A Lesson in Humility
AFTER healing the demonized boy in the region near Caesarea Philippi, Jesus wishes to return home to Capernaum. However, he wants to be alone with his disciples on the trip so that he can further prepare them for his death and their responsibilities afterward. “The Son of man is to be delivered into men’s hands,” he explains to them, “and they will kill him, but, despite being killed, he will rise three days later.”
Even though Jesus spoke earlier about this, and three apostles actually saw the transfiguration during which his “departure” was discussed, his followers are still without understanding regarding the matter. Although none of them try to deny that he will be killed, as Peter did earlier, they are afraid to question him further about it.
Eventually they come into Capernaum, which has been a kind of home base during Jesus’ ministry. It is also the hometown of Peter and a number of other apostles. There, men who collect the temple tax approach Peter. Perhaps attempting to involve Jesus in some breach of accepted custom, they ask: “Does your teacher not pay the two drachmas [temple] tax?”
“Yes,” Peter responds.
Jesus, who may have arrived at the house shortly afterward, is aware of what has occurred. So even before Peter can bring the matter up, Jesus asks: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth receive duties or head tax? From their sons or from the strangers?”
“From the strangers,” Peter answers.
“Really, then, the sons are tax-free,” Jesus observes. Since Jesus’ Father is the King of the universe, the One who is worshiped at the temple, it is not really a legal requirement for God’s Son to pay the temple tax. “But that we do not cause them to stumble,” Jesus says, “you go to the sea, cast a fishhook, and take the first fish coming up and, when you open its mouth, you will find a stater [four drachmas] coin. Take that and give it to them for me and you.”
When the disciples get together after their return to Capernaum, perhaps at Peter’s house, they ask: “Who really is greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” Jesus knows what it is that prompts their question, being aware of what was going on among them as they trailed behind him on their return from Caesarea Philippi. So he asks: “What were you arguing over on the road?” Embarrassed, the disciples keep silent, for they had argued among themselves over who would be the greatest.
After nearly three years of Jesus’ teaching, does it seem incredible that the disciples would have such an argument? Well, it reveals the strong influence of human imperfection, as well as of religious background. The Jewish religion in which the disciples had been reared stressed position or rank in all dealings. Furthermore, perhaps Peter, because of Jesus’ promise of receiving certain “keys” to the Kingdom, felt superior. James and John may have had similar ideas because of being favored with witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration.
Whatever the case, Jesus stages a moving demonstration in an effort to correct their attitudes. He calls a child, stands it in their midst, puts his arms around it, and says: “Unless you turn around and become as young children, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore, whoever will humble himself like this young child is the one that is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens; and whoever receives one such young child on the basis of my name receives me also.”
What a marvelous way to correct his disciples! Jesus does not become angry with them and call them haughty, greedy, or ambitious. No, but he illustrates his corrective teaching by using the example of young children, who are characteristically modest and free from ambition and who generally have no thought of rank among themselves. Thus Jesus shows that his disciples need to develop these qualities that characterize humble children. As Jesus concludes: “He that conducts himself as a lesser one among all of you is the one that is great.” Matthew 17:22-27; 18:1-5; Mark 9:30-37; Luke 9:43-48.
▪ On the return to Capernaum, what teaching does Jesus repeat, and how is it received?
▪ Why is Jesus not under obligation to pay the temple tax, but why does he pay it?
▪ What perhaps contributed to the disciples’ argument, and how does Jesus correct them?