Out of the Mouth of a Fish
April 17, 2011
Peter just shook his head. That was all they wanted was money. Couldn’t they see the bigger picture? That there was more at stake then just money. They had just arrived back in town and before they could even get settled the church was there with its hand out. Well it wasn’t actually the church, but close enough. They wanted to know if Jesus had paid his share of the temple tax for the year. Well I don’t think Peter knew so he did what most of us would do, he bluffed. “Of course he has, what type of pagan do you think he is?”
You see the tax had been established 1400 years before when the people of Israel were still in the wilderness and its purpose was to provide for the upkeep and maintenance of the tabernacle which was like a portable temple where the high priests performed the required sacrifices. And while the average Israelite probably never thought about it there would have been considerable expense in maintaining the Tabernacle.
Traditionally there has been the tithe or the one tenth given to the Lord, began back with Abraham and continued throughout his family and descendants. However the people now were escaped slaves, wandering through the desert in search of the land that had been promised them, thus the name “The Promised Land.” And as escaped slaves wandering through the desert in search of the land that had been promised them they had very limited earning power, as a matter of fact they had no earning power. Therefore 10% of nothing was nothing and nothing wasn’t enough to maintain the tabernacle. What the people did have though was the accumulated savings that they had brought with them. And so a tax was levied on them, one half of a Shekel. This wasn’t a paltry sum in that day, but if they were going to maintain a place of worship then sacrifice was needed and they would have to give beyond what was easy.
Once the people of Israel reached the Promised Land the tithe was reinstated, because now the people were farming, fishing and conducting business and the ten percent they gave back to God, notice that I said gave back because the presumption of the Jews was that all things came from God. Interesting comment don’t you think? The ten percent they gave back to God would pay for the ministry of the tabernacle and later the temple, would provide for the priests and all the other expenses that go with worshipping God.
Now I’m sure that there were those in Israel who felt that they should be able to worship God for nothing, and while that is a neat thought it wasn’t all that realistic. The temple was a costly place to run. There were the daily morning and evening sacrifices which each involved a year old lamb. Along with the lamb were offered wine and flour and oil. The incense that was burned every day had to be bought and prepared.
The temple itself was filled with costly hangings, not out of vanity but because it was seen as a way to tell God “This is how much we value you”. The robes the priest and high priests wore had to be maintained, and the priests had families to support and so they had to draw a salary. And so God’s temple was supported by God’s people, novel thought.
Even after the tithe was reintroduced though the temple tax continued to be paid, and unlike the civil tax which was paid with some grumbling this one was usually paid quite willingly and was almost seen as a patriotic exercise as it remembered the people’s deliverance from Egypt.
And so the tax continued to be collected for fourteen hundred years until this story was recorded. The tax continued to be collected until the temple was destroyed by the armies of Rome in 70 AD, and at that time the Roman Emperor Vespasian decreed that the temple tax should still be collected and used to finance the temple of Jupiter in Rome.
However by the time of Jesus not everyone was happy paying the taxes. As a matter of fact some nationalist and zealots refused to pay the taxes as long as Jerusalem was occupied by a foreign army, in this case a Roman Army. And so the tax had become an issue of religious commitment vs. national commitment.
The real question was whether those who questioned Peter were really interested in getting the temple tax or if they were setting Jesus up? Did they want their half shekel, which was the equivalent of two days labour or were they testing Peter to find out where Christ loyalties lay? We will never know, but we do know that probably the reason that Peter was asked was because he owned the house that Christ was staying in, at least that’s a pretty fair assumption seeing we are told elsewhere in the Gospels that is where Jesus stayed when he was in Capernaum. We do know that this story probably happened right around this time of year because the tax was collected on the first of the month Adar, which is March on our calendar.
And so when Peter was asked “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?” (Notice how the question was formed in the negative?) Peter immediately states “Of course he does.” And then he went to ask Jesus if he had paid the temple tax. But even before Peter can open his mouth to ask, Jesus begins to teach him.
