In Matthew 17, Peter was asked if Jesus pays the tax. Some commentators point out the fact that this tax was for the support of the temple in Jerusalem, and therefore was a matter of nationalistic pride, while taxes leveled by the Romans were resented by most of the conquered peoples, including Jews. But Jesus’ words seem to reach beyond a merely Jewish tax. His illustration about kings and their taxes mentions both duty and taxes. “Duty” is the translation of the Greek word which refers to the local taxes collected at the custom houses by tax collectors. “Taxes” is where we get the English word “census.” This suggests that the principle of paying taxes so as not to give offense extends to all taxes rather than only to what we might think of as dues to support an approved religious function.
The story is unique to Matthew’s gospel, but it is understandable that he alone should record it since he had been a tax collector. He is saying that, however odious they seem, taxes even to the Roman government should be paid since what really matters is not the use pagans make of Christians’ money but whether the state gives us freedom to keep on preaching the Gospel.
Five chapters later Matthew makes the same point, telling how Jesus answered the question of the Pharisees who asked Him, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus asked for a coin. When they produced it He asked whose picture was on the coin and whose inscription, and when they answered correctly that it was Caesar’s, He told them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This limits the authority of Caesar since the state has no right to take from God what is God’s. Christians must resist the state if it tries to do this. At the same time, however, it also establishes the legitimate authority of Caesar, which includes the right to levy taxes. Paul took exactly this position when he wrote to the believers in Rome, “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.”
Although the government does much we do not like, it also does much that is good and from which we profit. Our taxes support the armed forces that keep the peace and the courts that administer justice. Taxes maintain the national parks, pay food inspectors, fund the Federal Bureau of Investigation, support air traffic controllers, maintain the highway system, and undergird some education. State taxes maintain highways and pay for the courts. Local taxes provide for a city’s schools, fire fighters, and police. Taxes make possible a stable society in which we can share the Gospel.
We began a few weeks ago by writing about coming down from the mountains to the valleys and about failures. The first we cannot avoid. There are always valleys. But as far as failures are concerned, although we will certainly also have those, we do not need to have as many as we do or experience them so often. Fortunately, Matthew 17 has provided pointers to the way we can overcome many of our failures.
We must first listen to Jesus. On the mountain in the excitement of the moment Peter thought he had to say something, so he blurted out his idea about constructing three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. God told him to be quiet and listen to Jesus. That is exactly what you and I need to do. There is a time to speak, but we must listen to Jesus first, because it is only as we do that, we will be able to say anything worthwhile.
Secondly, we must take up the cross. We like the glory, but we are not nearly so enthusiastic about cross-bearing. Yet what Jesus told His disciples repeatedly is that there is no crown without a cross. John the Baptist had to suffer, Jesus had to suffer, and so do we. It is only through much self-denial that we can be Christ’s followers.
Third, know your weakness. We all have failures in our Christian lives, and one reason God allows so many of them is so we will learn that “apart from me [Jesus] you can do nothing,” as Jesus said. We should remember Peter. Peter had a high opinion of himself. When Jesus explained that the disciples would abandon Him at the time of His arrest, Peter was sure he would not do so. “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” But he did. He even denied the Lord three times. Like us, Peter needed to learn how weak he was and that if he was to stand, it had to be by Jesus’ strength.
Keep your faith personal. The final lesson is that there can be no substitute for a personal faith in God, who is personal. Are the doctrines of the Bible important? Of course, they are. We do not know who God is, how sinful we are, or what God has done to save us in Christ apart from God’s own revelation in Scripture. But knowledge alone saves no one. Christianity does not consist merely in collecting information. Is service important? Yes. The Bible says not only that we are ordained to salvation but also that we are ordained to good works. We must do them. But the most important thing is that we get to know God, that we develop a personal relationship with Him, and that we serve Him because we love Him.
Listen to Jesus. Take up your cross. Know your weaknesses. But above all, keep your faith personal. It is that relationship, more than anything else, that will keep you from these failures.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org