A few years ago—before I came to FCC—I was particularly hung up on Biblical taxes. There were many reasons for this, of course. The main one was, naturally, that I had never had to pay taxes before except on a student job I held (and I remember notably receiving a check for something like 49 cents from the Federal Government one year). As a student, I had lived a rather charmed life. As a young minister, who was faced with death in the form of funerals and taxes in the form of, well, TAXES (capitalization well and fully intended), I was utterly terrified.
When preaching from the Gospels, I found that—lo and behold—Jesus was slightly obessed with death and taxes as well. I remember my first “home run” for a sermon was on “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” … which, if you recall, revolves (in the Pharisees’ minds) around taxes. For a quick refresher’s course—In Jesus’s mind, it doesn’t.
Of course, those of you who come every Sunday (or read the mini sermon) know my obsession never fully went away, even after I figured out the joy of TurboTax™. I’d like to say I’m not that much older, but certainly wiser, but certain fascinations never go away.
And let’s face it, taxes have been a universal sore point for nearly everyone since they were first invented centuries upon centuries ago, long before Jesus chose to be born as a human here on the planet known as Earth.
So… why are we talking about Taxes?
In Jesus’s time there were three types of taxes every man had to pay to the Roman Empire—but that’s not what today’s sermon is about. On top of those perhaps unlawful taxes, there was the Temple tax. Every man, nineteen years or older, had to pay one half-shekel (a Hebrew coin) each year to support the Temple in Jerusalem.
What did it go to? It went, primarily, to sacrificing animals every day to the God of Abraham who (it was believed) required these sacrifices.
The important question is—how much is a half-shekel? I did a bit of algebra, and if the minimum Federal wage in the United States of America if $7.25 and you work 8 hours a day, then, while working at minimum wage, the average person in the United States earns $58 a day. The Temple tax, would be your daily wage plus half a daily wage or, in other words, three half days while working at minimum wage. In straight numbers, that’s $87.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to part with $20 unless there’s a good reason for it, let alone three half days of my work week. $20 is a splurge on Ben and Jerry’s and flowers for fun, zooming with a friend I can’t see because of the pandemic. I’m happy to do it because we’re separated by an ocean and won’t see each other most likely for another six months but three half workdays? Those are pizza days I can’t spend on my nephews and shopping sprees on socks because all mine wandered off. It’s painfully skipped trips to the grocery store that end with me staring at the back of my fridge wondering if I will eat that strange piece of cheese (well, you get the picture; I’m sure you have your own list).
Three and half days’ wages are dear, they’re precious to the working family, they’re precious to the singleton, they’re precious to the couple just starting out and to the couple that have been together so long they no longer need to remember their anniversary since it’s been memorized so long ago…
When we begin this story in Jesus’s life (placed at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospel of John, although at the end of it in the three other Gospels), we begin at the Temple in Jerusalem and we begin with Jesus’s anger because every single Jewish man’s money is being misused and misappropriated and mishandled…
If you found out the money you sent down to Washington was being used not for its intended purpose but something potentially heinous, wouldn’t you be angry? Would your anger be justifiable? –Those are questions Jesus, in his anger, certainly answered, “Yes.”
What’s going on in the Temple Exactly?
First, we have the money changers. We have men who, when pilgrims come, change their moneys from various coins in the Roman Empire to shekels and half-shekels. Only, they do it at a profit, and they do it to get rich. They are taking advantage of the pilgrims and of their naiveté (or the inability to find an honest money lender) and making a profit on faith and piety.
Second, there are people who are selling animals for sacrifices. Many sellers would employ tricks to make their sheep and oxen and dove appear unblemished (think of covering a sheep with flour so it appeared entirely white). Then when a pilgrim arrived with the sheep, they would be charged by an inspector a fee, and then the sheep would be rejected for being blemished. The pilgrim would then be charged at a higher price—inside the Temple in Jerusalem—for a truly unblemished sheep, at least according to the inspector, who would charge a fee to inspect the new sheep.
Nice racket they had going on, right? No wonder Jesus was so incensed!
What did Jesus say exactly?
Well, the Gospels all disagree—but they can agree on this. What was going on inside the Temple was unseemly enough that it incited Jesus’s anger. God’s house should and always should have been a house of prayer, a house of faith, a house of piety. It was true then two thousand years ago and should be true today, in twenty-first century America.
It should be true on our Christian websites, on our YouTube channels, on our Instagram pages (although FCC doesn’t have one of those). We must always remember that our purpose is to glorify the Lord, not profit off of him and the piety of those who worship him.
The New Temple
We have two reactions to Jesus’s actions in the Temple in Jerusalem. The first is the disciples. The second is the Jews who saw it all happen in real time.
The disciples saw what happened as proof that the Messiah, whom they had all been waiting for, had arrived at long last.
Everyone else? They wondered on what and on whose authority Jesus was acting. It was only natural. He was a supposed madman who took a whip and started destroying the everyday work of the Temple. Imagine if you were walking down the street and some guy you never saw took out a whip and went after a local flower market. How would you react? You’d wonder why he was doing it, too, and would most likely take cover yourself!
But, see, that’s the problem. Two thousand years later, we’re in the know. They weren’t. How can we blame them for not recognizing the actions that, in anyone else, would have appeared as crazy?
Have Compassion for those Who Don’t Get It
I imagine watching Jesus at work was like watching a car pileup on the highway. You want to look away, but you simply can’t. For those of us who know we’re looking at Jesus’s next hit in a long line of #1 singles, it makes perfect sense. For everyone else, they saw only destruction.
For those who don’t believe—even today—it may still seem pretty confusing. I imagine, for the casual reader, opening up the Bible without a User’s Guide might seem frightening. Two thousand years ago it would only have been a hundred times worse.
So, when reading the Bible, I urge compassion and understanding for those around Jesus who didn’t understand. Jesus was speaking a language they had never quite learnt, and it’s a language that we—as Christians—still have difficulty deciphering.
What Jesus was Getting At
Jesus, when he was at the Temple in Jerusalem, said that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Famous words. However, he wasn’t speaking about the Temple—instead, he was speaking about himself. He was speaking about his human body, his human life, and his Resurrection.
When we go into Easter, remember that this human man was trying so desperately to connect to his fellow humans, only to have them all misunderstand him. They mistrusted him. They greeted him when he came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, only to have him arrested less than a week later, and call for his extremely public execution. They then watched him die.
Jesus has only ever been looking for a connection.
He’s looking for one with you, reaching out his hand—will you reach back?