These words of Jesus are spoken to Peter in response to whether or not they should pay the temple tax.
Great! So, we don't have to pay it then?
Not so fast.
"However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me." [v. 27]
A strange way to pay a tax, gutting a fish who was unfortunate enough to have swallowed a coin, but Jesus makes his point. Simply because Jesus has proclaimed freedom for himself and his follower from paying this temple tax to the Roman officials who levied it is not reason enough for them not to pay the tax.
Come again, Jesus?
Bear with me as I turn briefly to my undergraduate studies in philosophy in order to clarify this point. I assure you I move up to the head only for the purposes of moving deeper into the heart.
The concepts of negative and positive freedom are something like this:
- negative freedom = freedom from; its energy is directed to external restraints and used to the ends of removing the chains of oppression
- positive freedom = freedom to; its energy is directed internally and used to direct one's own life toward meaning and fulfillment
Jesus, as you may remember, read from the prophetic scroll of Isaiah (as captured in Luke 4) and proclaimed release for the captives and freedom for the oppressed.
Jesus' essential message was freedom--and not just freedom from, but freedom to.
Jesus' healings and miracles may seem, on the surface, to be examples of negative freedom only--freedom from blindness, leprosy, demons, paralysis.
But as with everything Jesus does and says, there is a deeper, hidden meaning.
This freedom from that Jesus provided to so many throughout his ministry also provides them a freedom to.
Perhaps there is no better example of this than with the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19). Jesus cleanses all ten afflicted, and only one comes back to give praise to God for being made well.
All ten experienced freedom from malady. Only one, it seems, understood the deeper, positive freedom offered to him by Jesus--the freedom to acknowledge the gift of healing, to embody faithfulness and gratitude.
And so we return to today's passage in Matthew 17. Jesus has told Peter he is free from paying the temple tax. And yet, paradoxically (as is so often the case with Jesus), he is free to pay the tax as well.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I think Jesus' somewhat convoluted reply to Peter has something to do with breaking tradition.
Jesus is the Son of God after all, and, as such, he is free from all impositions of the Roman domination system.
Jesus is also the Son of Man, the son of Mary, a citizen of Judea, a Jew by birth and by faith. His family and friends pay this tax. They are made to pay the tax. They do not, perhaps cannot, feel the freedom from Roman oppression like Jesus does. At the risk of being thought a rebel without a cause, Jesus tells Peter that he should and will pay the temple tax"so that we do not give offense to them."
Jesus recognizes freedom to be more than his ability simply to do whatever he pleases. There is a danger to practicing this kind of negative freedom.
He uses his positive freedom in a positive way--to show himself to be in solidarity with his neighbors, to teach his disciples a more beneficial use of their newfound freedom, to refuse to offend others by breaking tradition for the sake of simply breaking tradition.
Jesus offers his followers freedom from captivity and oppression. Jesus, in turn, offers us freedom to live out our lives in faithfulness and obedience.
This freedom to obey is not ordered to us by mandate, law, or commandment.
Our freedom to obey is simply our response to what Jesus has already given us--freedom from the powers of sin and death.
Jesus surely had the freedom to say 'no'--not just to the temple tax, but to the agony of the crucifixion. And yet, he prayed, 'Not my will, but Yours.' His freedom from the cross was transformed into a freedom to take up the cross.
May we be found so faithful to take up our crosses and follow Jesus and, therein, find the fullness of freedom.
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."