Fishing for Money – Rev. Joel Tolbert

Preached March 1, 2020, at the 9:30 am Worship
Context
It’s Lent. We had our fill of Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. Thanks to Rev. Caitlan and all the youth and adults who made that special night happen, and to all who came and supported the youth ministry of this congregation. The next morning, we woke up to the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Thanks to all who came to our morning or evening services.

Lent is the 46 days from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Easter, but you don’t include the six Sundays, so its really 40 days. In Lent, Christians historically refocus our attention on the disciplines, sacrifice, generosity, and prayers of Christ. We attempt to become more like him. We might take up a new discipline of study or service. We might sacrifice or lay down some habit or luxury. We might give away some extra resources to help exhibit God’s love to others. We might more frequently pause, reflect, observe the world around us, and pray for ways to help Kin-dom come. Lent is an intentional season in the church for church people to be honest about where we are, and to commit to continue the journey toward God’s beloved community.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and Caitlan and I are starting a new sermon series we are calling, “Here to There.” We realized, the Sunday before Lent, last Sunday, was Transfiguration Sunday, Matthew 17, where Jesus and a few disciples have a mountaintop experience. The final Sunday of Lent is Palm Sunday, Matthew 21, where Jesus enters Jerusalem. Caitlan and I realized, Jesus is on a journey as well, and we wondered, what was Jesus’ journey like from the Mount of Transfiguration to Palm Sunday? How did Jesus get from here to there, and what can we learn from him as we go through our own journey?

Today, we begin a walk beside Jesus from Transfiguration to Palms, from Matthew 17 to 21, from here to there. Let’s pray, and listen for the Word of the Lord…

Prayer
Scripture​Matthew 17:22-18:5
22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them (the disciples), “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised,” and they were greatly distressed.

24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25 Peter said, “Yes, he does.”

And when (Peter) came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do rulers of the earth take tolls or taxes? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 But, so that we do not (offend) them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

18 At that time the disciples (gathered around) Jesus and asked, “Who (then) is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Jesus called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you all change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes lowly like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

This is the word of the Lord…

Sermon​Fishing for Money
On January 28, I cranked my packed car in Bogart, Georgia, gave Siri the address in Chestertown, Maryland, and headed out. After a stop in Charlotte for lunch with our oldest son Adam, and a few more stops for coffee, gas, dinner, I was finally at the Bay Bridge. As I rolled up to the toll booths, I realized, there are only two advertised ways to pay. Either you already have an EZPass transponder, or you’d better be carrying cash.

I am in that middle generation, where I remember carrying cash and a checkbook. Today, I seldom have cash, except in my golf bag or poker tin. I might be able to write a check if I can find our checkbook. I regularly pay for things by phone, on the computer, or by card. But I didn’t have cash and I didn’t have EZPass.

When the toll booth operator told me, “nope,” they don’t take apple pay, or venmo, or cards, or paypal… I looked at that red light and drove on through. I fretted for a few minutes… okay, for an hour and a half, about how big the fine might be. By next weekend when I was going back across to pick up Jill, I had $5 cash, and when I took her back across, I had an EZPass.

Peter, Jesus, and the other disciples just left the countryside of Galilee headed up to Capernaum. It was the city by the Sea, a center of commerce and culture north of Jerusalem. The temple was way down in Jerusalem, but this temple tax was collected all over. When Peter, a Jew and a disciple of Rabbi Jesus, drive into Capernaum, the Temple toll booth hit them up and he didn’t have any cash.

According to the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary, it was assumed loyal Jews would pay a two-drachma temple tax, but there was real debate and disagreement over precisely who should pay, how often, and whether or not the tax was legitimately required in the law of scripture.

Long ago, in Nehemiah, Jewish leaders volunteered one-third shekel for support of the rebuilt temple. Over the hundreds of years from then to Jesus, the Pharisee party considered every male Jew throughout the world to be liable for one-half a shekel, and tried to relate it to Exodus 30, which says:

When you census the Israelites … each male who is registered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give a ransom for their lives to the Lord… half a shekel…

The Sadducee party argued the annual payment should be voluntary rather than a tax and considered priests exempt. Some other independent Jews, like those of Qumran, understood it as a one-time-only contribution, not an annual tax.

So when these folk in Capernaum ask Peter about the temple tax in such a way that assumes every Jewish male has to pay every year, it tells us which party they are in. Peter doesn’t engage the partisan debate with them. He just says, “Of course my teacher pays!” Then he scurries back to Jesus to ask, “Teacher, do we pay the temple tax?”

Before Peter can ask, Jesus anticipates his question and begins to answer with his own question, a very typical and frustrating habit of Jesus. “Hey Peter, do rulers tax their own children or others?” In other words, “Do rulers charge their own children a tax or toll for the home in which they live, or do rulers tax other people to cover the cost of the home for their children?”

Peter understood. “Other people. You don’t charge your own children to live at home,” at least not until they are 25 or so. Jesus connects the dots for Peter. “Ah, so its normal for children to have free access to the parent’s house.”

Jesus has entered the partisan debate Peter was hesitant to enter. In Jesus’ mind, the children of God are not charged to have access to God’s house. The offering is not mandatory but voluntary. Still, Jesus is not going to pick that fight. “Peter, run down and cast a hook in the Sea of Galilee. The first fish you catch with have a four Drachma coin in its mouth. Use that to pay the two drachma Temple tax, for you and for me.”

The other disciples gather around. They begin to wonder, “Then, who is the greatest in the beloved community of God?” At the temple there was no tax for women or children, only men. Men were considered the greatest. Women and children were property of the men, and the Temple Tax supported that bias by charging only the men. The disciples are confused. “So who is the greatest in the beloved community, and what is the charge on them for entering?”

Jesus invites a child over. “The children are free, right? Then, the greatest in God’s beloved community are the children, and there is no tax or toll for entering, except to become low like a child.” The Greek word there I’m translating as “low” is ταπεινόω {tap-i-no’-o}, which means 1) to make low, to reduce, to demote into a more humble condition, to assign a lower rank below others.

The temple wasn’t for children. It was for adults. The innermost parts of the temple were only for male adults. So, the temple charged a tax on the male adults, because they were considered the greatest. The way Jesus tells us God does community, and wants us to do community, is different than that in three key ways:

• First, any community trying to be like God’s beloved community is for all people, equally, regardless of any difference or uniqueness, sins of past or present. In a community of God, those of no value or less value in this world are of full and equal value. Everyone is included and remembered.
• Second, there is no tax or toll, no charge to anyone for full and equal access and inclusion in all of God’s beloved community. Whatever charge there might have been is fully paid by God, through a coin found in a fish, or through a cross and an empty tomb. There is nothing required to enter. Now, should someone enter freely, then wish to make a regular recurring offering, or want to make a special one-time gift, fabulous. We will have that opportunity in a moment. But there is never a charge for anyone to enter and be included in God’s beloved community.
• And third, in communities that want to resemble and embody God’s beloved community, children, children are the greatest, those who are naturally children by age, and those who are still children despite getting older, and those who stopped being children but change and become low like children once again, who do community with one another with the same excitement, passion, curiosity, forgiveness, hope, and love of a child.
Our first step from here, where we are, to there, where God is calling us to be, is to become more like children, more playful, more naïve, more excited, more curious, more forgiving. And if you happen to find any money in a fish you catch, remember to put that in the offering plate next Sunday.

The grass withers, and the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord endures forever. Amen.

Benediction

Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.

Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Pastor, Presbyterian Church