The Sons Are Exempt

Do you ever read a story in your Bible and think “I know this means something…I just have no idea what it is.” For years that’s how I saw the ending of Matthew 17. It’s a very short and memorable story; in the end Jesus does a miracle by having a fish deliver His taxes!

Really it’s probably not that difficult a passage, but even though I had read it many times and even memorized it at one point, I couldn’t track with it. But now I’m amazed to see another tiny picture of the Gospel tucked away somewhere between the Transfiguration and “Who’s the Greatest?”

It begins with a tax collector approaching Peter to ask whether Jesus pays his taxes. Peter says “yes” and walks away.

As my friend Stephanie likes to quip, “Good story.”

It seems as though nothing has happened. But then Peter goes into the house where Jesus is, and Jesus—who missed the conversation—brings it up right away by asking a question about taxes in general. And this is where, as a minor with nothing to file, I would get lost.

Jesus asks whether the kings of the earth collect taxes from their sons or from strangers. But that’s not trivia. Taxes are a sign of authority, and whether or not you are taxed and how much you pay reveals your relationship to those in authority.

Peter rightly says that kings don’t tax their own children; that wouldn’t make any sense. Kings tax strangers, people of no relation. And so Jesus fills in the blank and says, “Then the sons are exempt.”

And this is where the scene pivots. Up until now it seems like they have been talking about Roman taxes or tax law in general. But here we see Jesus is talking about something else entirely. The sons are exempt, but—and here’s the twist—I’ll pay it anyway.

Did you catch that! I love subtlety in art and language, and this is a prime example. Jesus just said (without saying) that He is the Son of the King. He is royalty. This is His kingdom! Suddenly we’re not talking about taxes anymore but about who Jesus is.

But Jesus says more than that. He just revealed in chapter 16 that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and earlier in chapter 17 we get a glimpse of His glory. But now notice that Jesus is including Peter. “So that we do not offend them . . . give it to them for you and Me.” Peter isn’t the son of God, but he’s going to be treated like a child of the King.

And what’s more, look at exactly what the perk is here: Jesus is paying taxes He doesn’t owe. And He’s paying Peter’s taxes, too. What a beautiful picture of what Jesus will do on the cross, paying a debt He doesn’t owe and paying it on behalf of His disciples. Peter, not a child of the King, gets treated like royalty because Jesus, the actual Son of God, pays his debt for him.

Now that a new year is upon us, tax season has come with it. The wrong thing to do would be to claim you don’t owe any taxes because you’re a child of the King. (And it doesn’t count as evangelism either.) If it’s good for Jesus and Peter not to offend the tax collectors, we should probably follow suit.

But as you do your paperwork—whenever you get around to it—remember this brief exchange. Remember that this world belongs to Christ. Remember that He provides for your needs. And remember that He has paid the debt to allow you entry into the royal family. The sons are exempt.

Approaching the King

Last year I began reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my eldest daughter (in the correct, published order). One of the many things that strikes me throughout the series is how the characters interact with Aslan, the god of Narnia.

It almost always begins with fear. Truth be told, it begins earlier—with the way Aslan initiates contact. He sometimes comes stern, sometimes angry, but then sometimes loving and joyful. Before the characters can interact with him, his approach tells them how they should respond.

Most characters begin by facing a stern Aslan. Yet as they come to better know and understand him, their love and trust in him grows, and his approach becomes easier and gentler. Then there are times when characters approach on their knees only to be lifted up and embraced by Aslan.

Of course everyone knows that this is intended to be a depiction of God—specifically God the Son, Christ Jesus. And it reminds me of a tension we discussed in Sunday School a few years ago, about how we should approach Christ when we finally meet Him.

Our class was divided.

Some said that because of God’s love, we will be able to run to Christ and embrace Him. After all, the veil was torn in two, our sins have been washed away, and we are now part of the family of God—if we have put our faith in Him. As adopted children, as people who have had God the Spirit dwelling in us, what could separate us from Him?

