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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Gone Fishing


Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    

 

What would you do if you were endowed with all the power in the universe?

 

In the 2003 feature film Bruce Almighty, God temporarily entrusts his powers to a frustrated TV reporter named Bruce Nolan (played by Jim Carrey).

 

Like a kid in a candy store, Bruce parts his tomato soup as if it were the Red Sea, exacts revenge on a street gang that had bullied him, pulls the moon closer to the Earth to create a more romantic evening with his girlfriend, and arranges to have the TV cameras rolling when he finds the long-missing body of Jimmy Hoffa.

 

Having access to God’s power seems mighty entertaining.

 

Jesus’ displays of supernatural power, on the other hand, are considerably more sober.  They classically fall into three categories: miracles of healing (restoring sight to the blind, raising the dead, exorcising demons), miracles of provision (feeding the 5,000, turning water into wine), and miracles demonstrating Jesus’ power over creation (stilling a raging storm, walking on water).

 

Jesus’ actions are all about serving others, not about showing off or settling scores. 

 

That being said, there are a few miracles that seem to defy classification.  Jesus curses a fig tree in a moment of anger (a story we’ll explore next week), and tells Peter to pay the temple tax with a coin he’ll find in the mouth of a fish.  These events seem, at first glance, a bit like performing signs and wonders in soup bowls.

 

Why in the world does Peter have to go fishing to procure legal tender?  Here’s how the The Message renders this unusual story in Matthew 17:24-27: 

 

When they arrived at Capernaum, the tax men came to Peter and asked, “Does your teacher pay taxes?”  Peter said, “Of course.” But as soon as they were in the house, Jesus confronted him. “Simon, what do you think? When a king levies taxes, who pays—his children or his subjects?”

 

He answered, “His subjects.” Jesus said, “Then the children get off free, right? But so we don’t upset them needlessly, go down to the lake, cast a hook, and pull in the first fish that bites. Open its mouth and you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to the tax men. It will be enough for both of us.”

 

Modern-day tourists who patronize the restaurants in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee will be offered “St. Peter’s Fish.”  It’s actually a species of tilapia, a fresh-water fish found the world over, which did indeed swim in the Sea of Galilee during the time of Jesus.

 

These fish are also known, from time to time, to do something rather extraordinary: They hold shiny objects in their mouths.  That might include silver currency. 

 

Thus the notion that Peter could retrieve a four-drachma coin from the first fish he catches is not as far-fetched as it sounds – and might indicate that, in the end, this is a miracle of timing.

 

Why is Peter the only disciple who figures in this conversation?  What about the others?  According to Exodus 30:13-14, only those 20 years and older were required to pay the annual two-drachma temple tax.  This may be evidence that Peter is (as is often assumed) the “senior disciple,” while the others fall somewhere between 15 and 19 years old – the typical age range for young men who signed on as apprentices to a rabbi.   

 

So, where does this one-of-a-kind miracle take us?

 

Some scholars propose it’s simple evidence that Jesus rules the cosmos: He knows exactly when and where a fishhook will win the lottery.  Others suggest that he’s demonstrating God’s willingness to provide everything we need, including routine financial obligations.

 

Yet other readers have optimistically understood Jesus’ comments to indicate that Christians, technically, don’t need to pay taxes – potentially very good news as we head toward April 15. 

 

But the message that most commentators discover in this text points us in a different direction.  Notice Jesus’ words: If we’re in sync with his spirit, we will never “upset others needlessly.” 

 

Our call, in other words, isn’t to quibble about the validity of paying our fair share to help society function.  Of course we should.  Jesus is inviting us to go through life with a gracious spirit.

 

One of the Bible’s best-kept secrets is its teaching that there are a number of issues – issues that are not central to Christian theology or ethics – where I can think one thing, and you can think just the opposite, and we can both be right and blessed by God. 

 

We can both be right about whether drums and guitars should be “in” or “out” at worship.  We can take genuinely different approaches to “good parenting,” and both end up raising healthy kids.  We can come to different conclusions about the age of the earth, whether gambling is spiritually corrosive, and whether or not someone who loves God should feel free to relax this weekend with a cold beer. 

 

So what do we do when we when have such disagreements?  We choose to do what God does:  We accept each other.

 

The word “accept” comes from the Latin words ad capere, which means, “to take to oneself.”  Strange as it may seem, offering acceptance to another human being is actually a form of receiving. 

 

If I accept you, it doesn’t mean that I agree with all of your opinions about every subject.  It does mean that I welcome you into my circle of care and concern.  I take you and your interests – even though you think differently – to myself. 

 

We can only wish that more people in our culture would consider this approach.

 

Christian circles can be tainted by a winner-takes-all mentality.  God wants me to come out on top because God has assured me that I am right.  And that means it’s time for you to get in line with the truth – which means coming around to my way of seeing things.

 

But Jesus takes a gentler approach. 

 

“Peter, people can get seriously worked up about things.  But there’s no reason to upset them needlessly.  So, let’s pay the tax. 

 

“But you’ll never guess in a million years how it’s going to happen.”

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