Yesterday Jesus put His foot down on the chaos around Him, manifesting His rule over the natural forces of the earth. Yet when it comes to the forces of humanity, Jesus manifests His power in a totally different way: submission. Not surrender, but submission, the free consent to obey earthly authority not because it has true power over Him, but because He came to dwell among us, as one of us. Jesus, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Just before this verse St. Paul tells us, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel today, to “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.” (v. 5)
Jesus begins by telling His disciples that He would one day be handed over “to men,” and would be killed, but also would rise on the third day; this broke their hearts. Peter is asked by tax collectors if Jesus pays the temple tax, to which Peter says “yes.” Yet as soon as he walks in the door, before he can say anything, Jesus hears the question on his heart: if Jesus really is the King, why is He bowing to earthly authority by paying taxes, of all things?
Notice the little detail: Peter walks in the door, but Jesus addresses him by his old name, Simon: He recognizes that Simon is thinking according to his old ways of thinking, rather than the new. It is “Simon,” not “Peter” that walked in the door. Jesus then asks Peter about who is made to pay tolls or the census tax: subjects or foreigners. In other words do those of the Kingdom pay taxes, or those who do not belong? Peter replies that the foreigners pay it, and Jesus says, “Then the subjects are exempt.” Jesus is the King: those that belong to His Kingdom are exempt from “paying” the “taxes” of this world. “Yet that we may not offend them…” Here Jesus shows us how we citizens of the Kingdom live in the world: we submit to legitimate authority not because it has any true power over us, but rather for the sake of peace, following the example of Our King who came not “to be served but to serve.” (Mt. 28:20) In a show of divine power Jesus reminds Peter who the real King is by paying the temple tax—twice the amount—through extraordinary means, but also in a way to let Peter know Jesus understands him. He tells “Simon” to go fishing, and it is there that “Simon” meets “Peter,” who was the first to confess that Jesus is the Son of God (Mt. 16:16), as only the Son of God could arrange such a thing as catching a fish with a coin in its mouth.
Not only does Jesus teach us to submit, freely, to legitimate authority in this world, but by providing a coin worth twice the tax, He teaches us to submit generously. He teaches us something else as well when He says at the very end: “Give that to them for me and for you.” In other words, Jesus—our King—is with us in our struggle to live as citizens of His Kingdom, yet still finding ourselves subjects of earthly powers. He is with us to help us submit as He submitted, living freely with the knowledge that we are subjects of a King, rather than slaves of earthly princes. (Psalm 146:3)