Today’s Gospel sounds like an incredible fish story. Peter drops a hook into the sea and catches a fish with a coin worth twice the temple tax. Just enough for Jesus and Peter to pay the temple tax! While the story may seem like a fish story it is more a parable or teaching story. Jesus makes two points in this story: 1) Christians are free, and 2) Christians should avoid giving scandal or offence. Sometimes these two teachings can be difficult to balance, not only in the 1st century but also in our own time.
The first Christians were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah (Christ). We hear in the Acts of the Apostles that they continued to go to the Jewish Temple to pray: “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes.” (Acts 2:46). Jews and Jewish Christians had a duty to support the Temple through the so-called temple tax. Jesus teaches through these words in Matthew’s Gospel that they are free from this duty or obligation since Jesus and the Christian community form a new and spiritual temple. However, to avoid scandalizing their fellow Jews the Spirit guides these Jewish Christians to continue to pay the temple tax. The Gospel teaches that at times freedom must be sacrificed for the greater or common good.
St. Paul gives this same teaching in his letter to the Corinthians. He tells the Corinthians that although he is free and has rights as an apostle, he gives up this freedom and these rights: “Yet we have not used this right. On the contrary, we endure everything so as not to place an obstacle (scandal) to the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12). So, Paul instructs these Christians to do likewise for the common good.
These last few years we have seen this same tension played out in our midst with our response to the Covid pandemic. While we as citizens have freedom and rights as Christians these freedoms and rights need at times to be sacrificed for the common good. Jesus and Paul teach that the ultimate value and guide for us is not freedom but love.
Image: “Piggy bank full of dirty coins” by Singing With Light is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.