It is well known that Jesus addressed taxes during his ministry. Typically we think of the famous line, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). In a lesser known text, recorded in Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus addressed the payment of a temple tax. This wasn’t a tax paid to the ruling nation but to religious authorities at the temple. The tax collectors were interested to see whether Jesus would pay this tax. Jesus basically said: I’m not obligated to pay the tax because I’m the Son of God, but I’ll pay it so as not to offend. The direct quote from Jesus in Matthew 17 goes like this: “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?And when he [Peter] said, ‘From others,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them…[Jesus went on to pay the tax for himself and Peter].’”
What is Jesus up to in this passage? Is he compromising? Yes. Did Jesus always compromise in order to avoid offending others? Clearly the answer must be a resounding no. Jesus had no problem characterizing the pharisees as little devils (Matt. 12:34), and he wasn’t talking about cakes. Also, we should remember how Jesus upended tables within the very same temple that he was sponsoring in this Matthew 17 passage. So, what was it that allowed Jesus to compromise regarding the temple tax but not to compromise in other situations? And how does this question relate to Christian life and ministry?
The tax in question finds its origins in the Old Testament, in Exodus 30:11-16. The tax was taken from every jewish citizen for the upkeep of the temple, originally the tabernacle. Ultimately, though, this tax was spiritual and theological in nature. Exodus 30:16 even refers to the money collected for the tax as “atonement money!"
This tax was supporting the sacrificial system of the temple. The sacrificial system reminded the people of Israel that they were morally tarnished and were therefore estranged in their relationship with God. Yes, that’s right, the temple reminded the “chosen people of God” that they were far from God because of their sin. And the temple also pointed the jewish people to the fact that a bloody death was necessary to wash their sins away and re-connect them to God (i.e. atonement).
Jesus is, as John the Baptist put it, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The sacrifice that forgives sin once and for all had arrived in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore the sacrificial system of the temple would no longer be necessary. Who needs a sign that reads “This Way to Disney World” when you are standing in the park? Likewise, who needs the blood of bulls and goats when the only begotten Son of God has spilled his blood on the cross for sinners?
Let’s go back and talk more about Jesus’ compromise in Matthew 17.
In the Matthew 17 passage, Jesus says that he is not obligated to pay the temple tax. This makes sense, as we heard from Jesus’ quote above, because he is basically the issuer of the tax. Not only that, but Jesus knows that the days of the temple are drawing quickly to their end. In fact, the temple would be laid to waste in just a few short decades after Jesus’ death. But in order not to give unnecessary offense, Jesus, here, pays the tax.
Had Jesus not paid the tax, the people would have thought that Jesus didn’t embrace what the temple was all about. Ironically, the temple was all about Jesus! Also, the people may have responded by delaying Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and ultimately to the cross. since the cross was central to Jesus' message and mission, Jesus decided to pay the tax.
It was not a sin for him to pay, because Jesus had immense freedom in his standing as the Son of God. He was not obligated to pay, but he was free to pay. So, Jesus paid a small tax to a temple system that could never absolve the full debt of human sin. He pays in order to continue his march to the cross, where, as one hymn puts it, “Jesus paid it all.” On the cross Jesus far and away surpassed the greatness of the Temple and of it’s sacrificial system by making a costly deposit as the means of liberating sinners from their enormous debt.
Obviously, it’s no stretch to say that compromise is not always a dirty word, because Jesus compromised. This Matthew passage is a great example of that. How can we learn to compromise like Jesus did? First we need to make some important observations about the way that Jesus compromised:
1. Jesus avoided unnecessary offense, which reminds us that sometimes Jesus was necessarily offensive.
2. Jesus did not and would not sin in order to compromise for the sake of avoiding offense.
3. Jesus’ compromise allowed him to move on to the cross and eventually fulfill and do away with the very tax that he paid.
With these observations in mind, let’s try to apply Jesus’ compromise to compromises that we must make. Let these three instructions, derived from Jesus’ own actions, form a helpful set of guidelines for your Christian life and ministry:
1. We must make compromises in order to avoid unnecessary offense, even if this means surrendering our Christian liberties.
2. We must never let compromise be an excuse for our sin.
3. Significant compromise in Christian life and ministry must be a means of communicating the gospel, not of protecting our pride.