Others said that because of God’s holiness, we would fall to our knees. Even though we are cleansed and set apart, we are still unworthy, we are still “from a people of unclean lips” as Isaiah said. His radiance, His power, His other-ness would all drive us to our faces—if we didn’t already find ourselves there voluntarily, out of reverence to Him.

It’s hard to know which group is right because both point to crucial truths about God’s nature and character. Jesus is God made flesh, humble and approachable, tender to the meek and faithful. But even though He is human, He is still God, and when He returns it will be as King.

And I think this highlights the strange position we find ourselves in as God’s children: we are lowly creatures, but we have been exalted to the family of God. One truth does not cancel out the other!

But as I read about the Transfiguration in Matthew 17, I get a glimpse of what I understand to be the future. Jesus reveals His true glory. And strangely enough, Peter is still standing and speaking! But then the Father shows up in a bright cloud and speaks: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”

And at this, they fall to the ground.

Obviously this is before the crucifixion, before the rent veil, before Pentecost. The disciples then are not what they would be, and not what we are now. Nevertheless, I think it’s indicative of how we should expect to respond.

Whether by the Son’s radiance or the Father’s voice, it still seems appropriate to fall to your knees.

But don’t miss what happens next: Jesus approaches. Jesus touches them. Jesus raises them up. Jesus dispels their fears. And if you are in Christ, I believe this what you have to look forward to. It will be an incredible joy and honor to be raised by the King.

Either way, I think Narnia author C. S. Lewis has it right: how we approach the King will depend entirely on how He approaches you. But for those who approach in humility, faith, and love, there is the promise that however the interaction begins, it will always end with Christ’s welcome.

How (Not) to Find Your One Thing

Today I got back into some of my usual podcasts while working. I began with some of Alec Baldwin’s Here’s the Thing, which is a relatively new discovery for me. But then I moved on to one of my favorites from the past year: The Moment with Brian Koppelman. (Strong language occasionally finds its way into both, so be advised.)

I like interview podcasts in general, but The Moment is unique because I always walk away inspired and challenged. Koppelman more than others I’ve heard really tries to get at what practice or characteristic makes someone successful. When their big moment came, what was it that carried them from what they were to what they would become?

Most of what I get out of the show is a challenge to create something. I get ideas and strategies for becoming more creative, more productive, more purposeful. This blog is a result of that. The hope is that if I practice writing for a public audience every day, I’ll become a better writer.

But often this urge to create has no place to go. In the past I’ve dabbled in other projects: art, music, web design, curriculum, fiction, and more. But I can’t do it all at once, and I can’t do much of it well. So I have to choose what I want to invest in. And what all the smart, successful people tell me is I should figure out where I want to end up and it will help me plan how to get there. What does success look like to you?

But when I zoom out to the big picture and I ask myself the Big Question, I run into a conflict.

What is the Big Question, you ask? One of my seminary profs asked the class some version of this question: if you had the power to accomplish anything for God, what gift would you offer Him? If you dreamed as big as you dared to dream and you could only lay one completed project at Christ’s feet, what would it be?

The intent of course is to get at what you value most, understanding that the unique way God has designed you will push you in a certain direction. And this is one (admittedly grand) way to try and figure out where you want to end up and thus what you should do with your life.

And I’ve been trying to use it to help me pick my projects.

So what is the conflict? I don’t know how to answer the question. I’m supposed to say something like “build the next great Christian university” or “write the definitive systematic theology of the 21st century.” But when I think of the big picture, I have a hard time landing on one thing. Sometimes I’m not even sure I could.

It seems to me that the kinds of creative projects I’m considering can’t bear the weight of the Big Question by themselves. They have to serve a greater purpose. And often, for me, that greater purpose isn’t something you could hold or buy or measure—it’s a state or a quality.

For example, I want to raise my children to love God, to devote their lives to serving Him, to be people of wisdom and character. But how do you measure that? The product isn’t a person, it’s a quality of person. And I don’t succeed at this by slaving away in my workshop for months on end; I have to achieve a kind of quality myself and find a way to pass it on.

