When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?”
He said, “Yes.”
And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” [Matthew 17:24-27 ESV]
This story devastates me. Not because Peter obviously fails. Nor because Jesus is gracious to the failure of one of His disciples. Both points are true and hard enough to consider without demanding critical self-examination. I obviously fail and Jesus is gracious eternally with my failures. God demands self-examination but only through the perspective of His Holy Spirit living in each of those who are His.
I am devastated because Peter’s compromise plays into the thinking and expectations of the world in which Peter lived. Instead of confronting the world with its sin, with its wrong thinking, its upside-down perspective of God and His gracious requirements, Peter kowtows to the world. Instead of immediately retorting with “why should the Lord of the temple pay the temple tax?” he gives evidence of his own worldly thinking.
Our psychology is deeply ingrained by a lifetime of worldly thinking, feeling like the world, acting like the world. Every incident and circumstance of Peter’s life found itself in his response. He grew up a Jew, constrained by sin and the ungodly expectations of Jewish traditions. He worked, paid taxes, sweated to provide for his family, paid taxes, endangered his life every time he went out in his boat, and paid taxes. No matter how much he hated taxes he knew the facts of a controlling faction who demanded the tax.
This was a Temple tax for the support of the work of the Temple. It was called a tribute. Read God’s command to Moses and Israel:
The LORD said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the LORD. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the LORD’s offering. [Exodus 30:11-14 ESV]
If I am reading this correctly this tribute was given once by the people who came out of Egypt to begin supporting the temple, or tent of meeting at that time. After this it was the tithes and offering which would support the Priesthood and Temple. When did the freely given tithes of the Scripture morphe into a tax? How comfortably fixed he was in his thinking.
So am I.
Sometimes it’s just easier to not fight. Especially when blind-sided by those who have fallen deeply into an ever conniving world. Hadn’t Peter walked on water? Then sank because of unbelief? Hadn’t Peter confessed Jesus as Christ? Then blurted out, influenced by Satan, that He couldn’t be Christ? Hadn’t Peter just seen His Lord metemorphesized, transfigured into who He really is? And then tried to keep the Creator of the world confined to the world? Peter was a failure. So what?
Peter belonged to God and was being changed by God, prepared for eternity in the kingdom of God. God takes people, failures, and makes them successes. He takes those who are incapable of doing His will under their own strength and works through them with His eternal strength. He probes and teaches, reveals and convicts, confronts and graciously soothes, holds us in His hand and will never let any take us away from Him. Throughout Peter’s failures he showed he wanted, in the deepest part of his being, to follow His Lord.
I’m devastated because when I am challenged by the world to think like the world I do. God wants me to stop thinking like the world and start thinking like a citizen of His kingdom. I fail. So what? Every probing conviction of the Holy Spirit continues the preparation for eternity and ultimate peace with God.