I was thinking this morning.
It’s funny, if you ask me to think about something or focus on a mental task in the morning, I more likely than not will struggle to think clearly. Therefore, I often say that I can’t think first thing in the morning. But the reality is actually that I do some of my most profound pondering in the morning, I just can’t think straight. My mind in the morning is going places, it’s just curvy. It’s not racing east on the I40, it’s meandering down the Blue Ridge Parkway. There may be an eventual destination… or it may just be out for a drive… either way, this way is very pretty with the tall shadowy trees and the mist like a magic carpet rising slowly to dissipate in the morning sun and ooh, look, a Black-capped Chickadee.
You get the idea.
So, on thismorning’s “drive”, I was thinking about the retreat I was leading two weekends ago because one of the passages from Jesus’ life that we were sitting in together was a sort of obscure and curious one and has popped into view on the drive quite often in recent months. In Matthew 17 we are given four verses (24-27) that relate to us a situation between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus identifies something for Peter that, I believe, represents a shift in the foundation of Peter’s identity that he wasn’t even aware of yet. This is a brief account that only Matthew gives us (thank you to the tax collector of the crew) and, in all the times I have read it, I have never noticed it’s tones of intimacy and identity quite so profoundly as I have this year.
Peter is approached by the collectors of the Temple Tax and asked if Jesus pays that tax. The subtext here is “he should pay this tax”. Peter immediately responds that yes, he does. Upon entering the house, Jesus invites Peter into a moment of examine. He asks a question: Does a king collect tax from his own son? The answer, for us in our democratic western society, may not be like-a-brick-to-the-head obvious. However, for a jew in the first century, whose world is ruled by sovereigns and who’s only context for a governmental state is a kingdom, it is just that obvious. Of course the prince does not pay taxes. If he did, it would be a superfluous process of walking to the king’s treasury, withdrawing the specified amount, taking it to the king and handing it over who would then walk to his treasury and re-deposit the same coins back into the stash. It’s ridiculous to picture. And that is Jesus’ point.
Then Jesus does something subtle and curious and cloaks it in something audacious and absurd. He tells Peter in no uncertain terms that a son does not have to pay the king’s tax and then adds that in order to not stir up contention at this point, he is sending Peter out to do just that: to collect the amount required from the King’s treasury and take it to the King’s men who will then put it into the King’s treasury. No harm, no foul. So he tells Peter to go catch a single fish, it will have a coin in it’s mouth (and here comes the subtle part) that will cover his tax and Peter’s. Did you catch it, did you see what he did there? Now, first of all, let’s just acknowledge for a moment the bizarre-ity of what Jesus has said will happen (that’s the audacious and absurd part). There is practically no end to the questions I have about these brief detailed instructions to catch a fish with a coin in it’s mouth, but once the noise from all of these valid but unanswerable questions has subsided, all of my attention is captured by the simple fact that it is not just Jesus’ tax payment that is coming straight from the King’s treasury, it is Peter’s as well.
What does that say about Peter?
That’s right. I bet you’ve caught it. Perhaps even more quickly than Peter, seeing as Jesus sent him out fishing (literally) for the King’s money. Ever been fishing? What does line fishing require (because it specifies that Peter is sent with a fishing line, not a boat and a net)? What does it usually look like? What do you do? Usually there is waiting and quiet and solitude. There is time to think.
Here’s something I love… the story ends there. We don’t get to see what Peter catches, if he goes, what he ponders on his way or if he brings anyone with him. We don’t get to feel the swelling of Peter’s heart as he pulls that specific kind of coin (most often used expressly for the purpose of paying the temple tax) out of that smelly, slimy fish’s mouth. Did he throw the fish back? We don’t get to hear any debrief that might follow between Peter and Jesus. It feels strange and sort of unfinished for those reasons. But I think we potentially can feel that way because we actually miss the author’s proverbial mic-drop.
Nothing more needs to be added because the whole purpose for the intimate moment is one of identity discernment. Jesus reminds Peter of who He is and then goes on to tell Peter who he is as well. Did you catch it? Peter has also become a son of the King because he has believed in Jesus, and lives, breathes, and works with Jesus. Peter has been with Jesus for more than two years now. His entire life is oriented around the God of the Universe. Now, does he screw up? Yup. Does he just not get it sometimes? Absolutely. But when asked if he wants to leave after Jesus demands what amounts to cannibalism from his disciples, his response is essentially, “Look, I don’t get it, but I have no plan B… you are my only plan because I trust you.”
One of the conversations we began to have around the table at our retreat was to the effect of “but Jesus hasn’t died for Peter’s sins yet?… How can Peter be an adopted son without that?” and it’s a valid question. This was my unexpected destination on that curvy road of thought this morning. The truth is, we western thinkers say that we don’t gain access to God without Jesus’ sacrifice paying our ransom. It’s all very equational and logical. And really, it is true. But, what Jesus allows us to do is walk with God, talk to and hear from God, work for God, align our lives with His own… Now isn’t that EXACTLY what the disciples who walked, talked, listened to and worked with Jesus did? They walked with God. He WAS their access, because He Is. I think we see proof of this in the very fact that his closest leaders and friends just couldn’t understand his death for a good long while, they didn’t see the need because they had already lived a portion of the outcome. He tells them of his death and subsequent resurrection (three times) before it ever happens, but they just can’t conceive of it… perhaps that’s because they felt like the Kingdom had already come. Even the religious leaders (the ones who refused to believe in him) understood the gravity of Jesus’ own words saying he will die and rise again… that’s why they put guards at his tomb. How did they know what to expect while Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand?
The disciples had experienced the Kingdom of Heaven. They had walked with God. They didn’t understand that in order for all of us to do that, the paradigm needed to shift. They were living Heaven but in order for it to be eternal that price still needed to be paid. It is hard for us to understand time from God’s perspective, probably because it’s actually something that He created so he certainly isn’t bound by it, while we most definitely are. But without those footprints in the dust and rocks of Galilee, without that indwelling and learning in human terms what our God looks like, desires, and pursues, we humans would never quite understand how to believe in Him and find our own adoption as daughters and sons. So, I don’t fault the disciples for not understanding their own need and ours for the payment of the ransom and the Kingdom to come, because they thought that they already had it and had been living it. They loved Him and thought they were working with Him already. Because they were.
So as you walk through this day earning and spending, giving and receiving, paying and collecting. I would ask you a simple question and that is, “From whose treasury do you draw your taxes?” Perhaps it is your own. Perhaps it is your parents’. Or Perhaps like Jesus and Peter, it is both of those. Perhaps it is the unlimited depths of the Treasury of the King.
“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”