Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
In today’s lesson we look at what we can learn from the story of Peter and the tax collectors.
1. The importance of inoffensive conduct. Jesus explained that although he was exempt from the two-drachma tax he would still pay it in order not to cause offense. It was not that he was unwilling to offend the temple authorities or anyone else when that was necessary, as it was when the truths of the Bible were at stake. The disciples had approached him earlier to explain that the Pharisees had been offended by his teaching about what is clean and what is not clean (Matt. 15:12). A right understanding of the Bible always matters. But where the issue is unimportant, as it was here, the right procedure is to act so as not to cause offense to other people.
In this verse the word translated “offense” is skandalon. Skandalon is never used in the New Testament for something merely that offends someone but always for something that causes the person to stumble spiritually or trip up. What Jesus was saying is that none of us should do anything that might cause another person to stumble over what is spiritually important. It is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthians, “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9: 12).
J. C. Ryle asks his readers to think about the words carefully “lest we should offend them” and apply them to our duties as citizens, members of a church, and members of society. We do not have to approve of all the laws of the country in which we live to obey them. We do not have to approve of everything our local church or denomination does to support it. There may be things our neighbors do of which we strongly disapprove, but we should often overlook such things in order not to set up an unnecessary barrier to their hearing and responding to the gospel.
There are matters in which Christ’s people ought to sink their own opinions, and submit to requirements [of] which they may not thoroughly approve, rather than give offence and “hinder the gospel of Christ.” God’s rights undoubtedly we ought never to give up; but we may sometimes safely give up our own. It may sound very fine and seem very heroic to be always standing out tenaciously for our rights! But it may well be doubted, with such a passage as this, whether such tenacity is always wise, and shows the mind of Christ. There are occasions when it shows more grace in a Christian to submit than to resist.
2. Christians ought to pay taxes. Some commentators make a point of this tax being for the support of the temple in Jerusalem, which was almost a matter of nationalistic pride to pay, and taxes leveled by the Romans, which most of the conquered peoples, including Jews, would resent. But Jesus’ words seem to reach beyond a merely Jewish tax. His illustration about kings and their taxes in verse 25 mentions both duty and taxes. “Duty” translates to the Greek word tele, which refers to the local taxes collected at the custom houses by teloni, the word for “tax collectors.” “Taxes” translates to kensos, which was the word used for a head tax based on the tax rolls containing the names of those who were subject to it. It is from this word that we get the English word “census.” This suggests that the principle of paying taxes so as not to give offense extends to all taxes rather than only to what we might think of as dues to support an approved religious function.
Moreover, if Matthew was written after 70 A.D., when the temple was destroyed by the Roman armies under Titus, which it may have been, it may be important to remember that Vespasian ruled that the half-Shekel tax should then be paid to the treasury of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, which would have been a serious problem for Jews and Jewish Christians. How could they support a pagan religion? This account, as we will see further in tomorrow’s lesson, says they can.