When Big Things and Trivial Things Collide (A Reflection on Mt. 17.22-27)

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry starts off with great excitement and energy, but quickly gets bogged down by controversy and the tribulations of fame. By the time we arrive at chapter 17, we are well into this second, gloomier phase of the Gospel. Jesus is shown as being weary, searching for quiet places to pray and escape from the immense needs all around him, and as unable to do anything without arousing controversy. He also seems increasingly focused on his death.

It is on this last topic that Jesus is reflecting at the start of today’s Gospel reading. This prediction of his death — one of many in Matthew’s Gospel — is juxtaposed immediately by a far more mundane matter: taxes. Officials are concerned that he and his band of disciples haven’t paid their dues to the Temple. This seems to be such a typical human experience: We are kept from the conversations we need to have or the deep down things on which we need to meditate by the tyranny of the trivial and immediate. Already in this chapter, Jesus has come down from the mountain of his Transfiguration only to have to deal with a dispute about his disciples’ inability to heal an epileptic boy. Now, he is clearly thinking about his looming death, but has to deal with bureaucracy and finances.

Whereas with the issue of paying his imperial taxes to Caesar, Jesus seems to assume it’s a simple duty, on this issue of the Temple tax he is far more ambivalent. He either seems to argue that he should be exempt from paying the tax because he’s the Son, i.e., that he isn’t required to pay a tax that is offered to God and is therefore his rightful inheritance, or that all Jews as children of God should be similarly exempt (in which case, it remains to be seen how the Temple would function…). This is an interesting little digression as, on one reading at least, it could actually be one of the higher christological passages in the Gospels, though it’s one that is rarely mentioned in my experience.

Anyway, despite his ambivalence about the temple tax (no matter on which ground), Jesus arranges for the tax to be paid lest he cause offense. This is a good — even if not particularly other-worldly, considering he’s just doing what is legally required of him — example for us, not just in dealing with the day to day frustrations of bureaucracy, or taxes we feel are unjust, but with the tyranny of mundane, trivial, banal, and immediate. Acknowledge the source of frustration, but deal with the matter promptly and generously. Not earth-shattering wisdom here, but a good reminder nonetheless.

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