So I’m trying to chase virtue, but I also know both the desire and ability to create come from God. On a good day I even know that our creations can be good in themselves, that they don’t have to serve some greater purpose in order to have meaning and value. I believe God takes joy in our small creations.

But how do we align them with that greater purpose? Do we need to?

Maybe the Big Question is a flawed approach. A person should have some sense of direction, some foresight if he or she is to steward wisely what God has given. But one thing? I’ve been trying to make it work for years, but it hasn’t been helpful for me.

The other day I saw a friend had designed a personal mission statement, and I’ve done that for resumes in the past. Maybe that’s the difference: the Big Question is about a thing, whereas a mission statement has more to do with an activity. Activities adapt far more readily.

I don’t know that I’m any closer to answering my initial question of where to focus my creative energies in the short term, but I do feel like I’ve tested the Big Question method and found it wanting. And I’m told that if all you’ve done is disproven a hypothesis, you’ve still had a productive day.


This Shall Never Happen to You

Today I read the end of Matthew 16. I purposefully stopped my prior reading after the “Good Confession” and before Jesus started explaining the next phase of the ministry.

The first half of 16 is full of puzzles that I haven’t solved yet. Who is the rock? What are the keys? Who gets them?

But the second half of 16 is pretty straightforward, albeit surprising. Jesus tells them to keep His Messiah status a secret! Then instead of victory and glory, He is preparing for suffering and death! Then Peter rebukes God! Then Jesus calls Peter Satan! Unbelievable.

I’ve always had a hard time relating to Peter in this moment. How on earth could you not only correct Jesus but rebuke Him? You’re going to put God in His place?! It carries the idea of strong disapproval, not simply correcting a misunderstanding. It feels heated. “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.”

But when I read the rest of Jesus’ reply, I realize I say the same thing often—although hopefully not in the same tone.

When it’s not Jesus on His way to Jerusalem, but me, I balk. I must deny myself and take up my cross. I must be willing to lose my life for His sake. I don’t at all believe in asking for trouble, or pursuing suffering, or even use it as a test to see if I’m living a radical enough life. But it seems pretty clear that I should expect suffering. I should be loyal unto death. Or as Jesus said in Matthew 10, if they treat me this way, don’t think you’ll get any better.

And this is when it happens. This is when I start sounding like Peter. “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to me.”

I signed up for the life abundant! I signed up for brotherhood and power. I’m here to check my spirit of fear at the door. I signed up to be more than a conqueror. Suffering? Pain? Martyrdom? “This shall never happen to you.”

It turns out I, too, have in mind man’s interests and not God’s.

It’s easy for me to tell Peter he’s off-base, that if Jesus said He’s going to the cross, you don’t challenge it. But it’s much harder to confront the fact that I’m off-base, that if Jesus said I can expect the same, I shouldn’t challenge that, either.

I remember growing up reading books on the End Times and being terrified about the Great Tribulation. I remember being so relieved by the teachings of a pre-tribulation rapture, that I would never have to face that kind of scenario. And in my mind it was because God would never let those awful things happen to one of His children.

But if I understand Scripture, that’s exactly what He did: He let unbearably awful things happen to His one and only Son. The promise is not that Jesus suffered so I won’t have to; the promise is that just as Jesus was raised, I too will be raised. The promise is that God will be with me in my suffering.

I don’t know anything about suffering. The fear I’m describing is a fear of the unknown. But I need to face these fears if I want to follow Christ. (Again, not that I’m volunteering for any particular suffering.) Just as Jesus placed His life in the hands of the Father, so following Him, I must do the same. “Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me.” My life is in the Father’s hands, and He will not abandon me.

If you are in Christ, He will not abandon you either.

Two Roads You Can Go By

I want to connect some dots between the audiobook I mentioned yesterday and the book I’ve been reading this past week: James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.

