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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

First Place - and How To Decide It

Matthew 17:24-27, Mark 9:33-50

Christ in this section continues to teach his disciples about the nature of the Kingdom of God. In this lesson, he gives us three pearls. In them we shall see the nature of the Kingdom in terms of “first place” -- and how that is decided in God’s eyes. It is very different.

Paying the Temple Tax

(Mat 17:24-27 NIV) After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" {25} "Yes, he does," he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes--from their own sons or from others?" {26} "From others," Peter answered. "Then the sons are exempt," Jesus said to him. {27} "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours."

There is a running question among Christians in any age: how much respect is due to the authorities of the day? In this episode -- which, by the way, shows the divine sense of humor quite nicely, a point missed by most commentators -- Jesus shows us two things:

·         the authorities are, in general, to be obeyed -- even when oppressive. This tax is being collected “out of season” (it’s fall; this tax was supposed to be collected in the spring).

·         this respect for authority is, however, a exercise in trivia.

It’s not the first time that we’ve seen such behavior from Jesus. Remember his baptism in the Jordan? It was “to fulfill all righteousness.” Indeed, a more obvious parallel is in “rendering to Caesar.” Simply put, the tax is not in conflict with God’s command, and thus should be paid.

However, to make the point clear, Jesus does ask Peter from whom taxes are collected. Remember that the Romans rule Palestine as conquered territory, and view it as one more territory to enrich Rome. The implied point is this: should the temple of God tax the Son of God? To show his estimate of how important this issue is, Jesus tells Peter to go fish.

Why is this? The phrase “so that we may not offend them” is the same Greek phrasing translated elsewhere as not causing them to “stumble.” The Greek word is skandalon, from which we get our word “scandal.” Even the tax collectors, looking for an occasion to accuse Jesus, are not to be given a reason to stumble:

(1 Cor 10:32-33 NIV) Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God-- {33} even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

You see the point, of course: it is better to pay the tax, no matter how insulting, than to give someone else a point on which to stumble.

The striking thing in the passage, however, is the insouciance of Christ. In our terms, He would be thumbing his nose at the IRS -- all the while staying within the tax laws. An illustration may suffice. J. Paul Getty, one of the world’s richest men, was frequently involved in disputes with the IRS. One particular IRS agent visited him at his home one Friday night, and in the course of conversation threatened to place a tax lien on him in the amount of one million dollars, the maximum allowed by law at the time. Mr. Getty was ready for him. He defied him to do so. The agent promptly filled out the form and handed it to him. Mr. Getty promptly handed the agent a receipt to sign -- for one million dollars in twenty dollar bills, which he had had delivered for just this occasion. The agent was then left with the problem of safeguarding a million dollars in cash for the weekend.

There is a key point in this: just who’s running this world? The bureaucrats and politicians think that they are. And they are -- just as far as God permits. This often gives rise to the arrogance of politicians and bureaucrats. The child of God must see “greatness” in a very different light.

The Nature of Greatness

In that context, then, we are able to see what God sees as greatness:

(Mark 9:33-37 NIV) They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" {34} But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. {35} Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." {36} He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, {37} "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me."

The disciples will not quite get this lesson, yet. If you recall, James and John (with a little help from their mother) will still want to be first, later in the Gospel story.

The first clue to the nature of greatness in the Kingdom is found in Christ Himself. With hindsight, it would seem obvious that the image of the Suffering Servant, combined with his lesson on his church, would have made it clear. As Paul wrote the Philippians:

(Phil 2:3-13 NIV) Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. {4} Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. {5} Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: {6} Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, {7} but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. {8} And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! {9} Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, {10} that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, {11} and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. {12} Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence--continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, {13} for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

The best leadership is always by example. Ask your kids!

Christ, the master teacher, is always willing to use the example at hand. This is not the only time he will use a child in this context. From this picture we must see what he means:

·         A child signifies “family” to us. This is an early indication of the family of God. Indeed, Christ might be signifying that whoever receives his child, receives him (and more of that later).

·         In the family, the Father is the head. If we are to follow his leadership, we must see with his eyes. If He sees the unimportant as important, so should we. We must therefore “do the best for the least.”

·         Even the unimportant may be an ambassador of the great. We are the body of Christ; He is the image of God; therefore, whoever receives a child of God receives Christ, and therefore God. (Think of it this way: how do you feel about the way other people treat your children?)

Finally, this is a clear signal that pride of place has no place in the kingdom. Paul tells the Romans,

(Rom 12:10 NIV) Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.

We are to become as children were in that society -- not the obnoxious punks of today, but those little ones who are seen and not heard; the least. Indeed, beyond that, the servants of all, that we may achieve greatness.

For Us or Against Us

The world knows the answer: either you’re on my side, or you’re an enemy. If you’re on my side, you wear my colors, walk my walk and talk my talk. It is the world’s wisdom which has given us so much denominational venom. Jesus has a different point of view:

(Mark 9:38-50 NIV) "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." {39} "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, {40} for whoever is not against us is for us. {41} I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward. {42} "And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. {43} If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. {44} {45} And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. {46} {47} And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, {48} where "'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' {49} Everyone will be salted with fire. {50} "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other."

Note how natural is John’s reaction. The man is not from our little band; he is not authorized. Jesus challenge to John is, in essence, what does that matter? Paul says it this way:

(Phil 1:15-18 NIV) It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. {16} The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. {17} The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. {18} But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,

Have you ever noticed how utterly unscrupulous God is? He does not insist that all who work for Him have the purest of motives (good thing for this teacher!), nor belong to the “right” sect. He’ll take anybody, in any denomination -- even me.

This does not mean, however, that all who do so are automatically “in.” They may indeed be totally false; that’s their problem and God’s problem. Some will hear the fateful, “I never knew you.” Indeed, it is not our to judge that. We need but wait; we shall know them by their fruits.

The question is not “the other guy.” The question is us. Christ notes here that sin will come -- but that is no excuse for the one who brings it in. How you lead others (teacher, pay attention), especially those who are innocent, is of supreme importance. The question is not how “they” teach, but how “you” teach.

This is not restricted to teachers in the formal sense. The passage about the eye offending is meant for all. This is a common metaphor (even today we say that a man has “wandering eyes”), so we should not consider this justification of self-mutilation. It is in fact the admonition to throw out of your life anything which gets between you and Jesus Christ.

This is not surprising. Remember our lesson on salt and light?

“In the Old Testament the covenant between Israel and God was spoken of as a “covenant of salt.”[1] Later on, the promise to David that his heirs would inhabit the throne of Israel forever was referred to as a “covenant of salt.”[2] In this we can see that Jesus is associating us (the joint heirs of the kingdom) with this promise to the house of David. The preservation spoken of is, therefore, an eternal one.”

How are we to do this? How are we to be “preservationists?” He tells us -- be at peace with one another.

It may seem difficult; it may seem contradictory. It becomes clear, however, when we consider the motive for Christ’s coming: to seek and save the lost. He is, as I said, quite unscrupulous about this. Paul’s “all things to all men so that by all means I might save some” is another reflection of this. There is no limit to what Christ would do, within God’s will, to save us. This turns greatness on its head, and makes the servant of all first of all. And, if we truly seek greatness in the Kingdom of God, to whatever extents He goes, we should be willing to go too. As the old hymn put it, “Anywhere with Jesus I can safely go.”


[1] Numbers 18:19; see also Leviticus 2:13 for the phrase “salt of the covenant”

[2] 2 Chronicles 13:5

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