Prairie View

Monday, October 19, 2020

I Have Decided to Boycott

Would you believe me if I told you that if Jesus lived in Reno County in South Central Kansas in October 2020, he would wear a mask in public?  You probably shouldn't, at least without giving it serious thought.  First of all, none of us knows with absolute certainty what an omnipotent, all-knowing God who has taken on flesh would do in our circumstances. Then too, none of us can see our own biases and misconceptions with absolute clarity--a shame, since this affects our ability to think logically and "Christianly." While both of these factors conspire against our ability to make truthful statements about what Jesus would do, we can learn from his example.  We can also ask for wisdom from God.  Scripture tells us that we will never be scolded for doing this, and that wisdom is doled out in abundant measure to those who ask for it.

Two days ago, while reading the portion for the day in Matthew, I came across a four-verse record* of an incident in which Jesus explained to Peter that he was going to do something for the sake of not offending others, even though  what was being asked (by the tax collectors, in this case) constituted government overreach. Jesus had already confirmed with Peter that the tax was not warranted, so there could be no mistaking that Jesus was mindful of the circumstances and was acting deliberately in this incident. 

The issue at hand was the payment of a temple tax.  Under the Old Testament law, each adult Jewish male paid an annual tax to maintain the temple building and to provide for those who served there.  According to Inter-Varsity Press commentary,  this tax was still being exacted of the Jews in Jesus' time. 

Jesus and Peter, however, had already been marked as threats to the Jewish religion because they followed a new way that Jesus had ushered in.  The Jews no longer wished to claim them as one of their own--except when it came time to collect taxes, of course. 

Furthermore, Jesus himself had directly challenged the Jews on various fronts prior to this, so it could have been argued also that Jesus had placed himself at odds with the Jews. Priests and rabbis were exempted from paying the tax, so if Jesus had merely avoided the confrontations of his early ministry and claimed his rightful identity as a Jewish rabbi (teacher), he could have avoided paying the tax. 

Paying the temple tax provided a perfect opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate a foundational principle of the Kingdom of Heaven:  those who prioritize the values of this kingdom willingly give up personal rights when doing so helps to further the Kingdom of Heaven. By paying the temple tax, Jesus--at his own expense--was identifying with and honoring the oppressors from among his own people, probably because he wanted no unnecessary barriers to hinder the Jews from becoming part of Jesus' Kingdom. It was an act of humility and generosity. With this act, he was not back-pedaling on the rightful rebukes he had already spoken.  He was, instead, drawing both the rebukes and the extended grace together under the "Principles of the Kingdom of God" umbrella. 


A separate thread of shared understanding between Jesus and Peter involved the tax collecting custom of the time.  Conquered peoples paid taxes--not resident citizens of the homeland. Before Jesus paid the tax, he had affirmed with Peter that this was the action required of an outsider, the duty of a subjugated person.  In this action also he revealed a truth about diverse identities and responsibilities. A rightful Jew, who also was the King of a Heavenly kingdom, willingly took on the burden of subjugation to earthly civil authorities.  In the case of the temple tax, religious obligation and civil responsibility had become hopelessly entangled, so in Jesus' taking on this obligation, he was setting an example for how to act when one has responsibilities in both secular and religious realms.  


"I have decided to boycott" was repeated often in our household while I was growing up.  It was uttered by some of my siblings in response to a variety of provocations, most of them of insufficient importance to prompt such a disdainful response. It moved into our vocabulary around 1965 after Cesar Chavez organized the workers in the vineyards of California to demand better wages and working conditions. He called on citizens to boycott the grape growing industry by refusing to buy grapes. I don't remember that the boycott affected my parents' grocery shopping habits (we were probably too poor to be able to afford even cheap grapes), but the "boycott" idea came through loud and clear to the children (ages 14 and younger)--where they proceeded to appropriate it for their own purposes.  

Big sister: "Please hang up your coat."

Younger brother:  "I have decided to boycott."

Older brother:  "I need your help with the chores."

Younger brother:  "I have decided to boycott."

"I have decided to boycott" became little more than a sanctimonious way of saying I refuse to cooperate with you. It took a little longer than simply saying "No," in response to a request, but it sounded so much better that the extra time was worth it. 

Jesus did not decide "to boycott" when he was asked to pay the temple tax.  Instead, for the sake of avoiding offense, he paid it without a fuss, right after Peter retrieved the needed coin from the mouth of a fish.  

It's hard for me to imagine Peter retrieving a mask from the mouth of a fish, but it's not a bit hard for me to imagine that if wearing a mask had been the requirement of the day from secular and religious authorities, Jesus would have found a way to cooperate--since no harm would likely come from it and good was a potential result .  For the sake of avoiding offense, it would have been worth it.  For the sake of extending the Kingdom of God it would have been worth it. The same is true for the sake of contributing to the good of the community.  

I can't imagine "I have decided to boycott" coming from the mouth of Jesus any more than I can imagine him refusing to cooperate with a mask-wearing request coming from religious or secular authorities during a pandemic .  No harm is likely to come from it and good is a potential result. 

Isn't it fun though to imagine what miracles Jesus might wish to orchestrate to provide instantaneous provision for all mask wearers?  I hope I get to witness some of them.   


*Scripture Passage and Inter-Varsity Press Commentary Notes:  

Matthew 17:24-27 (New International Version)

The Temple Tax

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”

26 “From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”