FSE: Matthew 17:24-27 and Culture

For my daily quiet time yesterday, I read Matthew 17:24-27. The passage addresses the issue of whether or not Jesus’ disciples must pay the temple tax. Jesus says “no,” since the sons of the king do not pay taxes; rather, everyone else does. The implication is that the Christians are God’s children, the children of the kingdom, so they do not need to pay money to support the temple. Leave that to those who are not in God’s royal family! But Jesus tells Peter to pay it anyway to avoid offending people. Jesus provides for it by removing a coin from a fish’s mouth.

I thought about two things: God speaking to people in light of their own culture, and offense. Today, I will discuss the first topic.

Peter Enns has come under a lot of controversy for his book, Incarnation and Inspiration. One argument he makes is that God spoke to Israel within her ancient Near Eastern cultural mindset. That’s why there are similarities between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi.

This is actually an issue that troubles a lot of people. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a theology class. The professor was dismissing the idea that God dictated the Torah to Moses. One reason that he disagreed with that notion was the similarity between the Torah and the Code of Hammurabi. “So did God need to bone up on Hammurabi before he gave the Torah?” my professor sarcastically asked.

But God obviously does speak to people in light of their own culture. I don’t think even a hard-core fundamentalist can deny that. I mean, did God come up with the custom of kings’ children being exempt from taxes? I don’t think so. Humans came up with that custom. And, yet, God somehow found it useful for communicating the relationship between God and human beings.

Maybe God developed this truth in response to human culture. Or perhaps he foresaw what human culture would be and constructed his truth accordingly. Extreme skeptics would probably argue that humans make God in their own image anyway, so we shouldn’t be surprised when ideas about the divine reflect human culture.

If God wraps his truths in the cultural constructs of his audience, what happens when the culture changes? Do we then need new metaphors? I remember this one liberal rabbi’s wife who said, “I get so tired of reading these monarchical prayers. This is the twentieth century!”

Personally, I’d be hesitant to come up with new metaphors. I wouldn’t exactly want theology to be continually in flux. We need some authoritative foundation. I guess I’m too much of a fundamentalist on that point. In my opinion, we should just remember that God revealed the Bible within a certain culture, which we should try to understand in order to grasp the Bible better.

And, even though the culture of the Bible no longer exists in many parts of the world (primarily the West), I think that people can still find value in its ancient metaphors. I once went to church, and I was chatting with some visitors before the service. They were emphasizing the value of obeying Christ. “In those days, you obeyed the king,” they said. “People today don’t understand what a king is.” Personally, I don’t see God mainly as a king, for he is a Father as well. But the metaphor of a king is still useful. What are we going to call God to highlight his authority? The President? Americans don’t even respect the President these days! I didn’t respect Clinton much, and there are a lot of Americans who don’t think too highly of President Bush. “King” connotes a grand and (almost) absolute authority, which God is. So the ancient metaphors have value, even though they’re from another culture.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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