Matter of Fairness
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
I frequently begin my
sermons by noting how familiar a text is because, you know, we've read
these texts many times, if we go to church very often, if we've grown up
in church or if we study our Bible at all, etc. But that's not the case
today, it's not a very familiar text, it's downright peculiar, even odd.
It reminds me of the couple that was in the church in San Diego where
Dad served, the husband was a Psychiatrist, the wife was a gynecologist.
Their nickname in the church was "Odds and Ends" :) That was the nice
name they gave them. The other name was "Nuts and Butts". It was a fun
So, with that inspiring introduction, this is the text from Matthew 17,
verses 24 through 27:
Huh. See what I mean?
Is that text familiar to you? How many sermons have you heard on this
There are two reasons for that: one reason is the text is not in the
lectionary, it's not one of the assigned texts to be read in worship.
And the other is that probably the reason why it's not in the lectionary
is that people think it's such an odd text that no preacher in his right
mind would give a sermon on it! Tells you what kind of mind I have :)
But as I was preparing for this week, I thought about all the attention
that has been given to jobs and taxes here recently, and I thought well,
this is a great text for Labor Day Sunday. And because it is such an
unfamiliar story, people don't have a preconceived notion of what it
means, so I can make up just about anything I want and tell you this is
what it means, right? Throw in a football reference or two, and we've
got a sermon. So, does that work for you?
Speaking of football, here's the game plan: I've going to give you some
historical background that helps explain some of the text, shed some
light on its odd character. And then I want to tell you the scholarly
consensus of what commentators say this means, and then I'm going to
tell you why they're wrong (in my humble opinion). And then apply it to
today, and along the way I might mention jobs and taxes and football.
So, background: during the time of Jesus, all Jewish males above 20
years of age were expected to pay a tax to support the Temple. And this
was based on Exodus 30:11-14 where we read: "Then the Lord spoke to
Moses: when you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at
registration all of them shall give a ransom for their lives to the
Lord, so that no plague make come upon them for being registered".
Elsewhere in the Torah, registration is a big 'no-no', it was a means to
oppress the people in some way, and so it was forbidden. And so they
paid this tribute as a way to offset that. "This is what each one who is
registered shall give: half a shekel, according to the shekel of the
sanctuary. Half a shekel as an offering to the Lord, each one who is
registered from 20 years old and upward shall give the Lord's offering".
OK? Only, there was a little bit of a controversy around paying this
tax. There were people who didn't want to pay the tax -- can you imagine
that?! Comes as a shock, I know. But in particular, the Essenes, who are
sort of the ancient equivalent of an Amish Tea Party, said that there's
nothing in the text that says how often we must pay it. So guess how
often they said they should pay it? Once. Yeah, one time, you had to pay
this tax, done and over.
Well, the Essenes were
a minority, they were greatly disliked by the religious establishment,
because of their radical nonconformist views (no surprise). Sort of like
an Amish tea-party environmentalist. Make that a gay, Amish tea-party
environmentalist who liked to ride Harley's. They were a bit different
from 'us', you know, a bit different from everyone. So the question here
is a trap -- it's almost an accusation. 'We know Jesus is one of those
gay-loving Amish tea-party environmentalists who like to ride Harley's,
and therefore doesn't pay his temple tax'. You know, he's not like us
patriotic, God-loving Jews. And then Peter, here portrayed as the
right-hand of hand of Jesus who has the authority to speak for Jesus,
says 'No, no no, he's not one of those'.
It almost comes across as almost a bit defensive -- too quick, and too
loud. Anyone remember Representative Weiner? 'I did not send lewd
pictures to that woman (and that very buff torso), whose telephone
number is 555-1212, but I don't know who she is'. The denial is a little
And then notice in what follows, Peters defense of Jesus, Jesus reveals
in fact he has not paid the temple tax, at least not yet. And he
provides justification for why he need not pay it (Bill Sizemore should
take note of this). Jesus apparently, overhearing the whole affair, says
to Peter 'You know, you're a smart guy, so what do you think, who pays
for the lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous, of the Kings? Their
kids, or someone else?'. Peter says "Duh, someone else, of course".
