Freedom For

June 5, 2022

Series: June 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Freedom For"


Matthew 17:24-27    

           24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ 25He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ 26When Peter said, ‘From others’, Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. 27However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake 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.’  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Freedom For”

            Today at 10:00, we have a baptism, we welcome new members, and we have communion.  This is a joy, and it only leaves time for a much shorter sermon.  Like I said, a joy.  On first glance who wouldn’t be a little relieved by not having long to talk about a story that starts with the merits of Jesus paying the Temple tax and ends with him getting the coin for that tax by telling one of his disciples to go fishing and pull the coin out of the mouth of the first fish that’s caught? What is there to say?

            There is a lot to say, in fact, though today we’ll just skim the surface.  As strange as this story sounds, it connects to an important theme for today, the relationship between freedom and obligation.  Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ students is asked if Jesus pays the temple tax. The answer: Yes.  This was a tax to support the upkeep of the temple and aside from priests, all Jews were obligated to pay it.  Five chapters later, Jesus seems to raise no inherent qualm with paying taxes to the emperor as well (Mt. 22).  It all seems quite straightforward.

            The exchange between Jesus and Simon Peter, however, troubles this simple answer.  Before Simon Peter can even bring it up, Jesus asks him, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?  From their children or others?”  Peter rightly answers, “From others” (Mt. 17:25-27).  Therefore, the children are free.  Jesus follows that by saying, “However, so that we do not give offence…” indicating they are, in fact, free not to pay the tax.  They are only paying it so as not to offend.

            What is going on?  The only way one would be exempt from paying a tax in this construct is if you are a child of the king…and therein lies the hint.  Jesus appeals to another kingdom, another king you could say.  Jesus appears to be saying they will pay but are free not to.  Freedom in Christ is not about doing whatever one wants. That’s where we’ve sometimes gotten it wrong.  You see crude examples of this all the time in society, people waving around very small definitions of freedom that amount to “my ability to do what I want without any consideration for you.”  How many incidents have we seen of that in recent years?  That may be how you understand your civic freedom, though I doubt it even holds up there, but it is certainly not freedom in Christ.  Freedom in Christ, as is demonstrated throughout the gospels is the freedom tolive for others.  It’s not freedom from your responsibility to others; it’s the direct opposite.  Calvin states this paradox beautifully, freedom is about being ready for “the duties of love.”[1]We have, so often, forgotten half of the equation, and without one half, the other is no good.  It’s not only freedom from; it’s freedom for, as theologians like to say. 

            Today is Pentecost, and though we are not using the traditional Pentecost readings today, we do turn our attention to the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we remember Jesus breathing out the Spirit to the people, and it’s in his image that we model our use of that Spirit.

            Look at how Jesus used his freedom.  He uses his freedom to serve.  He uses his freedom to accompany those who experience less freedom. He uses his freedom to challenge those who abuse their freedom or rob it from others.  Does he have to pay taxes?  By his definition of the true kingdom and true childhood no.  Because of these things, Jesus and his followers don’t have to pay the tax, but he does so as not to cause trouble, or really not to cause this trouble.  He has bigger fish to fry.  You see a lot of this in the later writings of the New Testament, the early community clearly accommodating to Roman norms so as not to rock the boat that the community might survive.

            Well speaking of rocking boats and frying fish, let’s get to that strange episode of Jesus telling Peter to go fishing and find a coin in the mouth of the first fish that comes up, incidentally just the amount to pay for him and for Jesus.  (We are looking at doing a fly-fishing trip for the church next year and wouldn’t that be a good recruitment tool.)  Is this just another miracle?  Well, a miracle is never “just a miracle.”  There’s always meaning, layers of meaning.  Look at what just happened – a discussion has broken out about whether or not it’s right to pay earthly authorities.  Yes, Jesus complies.  Jesus complies by heavenly means.  He draws on otherworldly powers in the encounter to produce what it takes to comply, as if to remind everyone the true source of his power or the true power of his source.

            Make no mistake, Jesus is up to something bigger and he neither gets distracted in fighting things that don’t need to be fought, nor does he lose track of who the real authority is, in the highest heavens, or where is priority lies, among the lowest of the earth.  This is what we remember and reenact whenever we do the church’s work, including our ritual work.  When we baptize, we say not only is that person free from the dominion of sin, the way of being together predicated on hurtfulness and exploitation. We say they are free for the oneness we experience in Christ, in God, in Spirit with one another.  When we welcome members into the congregation, we hopefully unburden their lives to a degree by sharing in them, freeing them from going this road alone, freeing them to join in the work of living out our faith together, here and in the world.  When we gather at the Lord’s Table we break bread and free people through by offering forgiveness or healing, freeing them for living into a kingdom where there is enough, it is shared, and all our nourished to flourish into new life. 

           Just imagine what else we could discover if we had more time…



[1]John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian LivingIII.3.19.12.