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Taxes, Citizenship, Discipleship, Freedom and Faith

By Fr. Stephen B. Reynolds
8/13/2013 (3 years ago)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The true exercise of freedom always leads us into deeper communion with God, and never away from him

The disciples enjoy "the freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).  Far from being as exercise in human willfulness, this freedom orients a person's life to the willing and whole-hearted embrace of the will of God.   We are called to live "not by constraint, but willingly" (I Peter 5:2).  The true exercise of Christian freedom causes the believer to act from the depth of his will in joyful union with God's law and providence.

Peter pays the temple tax

Peter pays the temple tax

P>SUGAR LAND, TX (CATHOLIC ONLINE) - Tax collectors figure prominently in the public ministry of Christ.  Matthew was a tax collector before his conversion (Matthew 9:9-13).  As a result of his encounter with the Lord, Zacchaeus pledged to make amends to those he had defrauded by the abuse of his tax collecting authority (Luke 19:1-10). 

Antedating the collection of taxes by the Romans, the Jews had a system for collecting alms in support of the work of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The book of Exodus specifies the level of financial aid that faithful Jews were expected to contribute towards this end (Exodus 30:13).  This obligation was binding upon the Jews in the Promised Land as well as those who lived in the diaspora.

The ancient historian Josephus records that this tax was sent to Jerusalem in heavily guarded convoys, originating in Jewish settlements as far away as Babylon and Rome.

As a faithful Jew, the Lord and his disciples would have paid the tax as well.  St. Matthew reports this fact in his Gospel. "When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, 'Does not your teacher pay the temple tax?'  'Yes,' he said" (Matthew 17:24-25).

Jesus takes this obligation seriously, while at the same time using this occasion to teach his disciples the meaning of freedom as a child of God.  Having established that "the kings of the earth" collect taxes from foreigners and not from their own citizens, Jesus affirms that those who are initiated into his Kingdom are exempt from the tariff.  "The subjects are exempt," Jesus declares (Matthew 17:26).

Nevertheless, the Lord does not dispense from the moral obligation to support the Temple.  He instructs Peter to catch a fish from the nearby Sea of Galilee.  Upon doing so, Peter finds a coin in the mouth of the fish, and uses this to pay the tax.

What are we to make of this episode?

First, the disciples enjoy "the freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).  Far from being as exercise in human willfulness, this freedom orients a person's life to the willing and whole-hearted embrace of the will of God.   We are called to live "not by constraint, but willingly" (I Peter 5:2).  The true exercise of Christian freedom causes the believer to act from the depth of his will in joyful union with God's law and providence.

"God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. "God willed that man should be 'left in the hand of his own counsel,' so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him'" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1730).

The true exercise of freedom always leads us into deeper communion with God, and never away from him.

Second, this scene shows the delicacy with which Jesus regards the consciences of others.  He does not want to "give offense" by not paying the tax.  That is to say, Jesus does not want to create needless division, confusion or scandal by not paying the tax.  He upholds this custom not only because it serves the divine worship of the Temple (which he is to supplant with his one eternal sacrifice on the Cross - something to which he alluded in the opening verses of this passage), but also because it removes an obstacle to belief on the part of those who regard the tax as important.

Third, the payment of the tax is an acknowledgement that Christians have a duty to give material support to the apostolic mission of the Church. 

"The fifth precept [of the Church] - you shall help to provide for the needs of the Church - means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the church, each according to his own ability" (Catechism, no. 2043).

Throughout his apostolic ministry, St. Paul was always diligent in encouraging Christians to send financial support to the Church in Jerusalem, as a sign of gratitude and solidarity (see Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:26; I Corinthians 16:1).

Finally, the miraculous provision for the payment of the tax in this instance is a further sign of God's providence.  When we act with a generous heart, God will always provide a way for that generosity to be fulfilled, even beyond our expectations.

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Fr. Stephen B. Reynolds is the Pastor of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Sugar Land, Texas. You are invited to visit them on the Web at: www.SugarLandCatholic.com.

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