Today’s gospel is something of a two-for. Here we encounter two seemingly disparate scenes and one coin that covers the tax for Jesus and Peter while representing much larger tenets of our faith.
Using some Ignatian imagination, we place ourselves in these scenes to mine their meaning.
In the first, we are among the disciples as Jesus tells us that he will be betrayed, killed, and raised from the dead. We have heard Jesus foretell his death before, but this time we get it. And this time we are greatly distressed. How can this be? How can our savior be killed? Does this mean that we, too, will be killed for following Jesus? Is this really how it all ends?
The second scene is no less complex. If we put ourselves in Peter’s shoes, how do we respond to the tax collectors when they ask if Jesus pays the temple tax? On one hand, we don’t believe Jesus should have to pay the temple tax because he is the Son of God! On the other hand, if we say no, we will cause scandal. So, we answer yes and then think of a way to ask Jesus about it later.
Jesus, anticipating our every need, raises the issue first by asking us whether kings take tolls from their children (subjects) or others (foreigners). “From others,” we respond, thinking that by extension Jesus and we, his disciples who belong to the kingdom of heaven, are exempt from paying taxes to those who are not of the kingdom.
Jesus affirms, but then teaches that the greater good is to avoid offense or confusion by paying the tax. Nothing should stand in the way of following Jesus or spreading the Gospel.
As Peter, we stand in awe of Jesus as he performs the miracle of the coin-bearing fish and pays the tax for us both. We are reminded of Jesus’ divinity, and then the revelation hits us: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28).
What does it mean to “give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God”? As disciples, how can we follow Jesus by serving others?
—Jeremy Langford is the director of communications for theMidwest Jesuits and author of Seeds of Faith: Practices to Grow a Healthy Spiritual Life ©2007 Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA