JESUS AGAIN FORETELLS HIS DEATH
HE PAYS TAX WITH COIN FROM FISH’S MOUTH
WHO IS TO BE GREATEST IN THE KINGDOM?
After the transfiguration and the healing of a demon-possessed boy in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus heads toward Capernaum. He travels privately, just with his disciples, so that the crowds do not “get to know about it.” (Mark 9:30) This gives him further opportunity to prepare his disciples for his death and for the work they will then do. “The Son of man is going to be betrayed into men’s hands,” he explains, “and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised up.”
That idea should not strike his disciples as new. Jesus spoke earlier about his being killed, though Peter refused to believe that this would happen. (Matthew 16:21, 22) And three apostles saw the transfiguration and heard the discussion about Jesus’ “departure.” (Luke 9:31) His followers now become “very much grieved” over what Jesus is saying, even though they do not understand the full impact of his words. (Matthew 17:23) Still, they are afraid to question him further about it.
In time they come into Capernaum, Jesus’ base of activity and the hometown of a number of the apostles. There, men who collect the temple tax approach Peter. Perhaps attempting to accuse Jesus of failing to pay taxes, they ask: “Does your teacher not pay the two drachmas [temple] tax?”
“Yes,” Peter replies. Back at the house, Jesus is already aware of what has occurred. So rather than wait for Peter to 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?” Peter answers: “From the strangers.” Thereupon Jesus observes: “Really, then, the sons are tax-free.”
Jesus’ Father is the King of the universe and the One who is worshipped at the temple. Hence, God’s Son is not legally required to pay the temple tax. “But that we do not cause them to stumble,” Jesus says, “go to the sea, cast a fishhook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a silver coin [a stater, or tetradrachma]. Take that and give it to them for me and you.”
Soon the disciples are together, and they have a question for Jesus about who would be greatest in the Kingdom. These same men were recently afraid to question Jesus about his coming death, yet now they are not afraid to approach him about their future. Jesus knows what they are thinking. It is something they had already been arguing about as they trailed behind him on their trip back to Capernaum. So he asks: “What were you arguing about on the road?” (Mark 9:33) Embarrassed, the disciples keep silent, because they were arguing among themselves about who is greatest. Finally, the apostles present to Jesus the question that they have been discussing: “Who really is greatest in the Kingdom of the heavens?”
It seems incredible that the disciples would have such an argument after nearly three years of observing and hearing Jesus. However, they are imperfect. And they have grown up in a religious climate where position and rank are stressed. Moreover, Peter had recently heard Jesus promise him certain “keys” of the Kingdom. Might he thus feel superior? James and John may feel similarly, having been eyewitnesses of Jesus’ transfiguration.
Whatever the case, Jesus acts to correct their attitude. He calls a child, stands him in their midst, and tells the disciples: “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 who 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 method of teaching! Jesus does not become angry with his disciples and call them greedy or ambitious. Rather, he uses an object lesson. Young children do not have high status or prominence at all. Jesus thus shows that his disciples need to develop this view of themselves. Then Jesus concludes the lesson for his followers, saying: “The one who conducts himself as a lesser one among all of you is the one who is great.”