Jesus, the Temple Tax, and Face Masks

“When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher pay the tax?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first and said, ‘What do you think Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?’ And when he said, ‘from others,’ Jesus said, ‘then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.’” Matthew 17:24-27

Of the many dystopian subplots of 2020, resistance to wearing masks is among the most bizarre. 

Nearly every week there are stories of shouting matches, fights, and even stabbings by persons who became belligerent after being asked to wear a mask in public. While a recent poll showed that over 80% of Americans are in agreement with wearing a mask to slow the potential spread of the coronavirus, one-fifth of the populace is still holding out. Social media users often engage in a war of words on the symbolism of compliance (‘you’re a sheep”) and/or the apparent slippery-slope that begins with face coverings and ends with Stalinism.    

One Twitter user recently wrote, “Though I can’t speak for the guy, if Jesus were on earth today, he would probably wear a mask.” 

The Son of God, wear a mask? Preposterous! If anyone in the history of the world had no need to protect his physical body from a virus it was the one who healed diseases. If anyone had the power and authority over and above earthly laws it was the Son of Man. This is what makes Matthew 17:24–27 such a surprising story.  

A few details should be noted. First, the fact that tax collectors asked whether Jesus paid the temple tax suggests they had doubts that he did. This could possibly stem from his resistance to the religious authorities, reference to the kingdom of heaven, or his authoritative preaching (“but I say to you”). Second, Peter instinctively answers yes, though his subsequent actions reveal that he wasn’t quite sure. 

Jesus was a faithful and obedient Jew, but he was also the Messiah. This passage is one of the many places that show Jesus’ deity. Jesus asked the question on Peter’s mind before the disciple opened his mouth. Peter’s reply affirms, by analogy, that earthly kingdoms tax their subjects, not the royal family. “Then the sons are free” would naturally lead to the conclusion that the “sons of the kingdom,” Jesus disciples’, aren’t obligated to pay the temple tax. 

But hear Jesus’ (surprising) reply: “however, not to give offense to them….” 

Jesus, whom the Apostle Paul would later write, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross,” owed human beings nothing. Jesus had the right, as God, not to become incarnate, or to suffer, or even save a single man or woman. But he did. This “humiliation” is cited as a model of Christian character that is repeated throughout the New Testament (John 13:1–20; Phil. 2:3–5; 1 Peter 3:21–23), notably in Romans 15:2–3 where we read,

Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘the reproaches of those who reproached you have fallen on me.’      

For its own part, mask-resistance isn’t about masks. It isn’t about science, or religious liberty. It may not even be about government control. The core issue is defending a particular kind of human freedom that can be summarized as “doing whatever one wants without constraint.” Many see the mask as a symbolic threat to exercising this freedom. Yet from a Christian perspective, freedom is not the mere power to do whatever a person wills to do. Rather, it means the ability to respond in submission to God and act in love for one’s neighbor.   

To simply will for the sake of the self is a secular understanding of freedom that people on the right and left share. One of the sadly ironic observations has been mask-resisters employing the old abortion-rights mantra: “my body, my choice.” 

Now if the government asks you to renounce your faith or forbids you to worship; if it asks you to harm your neighbor in some way or to lie, then do not comply. Thankfully, at this point in our country’s history such instances are rare. A time may come when the government’s demands encroach on your faith, but judging from Matthew 17, it seems a stretch to believe wearing a mask warrants civil disobedience.  

Lest you hear me wrongly, in Matthew 17 Jesus never gave his approval of the tax or the temple, he explicitly said the “sons of the kingdom” are free. He didn’t even take Peter’s money, only a coin from the fish he created. The issue at hand wasn’t about the temple, or taxation, but about the Kingdom of God.  

We can’t help but think of the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel where Jesus tells his baffled and incensed opponents that they were “slaves.” Their retort (8:33), “We’ve never been slaves to anyone!” shows they failed to understand that Jesus was referring to spiritual freedom, liberation from sin, the kind that ultimately matters. As he famously said (8:36), “So if the son sets you free, you are free indeed.” 

You may not agree with state policy, or its practices (who doesn’t at times?). That is the tension of being a citizen of both heaven and earth. If your only justification for not complying with the state is merely that no one has the right to tell you what to do, then you aren’t thinking or living like Jesus, who to some extent, gave up his “rights,” for the sake of not offending. In his Freedom of a Christian (1520), Martin Luther gave his famous paradox in the following, 

A Christian is free from all, slave to none.

A Christian is subject to all, slave to all.   

The gospel, rightly understood and communicated, offends. The cross offends, and Jesus himself offends, but not for the sake of being offensive. 

 

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