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Matthew 17:24-27The Temple Tax

Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24, 2018

Today we celebrate the coming of the One who teaches us how to pay the Temple tax, how to live in this world while not being part of it. 

L.L.Effler: Paying the Temple Tax

When we throw ourselves into understanding and living the Gospel we run the risk of becoming fanatic about its meaning and implications.  Ultimately, God speaks to each of us in our hearts to answer questions and to clear up ambiguities.  In due course, God makes the meaning of his Word known . . . and it is for each of us to learn how to best live out this Word.

The story of Jesus paying the temple tax with a coin found in a fish is one that appears simple but is, in fact, complex.  It calls us to examine our relationship with the society’s civil and religious structures.  It asks us to evaluate our own concept of personal freedom.

 “The point [here] is not that Jesus rejects the temple cult.  He rather rejects the idea that theocratic taxation is the appropriate means of maintaining that cult.  But with the miracle – not actually narrated – of the coin in the fish (which sounds like a piece of folklore), Jesus makes arrangements for payment.  He thereby avoids offending the devout people who, in collecting the money, think themselves to be serving God.  Personal freedom must be delimited because it must be frequently exercised, which means it must take into account the effect upon others (cf. 1 Cor. 8:13).  At the same time, by not giving his own money but by giving a lost coin, Jesus does not acknowledge the legitimacy of a mandatory tax”.  (Barton and Muddiman 866)

As a youngster I was fascinated by the idea that my personal liberty ends where others’ liberty begins.  I remember the animated discussions my middle school teachers sparked with their blanket statements; these generalities were blatant syllogisms of reason used poorly and we young people responded enthusiastically.  We honed our systems of well-ordered logic and practiced the art of zeroing in a specious argument with respect and courtesy.

As a young woman the realities of life asked me to draw lines and determine boundaries; and I began to learn how to effectively and politely use the phrase that is not my problem while still taking responsibility for my actions.  It was a time of separation from the old with an exciting entrance into to new.  I tried to fully comprehend my Dad’s warning that it’s not so bad to be ignorant of the facts but it is unforgivable to be stupid!  Dad encouraged us to learn as much as possible in order to keep our risk of being ignorant low; and he was clear that there was no excuse for a lack of common sense.  Stupidity, in his view, was a willful neglecting of the facts that blocked our own liberty or the liberty of others.  Dad worked hard at being open and he encouraged that openness in us.

In today’s Noontime Jesus teaches by his example.  As happens so many times in the Gospel accounts Jesus lays open reality for us to examine.  He gives us an opportunity to educate ourselves.  He encourages us to hone our sense of fair play.  He asks us to think about others while at the same time we refine our sense of fair play and propriety.  Jesus asks us to think for ourselves, to use divine logic and in brief . . . Jesus asks us to grow up.

It is clear from his actions and words that Jesus places prime importance on taking care of others even to the point of sacrifice.  But it is also clear that we are responsible for observing spiritual and actual parameters.  We are not encouraged to enable or pretend but rather, we are asked to serve others before self, act in kindness, hold true to the commandment of love we have been given, and to exercise our own freedom while not trampling of the right of others to likewise be free.

Many of us have difficulty with this lesson and yet once learned it is not forgotten because the sweet joy of personal liberty has a value beyond price.  The boundary between self and others is clearly delineated by courtesy and kindness.  The rule of generosity and compassion pertains to each and to all of us.  The temple tax is to be paid out of respect for others . . . but the legitimacy of our own relationship with God is never to be forfeited.


A re-post from November 21, 2011.

Image from: http://www.revelationart.org/Gallery1.html

Barton, John, and John Muddiman. THE OXFORD BIBLE COMMENTARY. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.866. Print.

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