In the audiobook, Guelzo contrasts two different approaches to epistemology: voluntarism and intellectualism. Jonathan Edwards was an example of the former in that he placed emphasis on the will as the key to knowledge. As part of a tradition that goes back at least as far as Augustine, the idea is that if you believe the right things, you will find the truth. Or as Anselm later paraphrased it, “Unless I believe, I cannot understand.”

The other approach comes from the Enlightenment via Descartes and Locke, and that’s the belief that reasoned skepticism is a better approach to knowledge. If you only believe what you can test and verify, you’re less likely to have false beliefs and more likely to arrive at knowledge.

I’m only a few chapters into Smith’s book, but it clearly comes down on the voluntaristic side, but with a postmodern flavor. Having been disappointed by the Enlightenment, we should focus on correcting our loves rather than expecting study and rational inquiry to change us. And rather than study changing your heart, it’s your habits that need work. Smith repeatedly affirms the importance of reason and intellect and study, but they seem to play a small role in his system.

When I was a seminary student, I was warned to avoid two opposite extremes: fideism, the idea that all we can do is take a leap of faith in the dark; and rationalism, the idea that it is wrong to believe anything without evidence. I was given a model of faith and reason working together, and I still cling to this.

But at the same time I was trained in this more voluntaristic tradition, and it took me a while to realize why I felt so conflicted. Voluntarism and fideism have much in common. How can I believe in order to understand (which I affirm wholeheartedly) without first understanding what it is I am believing?

When I teach on worldview, I liken it to discussions in apologetics between evidentialists and presuppositionalists. Evidentialists believe that you should change your beliefs to fit the evidence, whereas presuppositionalists believe you should evaluate the evidence based on your beliefs. (I’m dramatically oversimplifying here.)

But I really, honestly think it’s both. If your beliefs are impervious to facts, you’ve wound up a fideist. You’re white-knuckling your faith and hoping it will deliver. If you think you should follow the facts wherever they lead, you’ve wound up a rationalist, failing to appreciate the role of your values in the process of finding, validating, and interpreting facts.

Your beliefs have to be tested. They have to be open to refinement. So does your evidence. When your beliefs and the evidence collide, it takes great wisdom to know which should bend to which. This is the uncomfortable place I’m convinced we have to live in.

I want a system that recognizes the power both the will and the intellect have in our seeking knowledge and virtue. Voluntarism and intellectualism (at least in their simplified forms) both seem incomplete. Smith’s book is a helpful corrective to a people who have bet the farm on study as the road to success, but I’m concerned it may go too far.

In fact, I could propose a third road that is a player in these conversations, and I don’t mean the happy medium I hope to find someday. The third road is naturalism. In other words, it doesn’t matter what you think or what you feel, all that matters is the biochemical processes that dictate every aspect of your life.

On this view, your will is simply a manifestation of your programming combined with your environment, and your reason is no better. I’m a bit concerned that Smith’s book may be heading that direction when it talks about the power of habit, as though unconscious processes are the most potent of all. (As though we don’t have millennia of precedents that going through the motions is not enough to please God.)

I realize it’s dangerous for me to say anything before I’ve finished the book. This is a good time to remind you that this isn’t a book review, just a journal entry. The sort of thing I would have only put in my notebook in 2017. I may change my mind. I may write a more thorough treatise. I don’t know yet.

For now, all I’m doing is thinking out loud. There are streams running through history that draw us in different directions, and I’m concerned about where we are as a society right now. I believe a better way is here somewhere.

One final note: it’s sometimes seen as arrogant to believe you’ve found “the way” or “the Truth.” To believe that you’ve happened on the story that makes sense of all other stories, or the system that should trump all other systems. I think those are two separate issues. I can be arrogant about almost anything. (I’m kind of talented that way.) But searching for conviction is not arrogance. Finding something you’re willing to stake your life on is necessity. Searching for solid ground on which to stand is just stewardship. I hope I am not arrogant in the process, but I may be guilty of worse if I don’t try at all.

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