“Say Peter, what do you think, who do kings tax, their own family or commoners?” I wonder if Charles pays tax? Jesus knew that and Peter knew that and he said so Peter said “the commoners?” I couldn’t find that out, but I discovered this about the Queen. On the official website of the Royal Family I read this “In 1992, The Queen volunteered to pay income tax and capital gains tax, and since 1993 her personal income has been taxable as for any other taxpayer.”
And Peter responds “Well that is a dumb question the reason that Kings charged taxes was to help support their families” And Jesus said “my point exactly, the King’s children are free.” You understand what he was saying at this point right? The tax was for the temple, and time and time again the temple is referred to in the Bible as the House of God. 1 Chronicles 9:26 The four chief gatekeepers, all Levites, were trusted officials, for they were responsible for the rooms and treasuries at the house of God.
Ecclesiastes 5:1 As you enter the house of God, keep your ears open and your mouth shut. It is evil to make mindless offerings to God.
1 Chronicles 6:48 Their fellow Levites were appointed to various other tasks in the Tabernacle, the house of God.
So the tax was for the temple, the temple was the house of God, you still with me? Ok, do you remember in Luke chapter 2, Mary and Joseph have taken 12 year old Jesus to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover? And on the way back to Nazareth they realize they’ve forgotten Jesus back in the big city. And they rush back and discover that he is in the temple confounding the priests with his knowledge. And do you remember what he told his parents? No? It’s spelled out in Luke 2:49 “But why did you need to search?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Ahhhh!
What about when Jesus returns to Jerusalem as an adult and he enters the temple to find merchants and money changers have filled the outer courts, and have turned the temple into a carnival like event. Do you remember what he said as he turned tables upside down and freed animals and scattered coins across the pavement? John 2:16 Then, going over to the people who sold doves, he told them, “Get these things out of here. Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!” Ahhhh!
What Jesus was asking was: “Should I pay tax to support my Father’s house?” And then just as quickly he said, “But let’s not offend them, let’s pay the tax.”
And that’s where the story gets really interesting because Jesus tells Peter to go down to the lake, throw a line in the water and catch a fish. I’m sure that Peter is thinking “Ok, I come to tell him about the tax and he tells me to go fishing.” But Jesus wasn’t finished, “and as soon as you catch a fish, open its mouth and there will be a coin that will be enough to pay the temple tax for both of us.”
Cool. But the story ends there, it doesn’t tell us that Peter goes fishing, catches a fish and finds a coin in it’s mouth, and it doesn’t tell us that Peter went fishing caught a fish and there wasn’t a coin in it’s mouth. And it doesn’t tell us that Peter went fishing and caught nothing but a cold. It doesn’t even tell us that Peter didn’t go fishing at all, it just stops.
Another one of those heaven questions right?
So what do we learn?
1) Church Has Always and Will Always Cost Something. It would be really nice to think that God’s church would never have to worry about money. But that’s not the way it is. As long as the church is on this earth there will be expenses. There will always be cost for the physical building in our case it’s the mortgage and utilities, snowplowing and lawn mowing etc. If you own a house you know that it’s not free. There will be salaries that have to be paid. I bet you thought I worked for nothing right? Wrong. The Guptill’s have to eat, and need a place to sleep, and have to have cars to drive, just like real people. And so as much as I’d like to work for nothing it’s not going to happen. And the neat thing is the Bible says I don’t have to. 1 Timothy 5:17-18 Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!”
And well Cornerstone Wesleyan Church doesn’t have all the fancy tapestries and altars that the temple had we do have video projectors and computers, pianos and drums and sound systems and all the other things that are part of the worship experience today, and they all cost money.
Then as I already mentioned there’s mortgage payments, utilities, material for children’s church, licensing fees for the music, not to mention the governments share and the denominations share, and toilet paper, let’s not forget the toilet paper. So understand that when I preach on money it’s just a statement of reality.
2) God’s People Are Called To Respond To the Need
And just as 2000 years ago God expected his people to provide for his house and those who minister there, he still expects it today. When the tax for the temple was first established and then when the tithe was used for the temple it wasn’t expected to come from the Amorites or the Hittites, or the Jaborites or it was expected to come from the Israelites. They were God’s people and they were expected as part of their remembrance and thanksgiving to God to provide for his house.
