READ : Matthew 17:22-27
Has Jesus Christ set you free? What from? What for? Christians have been set free from keeping the law as a means of earning salvation. But the crucial question is whether we use our freedom for self indulgence, or to help and serve others.
In his 1520 treatise on The Freedom of the Christian, Martin Luther wrote these famous words: “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.” In making these contradictory-sounding statements Luther was describing a basic principle of Christian freedom. He was also faithfully reproducing the teaching of Jesus.
On the Way to the Cross
One of the places this teaching occurs is in the context of an odd little story near the end of Matthew 17. Jesus has just reminded his disciples yet again about what awaits him shortly in Jerusalem.
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. (vv. 22-23)
This is the second time now that Jesus explicitly warns his disciples that he is going to be betrayed and executed, and then raised again from the dead. He will warn them yet a third time as they draw near to the city. And the disciples are disturbed by this sober talk – “they were greatly distressed,” reports Matthew – but it doesn’t really seem to sink in. Despite Jesus’ repeated attempts to prepare the disciples for what lies ahead, they will go on arguing about which of them is the greatest. They’ll still be caught off-guard by his arrest and crucifixion. Their faith and courage will crumble. Nor will they be looking for his resurrection on the third day, even though he told them clearly that it was going to happen.
Meanwhile, life goes on. As Jesus and his disciples enter their home city, Capernaum, the church deacons approach Peter to buttonhole him for the annual congregational fund drive. At least, that’s how we might think of it in our terms. Here’s the story.
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take up the first fish that comes, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (vv. 24-27)
The Temple Tax
That’s the story of St. Peter’s fish. Actually, I believe there is a real fish with that name because of this story. But perhaps a little background is in order here for us to understand what Jesus is talking about.
The tax that Peter was asked about was not a civil tax but a religious one. It was for maintaining the religious offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem, not for paying the costs of the Roman government. In Jesus’ day every male Jew above the age of twenty was expected to contribute two drachmas, which equaled half a shekel, every year to provide for the regular daily sacrifices at the Temple. To pay this tax was the mark of a devout Jew; to withhold it was the act of an irreligious man.
So when the tax collectors come up to Peter and ask him whether or not Jesus pays it, Peter answers that of course he does. Jesus may have shaken up the religious establishment from time to time with both his words and his actions, he may have challenged some of their traditions and opinions, but he was also unquestionably devout. He kept the law.
Now when Peter goes inside to tell Jesus about this encounter, Jesus takes the opportunity to teach an important lesson. He starts with a question: “Tell me, Peter, from whom do kings collect their taxes, from their own sons, or from others?” “Why, from others, of course,” Peter answers. “Taxes and tolls aren’t paid by the king’s own children, only his subjects have to do that. Just so.” And Jesus goes on to say, “Then the sons are free.” That is the key statement here. This is the first part of the lesson Jesus wants to teach: the king’s children are free from having to pay tax.
But who are the children of the king? Why, the disciples; we are the children of the king! We’re all God’s sons and daughters through faith in Christ. We are children of promise, as the apostle says in Galatians (4:21-31). And as such, we are free – free from the law’s religious demands, free from ceremonial requirements, free from the need for Temple sacrifices any more. The whole old system is going, going, gone, because Jesus has come to fulfil it all, by offering the sacrifice of his own body.
It’s no accident, you see, that this conversation about Temple tax comes just after Jesus has once more spoken to his disciples about the cross. The cross is what would change everything, including the relationship of God’s people, under the new covenant, to the Temple worship. At the exact moment when Jesus died, (do you remember?), the Temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom, showing that the way into the Holy of Holies – the way to God himself – was now open to everyone for evermore by virtue of Christ’s death. No more human priesthood or animal sacrifice is necessary.
“The hour is coming,” Jesus had said to a Samaritan woman once, “when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father . . . the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21, 23).
So no more sacred places or special buildings are required. From now on, wherever two or three were gathered together in Jesus’ name, that place would be the house of God and the gateway of heaven. True worship from now on would no longer be about where but about who; true worshipers from now on would come to the Father through the Son, by the Spirit.
So with respect to the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple, “the sons are free.” Jesus and his disciples no longer are obligated to pay the tax. “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none.”
The Debt of Love
But there’s more that must be said. Jesus’ lesson has a second part.
“However,” Jesus adds to Peter, in order “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.”
As children of the King and members of the new covenant, we are perfectly free from the obligation of supporting the Temple and its whole sacrificial system. But we are not free, Jesus implies, from the obligation of caring about others, including what others think. So Jesus tells Peter they will pay the tax so as not to offend the collectors, and he gives Peter a pretty unique way of finding the money for both of them – and wouldn’t it be nice if he did the same for us!
But what’s important here is the reason for Jesus’ action. When Jesus said he did not want to give offense, the word that he used meant “to be a stumbling block.” He was concerned about the way his actions would affect others, especially others’ faith. He did not want his and Peter’s freedom to become the means of upsetting, or even undermining, the faith of these devout Jews.
The freedom we have with respect to the law’s demands is not freedom to simply do as we please, with no thought of the impact we might be having on other people. Yes, “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none.” But also, “A Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone.”
No one understood that double principle better than the apostle Paul. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he told the Galatians; “stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” – slavery to the law’s religious demands (Galatians 5:1).
As Christians the gospel of God’s grace in Christ liberates us from every kind of legalistic teaching. Our consciences are set free. But at the same time we must be sensitive of the consciences of others. Our freedom must not become the cause of our brother or sister’s stumbling (cf. Romans 14:13-21).
“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” writes the apostle. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:13-14).
“Owe no one anything,” Paul counseled the believers in Rome, “except to love. . . . Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8, 10). Love, says Paul, is the one debt you should always keep on your books. It’s the one obligation that should always limit your freedom. And you should never mind paying this debt because the more of it you spend, the more you have.
So Christian freedom is both freedom from and freedom for. It’s freedom from having to try to please God with our own good works, or paying for our sins with our own sacrifices. The freedom of the gospel is freedom from the burden of self-righteousness, from the impossible demands of perfection. But it is also freedom for: for loving our neighbor as our self, for taking responsibility for our brothers and sisters. Our freedom is freedom for holy living, for trying to win others to the Lord, for identifying with them in love. It’s the freedom Paul was exercising when he told the Christians in Corinth that he had become all things to all men – a Jew to Jews, a gentile to gentiles – that by all means he might win some (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Perfectly free; servant of all. That is Christian freedom.