Actually, the Greek here, says the word, which is translated 'others' in
the Revised Standard Version, can be translated either 'stranger' or
'aliens'. That's significant, I'll come back to that in just a moment.
But the point Jesus makes is simply the children of the King get off
Scott-free, they don't pay the tax. Therefore, Jesus and his followers,
who are children of THE King (right? God), should not have to pay this
Now, just as a side note, I would just point out this is not a good text
to use during stewardship season :) When we want to remind people that
we all have a part to play in providing financial support to the body of
Christ, which is the temple in our faith, in our tradition, so to speak.
Except Jesus goes on to give instructions to Peter on how to pay the
tax, for the two of them. Go catch a fish, there you will find a coin in
the fish's mouth. And guess what? The coin here is precisely 1 shekel.
Remember, the tax is a half-shekel. So, you've got enough to pay the tax
for you & me. The heck with the other 11 (Disciples), they're on their
own, they can go fishing on their own. But Peter and Jesus are covered.
So, what exactly is the
message here? That we're all free from financial obligation, be it to
the government or to the church? But that we should all pay voluntarily
by going fishing? Does that work for you?
And to add to the complexity, or I should say to the confusion, there's
one more critical piece of the historical information: many of you know
that Matthew's Gospel was written most likely in the late 70s or early
80s, after the Temple of Jerusalem had been been destroyed because of
the revolt against Rome. And so no more Temple, no more Temple tax,
right? Wrong. The Romans saw this as an opportunity to rub Jewish noses
into the mess they had created by revolting in the first place, and
continued to collect the tax from them, to support not the non-existent
Temple in Jerusalem, but a temple in Rome to Jupiter. Now there's a
clear message, saying "up yours" to you and your Jewish faith.
So, what's the point?
How the heck are we
going to apply this? Well, point number one: in the early 1940s,
Dietrich Bonheoffer, and his soon-to-be biographer, Eberhard Bethge,
were in a restaurant in southern Bavaria (this is after Germany had
invaded France) and some announcement came over the radio of a victory
in the war on that Western front. And immediately the people rose to
their feet and gave a "Sieg Heil!", a tribute to the victorious German
forces. And Bethge was shocked to see Bonheoffer standing, giving the
He said "What are you doing?". Bonheoffer looks down at his friend and
says "Stand up you fool, we don't want to be arrested for this".
Jesus says they are not obligated to pay the tax but they should do so
anyway. Why? Well, the answer given in most commentaries by Biblical
scholars is that it's out of a desire not to offend others. Calling to
mind those teachings of both Jesus and Paul of our responsibility to the
weak. That we do not do something that causes someone else to lose their
faith, create a stumbling block for them. You know, serving alcohol to
someone who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Behaving badly in the
public, contrary to your Christian values. Teaching your children bad
habits like how not to tuck away the football when running through a
crowd :) If you watched the game yesterday, you know what I'm talking
about, very sad.
Those commentators totally miss the point here, however, Jesus is not
talking about the weak, he's talking about the strong, the Kings. Those
in power. The concern is not that they will offend someone's sense of
decency and morality, but that they will get in trouble with the
authorities by not paying the tax.
In other words, like Bonheoffer, he is saying choose your battles
carefully, we do not want to be arrested or this. And keep in mind Jesus
is on his way to Jerusalem where there is another bigger battle looming
with the authorities.
Point number two: even
as Jesus agrees with Peter to pay the tax, he gives a blistering
critique of the rich and powerful in the process, pointing out the basic
injustice of the tax system. The privileged get off Scott-free, and the
disadvantaged (the aliens) pay the toll for their lavish living.
Now, does that sound familiar? Have you ever heard this thing before?
If you read the New York Times, August 15th editorial, Warren buffet,
one of the richest Americans in this country, said basically that is the
tax system of this country. That's our tax system. Buffet. He writes:
"While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while
most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get
extraordinary tax breaks".
