Topical Scripture: Matthew 17:24-27
Frank Wallis of Mountain Home, Arkansas was having a bad week.
He had just declared personal bankruptcy, and wondered what his future held. He went to his bank to buy a roll of the new $1 coins, in hopes that they might be worth something one day. He had no idea what he had.
One of them had the new Sacagawea dollar emblem on the back, as it should, but a quarter’s George Washington on the front, which it shouldn’t. It turns out that this mistake is the first in the 208-year history of the United States mint. Original estimates placed the value of the coin at $100,000.
Unfortunately for Mr. Wallis, three other so-called “mules” have surfaced, reducing the value of the first to a mere $41,395, the winning bid on eBay recently. For a dollar coin.
What single coin could be more valuable? How about a coin worth 78 cents today? It is the single most precious coin in all of history. Let me show you why, and why this little coin matters so much for your life and mine today.
Finding wealth in strange places
Come with Jesus and his disciples back to Capernaum, the fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has been living here in the home of Simon Peter for the last three years of his public ministry.
You know how it is to be gone from home for a while—the bills are waiting. In this case, the bill collectors themselves were waiting.
From glory on the Mount of Transfiguration to bill collectors. How true this is to life.
So our text says, “the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?'” (v. 24).
Since the time of Moses the people had paid this tax to support the upkeep of the Tabernacle, then Solomon’s Temple, and now Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem.
They contributed what the Greek calls “the two drachmas.” The “drachma” was a Jewish half-shekel, more than two days’ wages. Two of these were nearly a week’s work. This was given by the Jewish people annually as the “temple tax.” In Jesus’ day it was voluntary, and especially not required of the rabbis. So the tax collectors ask Peter if Jesus intends to pay it.
What was their interest? Interest, literally. They exchanged the money of the people into the necessary temple coinage, at interest and profit to themselves. Some estimates range as high as $45,000 that these people made every year.
And so they have come during the Jewish month Adar, or March, as they did every year. Jesus and his disciples have returned home to find them waiting. Peter jumps ahead, as he does so often, when asked if Jesus pays this tax: “Yes, he does.”
Now we find our first miracle: Jesus knows Peter’s mind: “When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak” (v. 25).
Being the master teacher, he seizes this teachable moment: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?”
The logic of Jesus’ question is obvious: no ruler taxes his own family. Kings and their children don’t pay taxes—they receive them.
Peter is right: “From others” (v. 26). “Then [emphatic in the Greek] the sons are exempt,” Jesus confirms.
But Jesus doesn’t choose to offend the religious people just yet. A successful man chooses his problems.
So verse 27: “But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line.” Return to the Sea of Galilee, and use your professional fishing skills. Throw out a line, literally a “hook.” This is the only time this kind of fishing is mentioned in the New Testament.
Why a hook? One fish could not possibly bring enough money to pay this tax. So we find the second miracle: Peter does it. He obeys Jesus. Even though it makes no sense.
With this result: “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.” This is the third miracle in the story. What are the chances that someone would throw a coin worth two week’s work into the Sea of Galilee? That a fish would swallow it, and then Peter would catch that very fish, on that very day? A miracle, indeed.
Now, what does this ancient event say to us today?
Is your God too small?
First, it’s a surprise. This is not the god anyone in Jesus’ day expected.
In his world people worshipped a variety of gods, none of whom were relevant to their daily lives and needs: the Roman emperor, the gods of Greek myths among them. Others have worshipped Buddha or sought his enlightenment, or Hindu gods, or the Muslim Allah. But none of them would intervene in our daily lives and meet our daily needs like this.
Nor is this the god of popular American culture. J. B. Phillips’ classic little book, Your God Is Too Small, lists succinctly the kinds of deities Americans recognize today. Here are their self-explanatory titles—see how many of them you recognize: “Resident Policeman,” “Parental Hangover,” “Grand Old Man,” Meek-and-Mild,” “God-in-a-Box,” “Managing Director,” “Pale Galilean,” “Projected Image” (with Freudian implications).
Again, none of them would meet a practical need like this one.
Most Americans would identify God with the collectors taking money for the Temple, not with the One who gave it miraculously and mercifully. Most see the church as an institution, irrelevant to our daily needs, always wanting “another name, another dollar.” God is removed, abstract, or personal and subjective—whatever or whoever you want to worship is fine with us.
