Conversations with Peter: Taxes and Forgiveness

We’re going to look at two conversations Peter had with Jesus in Matthew 17 and 18 that at first reading, probably doesn’t seem like they have anything to do with each other, but in subtle ways they have everything to do with each other.   Confused?   Well, good.   I hope the confusion intrigues you enough to continue reading, and if you think I’m completely off my rocker, or my conclusion is stupid, then challenge me on it.   Let’s eavesdrop on this conversation.

Matthew 17:24-27

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.   When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon? he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

26 “From others,” Peter answered.“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

Now, reading this initially, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the only lesson here is about paying our taxes, but there’s more to this conversation than taxes.   Jesus and the Disciples had just gotten home from a ministry trip that had been amazing.  They had seen multitudes fed by miracle, people healed, the possessed delivered, three of them had witnessed Jesus conversing with legendary prophets and heard GOD speak audibly, and many other amazing things.  Now, they were home, unpacking and before they can even finish, they’re being challenged by authority.   Tax collectors.  Evidently not much has changed in the thousands of years since Christ, tax collectors are as popular now as they were then, in fact, tax collectors are listed next to pagans as sinners in the Bible.   Here they are as Peter is probably unpacking and they ask him a stupid question about whether or not Jesus paid his temple tax.  We can wonder about their motives, whether, like the Pharisees, they wanted to trap him, or maybe they were looking for some extra cash, or whether they were legitimately coming to collect a debt, whatever the reason, they wanted money.   Peter’s reaction, a quick “yes” and then walks away (probably hoping they leave and don’t bother to follow to press him for the money).   Jesus’s reaction to this is interesting.   No sooner does Peter walk through the door, but Jesus hits him up with a question….well, more like a parable, a very short one.   “Who do the kings of the earth Tax, their kids or others?”   that’s the question, and Peters reaction, like many of us would say was that other people are taxed and the kids of the king are exempt.   Christ’s instructions  after this and his explanation for the instructions are incredible.  There are two lessons, at least that I see in this section:

1.  Cause no offense:   So that we don’t cause others to stumble or look like we think we are exempt from authority, or even the hint or implication that we are doing anything wrong, let’s do the right thing and be obedient.

2.  Trust God for the provision:  Now, the instructions Christ gave Peter were a little odd, go fishing and you’ll find the money for the tax.   Instead of Jesus just saying,dig into your wallet and pay it, HE tells Peter to go fishing and he’ll find in the first fish he catches.   Bottom line, GOD will provide, trust HIM, even if it sounds ridiculous.  God knows our need, HE’ll provide the provisions, just trust HIM.

So, there’s the taxes portion, it’s pretty poignant reminder for me, because I still owe the IRS money, I’m sure everyone owes the IRS money, but that’s a whole separate issue right there.    The “cause no offense” portion has intrigued me today mainly because I hadn’t really considered Christ being worried about public opinion for some reason.  He was sensitive to the fact that public perception affected HIS ministry and to a certain extent, HIS integrity.   It is one thing to have opposition to the message HE was bringing, but it’s different if the opposition were because people thought HE and the disciples were just blowing off conventional authority.  To challenge religious tradition and hypocrisy is one thing, but to believe that you’re exempt from authority and rules of culture and society  is a separate issue that borders on pride and selfishness.  CHRIST didn’t come to challenge the civil authority, HE came to challenge the religious status quo, to change hearts and minds, not to make us look like we were better and didn’t have to obey earthly authorities.   Obedience to Christ means we are obedient to the authority that’s been placed in our lives, at least (in my opinion) until that authority proves itself contrary to GOD’s word.    It wasn’t only to authority we should not be offending, ti’s to others that are watching us as well.   We are not to set ourselves apart from others by behaving as one who doesn’t care about others or whether we’ve offended someone, we are to live to the standard that CHRIST sets for us, to live peaceably with all men, and not giving offense.   Which is a nice segue to the second half of this conversation: the forgiveness of others.