He notes that he paid in taxes last year $6.9 million dollars. Seems
like a tax burden to me, don't know about you :) But he goes on to say
that of the 20 people who work in his office (Buffet has an investment
firm, it's how he made his billions of dollars) he has the lowest tax
rate of all of them. And presumably they all make much less money than
he. In fact, his tax burden is half of the other 19. Something is wrong
when his secretary pays at a higher rate than he does.
And that 'something', you see, is privilege. That's what the rich have
bought in this country. The justification we hear is that lower taxes
create more jobs. The historical record, however, shows that to be a
total myth (and I speak of myth here as the untrue kind, versus the true
kind). In two decades, Buffett notes, before the tax cuts were
instituted under the Bush administration, our economy created 40 million
jobs in those two decades. Since those tax cuts have been enacted, the
job market has plummeted. Not necessarily that there's a direct
correlation, but those tax cuts have not brought the benefit that we
Meanwhile, he says, the income of the top 400 people increased from $17
billion in 1992, to $91 billion in 2008, while their tax burden
decreased from 29% to 21.5% percent. That's what we've done. That's
Thus, Buffett is pushing for the select committee of 12 (who have been
charged with reducing the federal deficit by another 1.5 trillion
dollars) to increase tax revenue only from the super rich--those making
one million or more, and even more on the mega-rich like himself. He
says it's time to stop coddling billionaires and get serious about
shared sacrifice. To tell you the truth, I think he took those words
right out of the mouth of Jesus. That's the way I read this text.
Point three: the appeal
Jesus makes with his question to Peter is really a simple matter of
fairness. The children of the rulers don't have to pay, why should we?
Fairness is the most rudimental measure of justice. Ask anyone who works
at the University of Oregon what they consider to be a fair and just
wage, I'm sure you will hear an earful. Is it fair to those at the
bottom of the pay scale to be forced to take unpaid furlough days while
those at the top receive a 5% or more increase? Now, I really like
President Lariviere, I think he's a wonderful man, I like his vision.
His contention, however, that it's only fair to those upper paid
employees because of the job market (that their colleagues at other
universities are paid more) and we don't want to lose them because that
would cost the university even more in replacing them, that that may be
entirely right. I suspect he is right. But it still does not pass that
gut-level check of fairness, which will likely cost the university even
more because of the dissatisfaction of the greater number of employees
at the lower end of the pay scale.
Now, of course, underneath it all is the whole issue of how we finance
(or we do not finance) public education in this state. And that's the
larger issue to which this is a most unwelcome distraction. And for
those of us who are paying tuition and those students paying tuition,
this is not a minor issue. I'll tell you, it is costing the Bryant
family twice as much to send our son to a public institution than it
costs to send our daughter to a private institution in California, where
the tuition is twice as much as what it is in Oregon! Does that make
sense? It's because of the lack of scholarships in the public
institutions, where private institutions are so much better endowed.
That's the situation in which we are in, and I wish there were enough to
go around for everyone to receive those pay increases.
So, as long as we're
talking about the University of Oregon, and I'm almost to the end of
sermon, and I've hardly even mentioned football :) No wonder after
yesterday. Well, here it is, and it's not from Oregon coach Chip Kelly
but rather UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, of all people. He was quoted in
the paper this week, and he said: "Look, I know how this business is.
It's just like I tell my quarterbacks: Fair is where they give the pig a
blue-ribbon". I love that quote.
Yeah, life isn't always fair. That's just the way it is, so deal with
it, right? Only, is that the way it should be? And what about the
kingdom of God, that ideal world Jesus talks about so often, that world
as it ought to be if God were on the throne instead of Caesar? Or any of
those other Kings, who support their lavish ways on the backs of their
subjects, alien or not?
Don't we expect God to be fair? At the very least, Jesus says, God is a
whole lot fairer than the Kings of this world. Hence, the coin found in
the fish's mouth -- not history in the making, but parable in the
telling. This is fairness in God's world: the tax is paid for us by God
on the shores of Galilee. Just as the debt is paid for us by Jesus on
the hill outside Jerusalem.
This is the fairness of God's world, paid for us. All debts paid, all
sins forgiven. Now, is that fair to those like that older brother of the
prodigal son, you know, for whom less is to be forgiven? Probably not.
But it is the kingdom of God.
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