When Jesus walked the earth, the reason they approached Peter about the temple tax was he was a Jew and it was still up to the Jews to support the temple. It wasn’t up to the Romans or the Samaritans or the Greeks it was up to God’s people to provide the funding for God’s house.
And in 2011 the story remains the same it’s not up to the Government to fund churches nor is it up to those who never attend Church, it’s up to God’s people. It’s not an admission charge, it’s not a tip for a good service, it’s acknowledging that God is our God and that we are his people and sometimes it’s giving beyond what was easy.
And you may have noticed that we don’t do fund raising in the church for the general fund, there are no raffles, no bingo, no bean suppers, we just have an offering box in the back, just like they had in the temple, remember Mark 12:41-42 Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.
You know the story, and how when Jesus saw what had happened said Mark 12:43-44 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.”
3) God Has Already Provided. There has been a lot of debate through the years over just how the story ended. Some folks maintain that Peter did what Jesus asked him to do, that he went down to the lake, threw his line into the water, caught a fish, found a coin and paid the taxes. That would be cool, and it could have happened. But the bible doesn’t tell us it did happen. Most people can tell of a time when God miraculously provided for them. And he does that, it might not be as dramatic as finding a coin in a fish’s mouth, but money has come from an unexpected source and your need was met, someone offered to fix your car for nothing, your neighbour was replacing their appliances, and gave you their old ones which worked and you were able to replace your fridge that didn’t.
There is another school of thought that says that wasn’t what Jesus really meant. Don’t you love it when people say that “What the Bible really means.” Just a hint on communications here, doesn’t have anything to do with the sermon but consider it a bonus. “If you always find yourself saying, “In other words.” Start using other words.” That was free.
Back to the message, some people think that Jesus was just telling Peter that he could find what he needed in his work. Peter was a fisherman, just as his father had been a fisherman. And Jesus was saying “Peter you have the ability to pay the tax, go catch a fish and sell it, it will be like you found the money in its mouth.” And while that isn’t what Jesus said to Peter, it sounds like something that Jesus would say. He had an incredible sense of humour and irony. If you don’t believe that then you haven’t read the gospels lately and listened as Jesus drew word pictures about blind men leading blind men, about camels leaping through the eyes of needles and a man straining a little fly out of his glass of water and then drinking a huge hairy two humped camel without noticing. Don’t try to turn Jesus into an always serious, never laughing humourless individual. Because that wasn’t who he was.
Back to the sermon.
How often has God provided for us and for the church through who we are? We say “where would we ever find the money to give to the church?”
For seven of the first 10 years that our church was around I worked outside the church to keep it afloat. For five of those years I was a freelance writer for a half a dozen magazines. You might have read my stuff long before you started coming to Cornerstone. So, when we needed to cut expenses and I was wondering where we could do that Jesus said “Denn go to your computer and open Microsoft Word, and if windows doesn’t freeze up then you will find a dollar there.” And Angela teaches piano and so Jesus says to her, “Angela go to your piano and lift the lid, and there you will find the money.” And for a mechanic he might say “Lift the hood of that car” and for someone in the insurance business he might say open that actuary table.
And while Jesus commended the widow for giving out of her poverty, if we were honest that isn’t what Jesus is calling us to do. I’ve heard people say that the church shouldn’t ask for money. And I agree, the church shouldn’t have to ask for money. But I’m coming at it from a different direction then they are. They mean that the church should never do anything, never attempt to change anything never have an impact on the world. As a matter of fact, what they mean is that the church shouldn’t exist. What I mean is that if everyone who is a part of God’s church did what God called them to do financially our concern wouldn’t be where to get the money but where to spend the money.
And so where are you at this morning? This is the third week in a row I’ve spoken about stewardship in my message, although it probably seems like the thirtieth week. And last week and the week before I asked that you would pray and consider two things. 1) Easter Offering 2) Step Up Sunday. And perhaps you’ve asked “God where will it come from?” And my question is; where is he telling you to look?