knows me not; and while it knows me not, I am content that it should do with me, as with John, whatsoever it lists. Did the rulers know who I am, they would be ashamed to ask of me temple dues; but since they do not, I accept and bear all the indignities consequent on their ignorance.”

All this Jesus said in effect to His disciples, by first adverting to the grounds on which a refusal to pay the didrachmon might plausibly be defended, and then after all paying it. The manner of payment also was so contrived by Him as to re-enforce the lesson. He said not to Simon simply: “Go and catch fish, that with the proceeds of their sale we may satisfy our creditors.” He gave him directions as the Lord of nature, to whom all creatures in land or sea were subject, and all their movements familiar, while yet so humbled as to need the services of the meanest of them. By drawing on His omniscience in giving these instructions to His disciple, He did, in a manner, what He never did either before or after, viz. wrought a miracle for His own behoof. The exception, however, had the same reason as the rule, and therefore proved the rule. Jesus abstained from using His divine faculties for His own benefit, that He might not impair the integrity of His humiliation; that His human life might be a real bona fide life of hardship, unalleviated by the presence of the divine element in His personality. But what was the effect of the lightning-flash of divine knowledge emitted by Him in giving those directions to Peter? To impair the integrity of His humiliation? Nay, but only to make it glaringly conspicuous. It said to Simon, and to us, if he and we had ears to hear: “Behold who it is that pays this tax, and that is reduced to such straits in order to pay it! It is He who knoweth all the fowls of the mountain, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the sea!”

The other point on which Jesus desired to fix the attention of His disciples, was the reason which moved Him to adopt the policy of submission to what was in itself an indignity. That reason was to avoid giving offence: “Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them.” This was not, of course, the only reason of His conduct in this case. There were other comprehensive reasons applicable to His whole experience of humiliation, and to this small item therein in particular; a full account of which would just amount to an answer to the great question put by Anselm: “Cur Deus Homo; “Why did God become man? On that great question we do not enter here, however, but confine ourselves to the remark, that while the reason assigned by Jesus to Peter for the payment of the temple dues was by no means the only one, or even the chief, it was the reason to which, for the disciples’ sake, He deemed it expedient just then to give prominence. He was about to discourse to them largely on the subject of giving and receiving offences; and He wished them, and specially their foremost man, first of all to observe how very careful He Himself was not to offend, — what a prominent place the desire to avoid giving offence occupied among His motives.

Christ’s declared reason for paying the tribute is strikingly expressive of His lowliness and His love. The mark of His lowliness is that there is no word here of taking offence. How easily and plausibly might He have taken up the position of one who did well to be angry! “I am the Christ, the Son of God,” He might have said, “and have substantiated my claims by a thousand miracles in word and deed, yet they willfully refuse to recognize me; I am a poor homeless wanderer, yet they, knowing this, demanded the tribute, as if more for the sake of annoying and insulting me than of getting the money. And for what purpose do they collect these dues? For the support of a religious establishment thoroughly effete, to repair an edifice doomed to destruction, to maintain a priesthood scandalously deficient in the cardinal virtues of integrity and truth, and whose very existence is a curse to the land. I cannot in conscience pay a didrachmon, no, not even so much as a farthing, for any such objects.”

The lowly One did not assume this attitude, but gave what was asked without complaint, grudging, or railing; and His conduct conveys a lesson for Christians in all ages, and in our own age in particular. It teaches the children of the kingdom not to murmur because the world does not recognize their status and dignity. The world knew not when He came, even God’s eternal Son; what wonder if it recognize not His younger brethren! The kingdom of heaven itself is not believed in, and its citizens should not be surprised at any want of respect towards them individually. The manifestation of the sons of God is one of the things for which Christians wait in hope. For the present they are not the children, but the strangers: instead of exemption from burdens, they should rather expect oppression; and they should be thankful when they are put on a level with their fellow-creatures, and get the benefit of a law of toleration.

As the humility of Jesus was shown by His not taking, so His love was manifested by His solicitude to avoid giving offence. He desired, if possible, to conciliate persons who for the most part had treated Him all along as a heathen and a publican, and who ere long, as He knew well, would treat Him even as a felon. How like Himself was the Son of man in so acting! How thoroughly in keeping His procedure here with His whole conduct while He was on the earth! For what was His aim in coming to the world, what His constant endeavor after He came, but to cancel offences, and to put an end to enmities — to reconcile sinful men to God and to each other? For these ends He took flesh; for these ends He was crucified. His earthly life was all of a piece — a life of lowly love.

“Lest we should offend,” said Jesus, using the plural to hint that He meant His conduct to be imitated by the twelve and by all His followers. How happy for the world and the church were this done! How many offences might have been prevented had the conciliatory spirit of the Lord always animated those called by His name! How many offences might be removed were this spirit abundantly poured out on Christians of all denominations now! Did this motive, “Notwithstanding, lest we should offend,” bulk largely in all minds, what breaches might be healed, what unions might come! A national church morally, if not legally, established in unity and peace, might be realized in Scotland in the present generation. Surely a consummation devoutly to be wished! Let us wish for it; let us pray for it; let us cherish a spirit tending to make it possible; let us hope for it against hope, in spite of increasing tendencies on all sides to indulge in an opposite spirit.


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