75% of those who claim a faith in America do not think theirs is the only way to God; only 25% even think their faith is the best faith. God is whatever you want him to be. That’s what most Americans think. Most Americans are wrong.
He is there and he is not silent
Francis Schaeffer wrote a best-selling book some years ago entitled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent. Schaeffer was right. All through biblical history and current events, he is right.
What do we do to meet Jesus this personally? To experience his intervention, his active work in our lives and our needs? First, believe that God knows your need.
Jesus knew Peter’s problem, his mind, better than Peter did. That’s the first miracle of the event. Jesus was clear on this: “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).
This is the Father’s promise: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Give him your need, your problem, your dilemma, your “tax.” A doctor can only help the patient who will let him. When I had minor knee surgery a few years ago, I had to trust the surgeon. I had conducted his wedding on Saturday, then he did my surgery on Monday. That was the most pressure I’ve ever felt conducting a wedding, to be sure. I had to trust him with my problem before he could solve it.
Next, do what God says. Peter could fish; God could provide the coin in the fish’s mouth. Peter did what he could, and God did what he could not. But Peter had to do what Jesus said, illogical as it seemed.
It made no sense for Noah to build an Ark when it had never rained. It made no sense for Moses to stand before the Red Sea with his arms in the air while the Egyptian army rode up from behind. It made no sense for Elijah at Mt. Carmel to build an altar, pour water on it, and promise the people it would be consumed with fire. It made no sense for Daniel to pray when he knew the result would be the lion’s den.
But it made sense to God. Claim Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding; in all your ways follow him, and he will direct your paths.” He promises that he will.
Give your problem to God, and do what he says to do. He’ll lead you through Scripture, through circumstances, through your intuitive experience with him. He wants you to know your next step even more than you do. Do as he says.
Then, expect God to give what you ask, or something better. Philippians 4:19 promises that God will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Not always our wants, but always our needs.He knows what is best for us. So, like any loving father, he gives us what we ask, unless he can give us something better.
Billy Graham writes in his autobiography about Emily, the girl he met at Florida Bible Institute, fell in love with, and proposed to. He was sure she was the one. She refused to marry him, and he was despondent. Then a few years later he met Ruth. God gave him someone even better for him.
Last, trust his heart when you cannot see his hand. Sometimes God pays our “tax” today. Sometimes he does not. Sometimes he has a better purpose, a bigger plan in mind, a purpose he can see but we cannot. So we must trust his heart.
A recent e-mail told me about a missionary traveling at night along a very dangerous road. His car broke down, and he had to fix it before he could continue. He was frightened, but all right. Later, robbers in the area were apprehended. They told how they had seen the missionary and intended to rob and kill him, but twenty-six men stood guard around him.
The missionary told the story to his home church, and the pastor told it to their prayer meeting. A man stood up and told the church how that very night God had called him to pray for the missionary, and to get others to join him. He said that he thought everyone who had prayed that night was present in church for this prayer meeting, and asked them to stand. Twenty-six men stood up.
What “tax” do you owe today? Jesus knows it, and has a will for you. If you will do what he directs you to do, believing him for his best, and trusting him when you cannot see him, you’ll find that he is indeed alive today. And active and powerful in our lives, and problems, right now.
One of my favorite stories to tell at memorial services is about a woman who attended a beachfront barbeque in California many years ago. She was early, so she went for a swim. Unfortunately, the undertow caught her and carried her out to sea. About to drown, she cried out to God for help. She heard a voice say, “Reach up here.” To her shock there was a young man in a swimming suit, standing on a large rock beside her. She threw her hand into the air, and he caught it, pulled her to the rock, and saved her life.
When she caught her breath he pointed the way to swim back to shore which would avoid the undertow. She began swimming off, turned to wave, and he smiled and waved back. She waved again in a few moments, but he was gone.
Finally she made it to the beach. Someone asked where she had been. “Swimming out to the rock,” she said. The owner of the property heard her and said, “What rock? There’s no rock out there.” They looked, and there was not.
But there was. In the undertow of life, know that there’s a man on a rock, with his hand toward you. And a coin in it.
This is the promise of God.