In Matthew 18 there are five separate lessons Jesus teaches: 1. Who’s the greatest, 2.  Causing to stumble, 3. The lost sheep, 4.  Sin in the church, and 5. Forgiveness.  This portion is going to focus on #4 because,well, to be honest, Peter is mentioned as the initiator of the question.   Let’s take a look at it:

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[g]

2“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 2Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[i] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

3“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

In the first four lessons Jesus taught prior to Peter’s question, can be summed up as: 1.  Child like faith, 2.  Don’t be a stumbling block, 3.  Jesus doesn’t give up on those that wander, 4.  Sin in the church has to be confronted.  After hearing these lessons, Peter asks a simple question:  How many times do I forgive someone, seven times?   It’s a question that still comes up today.   How often do I forgive someone who has hurt me, wronged me, lied about me, etc?  It’s a legitimate question.   One without an easy answer.  Jesus’s quick answer is 70×7, or 490 times.   Now, does that mean on the 491st time, all bets are off, the gloves are coming off and that person is going down?  I don’t think so.  Jesus launches into a parable about a business owner who was clearing his books.   One guy owed him, well, let’s be honest, it was a boatload of money and he couldn’t pay it.  By all rights, the business owner could have thrown the guy in prison, along with his family, and confiscated his life’s work (house, business, assets, etc).   The debtor threw himself at the business owners mercy, begging for another chance and that he would pay him back, maybe even put him on a payment plan, just give him more time.   Probably against his advisors advice, the business owner gives the second chance. and even goes so far as to forgive the debt.  HUGE RELIEF for the debtor, that you would think would be a lesson for him.  Unfortunately, there are those of us that are pretty stupid or hard-headed.  What does this guy, who was forgiven much do?  He goes out and finds a guy who owes him money and when that guy can’t pay, instead of showing mercy, he throws him in jail.   Now, let me step back for a minute and point out that we often do this as well.  We have a HUGE debt that we cannot repay due to our sinful nature, we are without hope, HOWEVER, CHRIST forgives our debt, HE cancelled it by HIS sacrifice on the cross and resurrection.   How often though, when life happens and we come in conflict with others, do we get angry, get resentful, hold grudges and refuse to forgive? Keeping  in mind, since we have been forgiven much, we have the example that CHRIST gave us, then shouldn’t we be just as ready and willing to forgive others their offenses?  This gentleman who was forgiven much, didn’t get the memo evidently.   What happened when the business owner who forgave dude #1 found out?   He went ballistic!!  As it often happens when injustice occurs, others who witness it will talk about it and even went to the business owner who forgave dude #1, and he pulled him into his office and read him the riot act.  Reamed him out.  Chewed him a new rear end, however you want to describe it, the boss was livid.   He had forgiven dude #1 of a great deal, shouldn’t dude #1 have given dude #2 the same opportunity.   The result of dude #1’s intolerance:  He was thrown in jail.  Justice and due consequences were meted out to him.   Christ’s last statement is the big lesson here:   If we don’t forgive our brother and sister, then GOD will treat each of us the same way.  Now, does that mean we end up in jail?  Doubtful, but the result is similar.   We end up imprisoning ourselves and torturing ourselves in our own little cells of hate and anger.  When we’re unable to forgive we torture ourselves with the “would’ve, should’ve, could’ves, what if’s, if only’s, etc”, and then the anger produces lists of things that were done wrong to us and it just wears you down.   It’s like a ruck sack that you place on your back and with each mile you add another stone and after a while it gets to the point that you can’t bear it any longer.   Anger and resentment that builds up is a killer.   It steals joy, hope, excitement for the future.   Forgiveness releases that.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, it means letting go of the hurt, not holding onto it like a threadbare blanket that we use to cover us from hurt.  That’s something I’ve been learning lately.  To say you forgive is one thing, to actually forgive is a whole other animal.  Christ’s example is unconditional forgiveness.   Shouldn’t mine be the same?  I’ll leave it right there for now.  I could probably write more on this, but I’ll end it for now.

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