Friday, October 19, 2012

Small in Number, the Temple Tax and Offense, a Good Way

There were three issues that stood out to me in last night's Bible study at church:

1.  The pastor and his wife were talking about a religious retreat that they attended last week.  They met other pastors , and they said that most of those pastors led churches that were small, like ours.  And yet, the churches were quite active in their local community.  I thought that was cool.  In some of the religious groups that I attended in the past, there was a belief that a church should have a lot of people attending it, or it was a failure, and so the groups were ashamed that they had few members, as if they were displeasing God.  I don't think that it's wrong for a church to want to grow in its number of attendees, but I also believe that a small church can love and serve God, and make a difference in the community.

2.  We were really struggling with the story in Matthew 17:24-27, in which Jesus told Peter to take a few coins from the mouth of a fish to pay the temple tax.  And yet, Jesus did not feel that he had to pay it, for he was the son of the king (God), and sons of kings didn't have to pay taxes.  But Jesus didn't want to offend people, and so he arranged for the temple tax to be paid.  What's strange, though, as Michael Card (the author of our study) said in the video that we watched, is that Jesus had no problem offending people at other points, as when Jesus in John 6 told the Jews that people needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood, which sounded outrageous to people whose Torah prohibited them from eating blood (Leviticus 17:11-12)!

One person in the group never heard of the story in Matthew 17:24-27 before, even though she has attended church all of her life, has taught Sunday school, and knew much of the Bible.  She just never heard the story (and, come to think of it, I wonder when I first heard it----I'm thinking it was when I read Ellen White's Desire of Ages).  And this passage puzzled her.  She said that she paid taxes because she was required to do so by law, and there would be serious penalties if she did not----it had nothing to do with not offending people.  We talked about various possibilities----perhaps Jesus didn't want people to think that he considered himself better than others because that would turn them off, or Jesus abode by earthly rules because he wasn't trying to establish an earthly kingdom at that time.  We checked a commentary, and it said that Jesus did not want to encourage people who thought that they had to pay the Temple tax to violate their consciences, plus Jesus realized that many Jews at that time were not ready to hear the truth that he was superior to the Temple. 

These solutions made sense to me, on some level: perhaps Jesus paid the Temple tax for a practical reason----he didn't want to get into trouble before his time (i.e., his arrest and crucifixion).  But the lady in the group was not satisfied with the solutions that she was hearing and even proposing.  And that happens sometimes.  We can wrestle with the biblical text and not feel at peace with the interpretations that we read or hear.  This lady actually reminds me of myself when I do my personal Bible study: I ask questions, I seek answers, and I find strengths and weaknesses in the answers that I find.  Some answers set with me better than others.

3.  In John 6, many of Jesus' disciples leave him, and Jesus asks the twelve if they will leave him, too.  One of the questions in our workbook concerned whether or not we have ever felt tempted to stop following Jesus.  A lady in the group told us why she has faith.  She said that things don't always turn out as she likes, since God may want for her to do some things herself.  But she stays faithful because she feels that her religion gives her direction.  This made me think about my daily quiet time recently in the Book of Numbers.  I learned that, even though there was no chance whatsoever that the generation of the Israelites in Numbers would enter the Promised Land, on account of their lack of faith and rebellion against God and Moses in Numbers 14, they were still expected to keep God's law in the wilderness.  In Numbers 15, for example, a sabbath-breaker was stoned.

Is that a bummer----that this Israelite generation had to keep the Torah, even though it had no future or hope of reward?  I suppose that one could say that they should have kept the Torah to teach their children, who actually would enter the Promised Land, so that the children would be good priests of God before the nations.  And yet, I thought something else: many of the laws of the Torah are good laws, even if a person has no future or would not receive a reward for keeping them.  Don't murder and don't steal are good laws.  So is resting on the Sabbath.  Even if God does not give us everything that we want, perhaps we can still benefit from God's direction, for God's path has a number of decent points.  It can bring social order and make people happy.   

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