Matthew 17:24-27 and Offense

Okay, I’m back at my apartment after my all too brief excursion in Brazil, Indiana. So I guess that I can’t write any Free Style Entries now that I’m back. Rather, I need to document my claims and be a little more formal. Of course, many of you may think that my Free Style Entries are more formal than my regular ones. That’s because stilted formality is my habitual writing style. I actually have to work a little bit to make my posts sound informal and conversational!

Yesterday, I wrote about Matthew 17:24-27, the passage in which Jesus helps Peter pay the temple tax by pulling a coin out of a fish. I discussed Jesus’ reference to a human custom to convey a spiritual truth: that Christians did not need to pay money for the temple’s support. But Jesus told Peter to pay the tax anyway to avoid offending people. And that’s my topic for today: offense.

One thought that went through my mind as I read this passage was, “Why’s Jesus care about offending people? He didn’t hesitate to offend them before!” And, indeed, Jesus could be deliberately offensive when he wanted to do so, especially when he challenged the Pharisees’ customs concerning the Sabbath, washing, korban, and a host of other issues. I’m sure Jesus offended them when he forgave the sins of the lame man, for they assumed that only God could remit sins (Mark 2:7). In Matthew 15:12, as a matter of fact, the disciples tell Jesus, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” And Jesus basically blows off their concern. Jesus often made waves, regardless of whom he offended. So why’s he want to avoid offense in Matthew 17:24-27?

One explanation is that Jesus didn’t want to make more waves than were absolutely necessary. In discussions about why Jesus hid his Messianic identity (the “Messianic Secret”), some scholars have sought practical reasons: Jesus didn’t want the Jews to make him an earthly king, or Jesus didn’t want to be killed before the right time (by the Romans or his Jewish enemies). Well, perhaps there’s a practical reason for Jesus paying the temple tax, notwithstanding his belief that Christians didn’t have to do so. Jesus had already offended the Jewish leaders, to the point that they were conspiring to kill him (Matthew 12:14). Maybe Jesus didn’t want to speed up the process by giving them an additional motivation, one that could turn a lot of Jewish people against him. The issue of the temple tax was not that important.

And that brings me to my second explanation: Jesus picked his battles. He thought that issues such as the Pharisees’ regulations on the Sabbath, washing, korban, and other things were important, for they directly concerned the Jews’ relationship with God. Jesus wanted to offer his people freedom, a lighter burden than what the Pharisees imposed on the people (Matthew 11:28-30; 23:4). “You don’t have to do these things to please God!” he was trying to say. He also disliked the orientation of the Pharisaic religion, for he believed that it focused on outward ritual rather than the truly crucial matters: inward purity, justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 15:1-20; 23:23). Plus, Jesus didn’t care much for the way that the Pharisees’ vaunted their righteousness before others (Matthew 6:1-18). As far as Jesus was concerned, Pharisaic doctrine was leaven: it corrupted its practitioners (Matthew 16:6-12). And, in order to communicate what he was all about and dispel what he considered to be religious darkness, he needed to make waves. Confrontation was inevitable.

But not much was at stake in the temple tax issue. For Jesus, bragging about one’s special, tax-exempt status (which most Jews didn’t even acknowledge) was not an issue worth fighting over. Sure, Jesus assured Peter that he was a child of the king, but he didn’t want to create any unnecessary barriers to non-believers. For a lot of Jews, the temple tax was a big thing, a sign of support for God’s house. Why would Jesus want to convey to them that he was disloyal to the temple? If he were to turn them off, he’d rather do so over important issues, the ones that pertained to their views on true righteousness and God’s character. Jesus wanted to make them think, not get in their face with arrogance.

And this teaches a crucial lesson: the object of offense should be righteousness and conviction, not arrogance, rudeness, hatred, and other works of the flesh. If I had a nickle for the number of times Christians have said, “I can be a jerk, because Jesus was a jerk,” I’d be a millionaire. I remember someone asking Ann Coulter at Xavier, “Why are you so mean? You put people down!” (not that liberals are in a position to criticize anyone over this). And her reply was, “Well, Jesus told off the Pharisees!” I’ve seen Christians be downright cruel, and they actually believe that they’re following Jesus. After all, didn’t Jesus call the Pharisees a generation of vipers (Matthew 23:33)? Didn’t he cast out the moneychangers from the temple?

But Jesus didn’t put people down out of self-superiority, arrogance, or disdain. He did so to make them think, to inspire within them a sense of repentance. Sometimes, confrontation was the only way to accomplish this.

Maybe Ann Coulter sincerely feels that she is doing this. She believes that she is criticizing liberals over serious issues, such as America’s security from terrorists. I can’t judge her heart, or anyone’s, for that matter. I can only state what I believe to be the righteous standard: we shouldn’t criticize others with arrogance, self-superiority, or hatred for others. But, if we are to offend, we should do so to help people and make them think.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. 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. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also 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.
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