Canada 150: True patriot love thou dost in us command
Hespeler, June 4, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 17:24-27, Psalm 72:1-14, Leviticus 19:33-34
s you may have heard, the country of Canada is in the midst of celebrating a very significant anniversary. Less than one month from now it will be exactly 150 years since the confederation of t
he Dominion of Canada. And everyone seems to want to get in on the celebration. There are merchandise and product tie-ins. You can buy everything from cans of Pepsi to bags of french-fries emblazoned with the Canada 150 logo. There are commemorative coins, shirts, ties and sandals. The government is giving away passes to national parks and millions of dollars in grants to creative people who can come up with some piece of art that can celebrate our country and its history (including, strangely, a giant rubber duck).
So I felt like I needed to be a part of all the hype. After all, I love my country and am proud and happy to enjoy all the freedoms and benefits of being a Canadian. Surely I, like every Canadian, can find many things to celebrate amid all of the festivities.
But I would hate to see such a wonderful occasion pass by without taking the opportunity to do a little bit of thinking about some key questions that have always been there for people of faith. Questions like what does it mean to be a Canadian and what does it mean to be a Canadian who happens to be a Christian? Or should the question be, “What does it mean to be a Christian who happens to be a Canadian?”
These questions are not as easy to answer as we might want to think because they are questions of competing authority. There are certain things that are expected of me and even demanded of me as a Canadian. I am expected to obey laws, pay taxes, even to serve my country should the need arise. And there are things that are demanded of me because I am a follower of Christ, things like standards of behaviour and the exclusive worship and praise that I am called to offer to God.
And we would all hope, of course, that there would never be any conflict between what my country asks of me and what my God asks of me. Indeed, through much of the history of our country it has been taken for granted that being a good citizen was essentially the same thing as being a good Christian. But we can at least conceive of the possibility that there could be a conflict – that my country could demand of me something that my God would reject or vice versa.
Jesus ran into that question from time to time and so did his followers. They remembered the stories that touched on such matters and these stories made it into the gospels. There was, for example, the time when some men who were collecting the temple tax came to Peter with the question that that they asked everyone. “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” It was the kind of question that you really didn’t answer no to – especially because they likely hired the biggest and toughest enforcers to do this job. So of course what could Peter answer other than, “Yes, he does”?
But, while everyone knew what the safe answer to that question was, there could have been a lot of discussion over what the right answer was. The temple tax was a complex and maddening issue throughout much of the first century. It was an annual tax of a small amount that was required of all Jewish men whether they lived in Judea or not. In Jesus’ day it would have gone to the temple in Jerusalem to support its infrastructure, staff and charitable works.
But that changed shortly after the time of Jesus – and before this Gospel was written – when the Romans destroyed the temple and everything associated with it. In an extra twist of the knife against Jewish nationalism, after they had destroyed the temple the Romans continued to force Jews everywhere to pay the annual temple tax. Adding insult to injury, they took that money and directed it towards the temple of god Jupiter in Rome.
So the temple tax meant one thing in the time of Jesus (something generally seen favourably, though it did have its detractors) but something quite different (and very negative) when this Gospel was written. Essentially you could not come up with a more confusing question for early Christians than “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” But, in many ways, that makes this the perfect question because these kinds of questions are not simple, nor should they really be.
Think of some of the questions that we face as Canadians these days – questions that may sometimes bring our Christian faith into play. One of the big questions that Canada struggles with these days has to do with welcoming strangers. The welcoming of strangers and those seeking refuge is a very important theme in the Bible. It is something that the Bible speaks of often and very approvingly. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt,” it says in the Book of Leviticus.
But this does not seem like a straightforward issue in Canada today. Given the unthinkable misery of the unprecedented numbers of displaced people in our world today, we have to respond – we have to do something, not just for the sake of those who have become refugees but for our own sakes as well. A world where there are massive numbers of people who have no way to find hope for the future is a world that will only get more and more dangerous for everyone.
But, though the need for a compassionate response is clear, that is not the same thing as saying that it is easy to know exactly what we should do. How do we integrate these newcomers into our society? How many can we absorb without it having detrimental effects on our society? These become vital questions. We have to think about security and national identity and values. None of it is easy nor should it be. Even more confusing, what is the correct answer in one time may not be the right one in another. So the question that Jesus grapples with in this passage is a good representative of the kinds of questions that we still must struggle with.
So Peter takes this question home and apparently doesn’t need to bring it up with Jesus. It is Jesus who chooses to come at the question from the right angle: “What do you think, Simon?” he asks, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”
And I find it interesting what Jesus does with that question. He takes a question about paying a tax that is essentially about obedience and compliance and turns out into what? For Jesus it becomes a question of authority. Who is in charge of this world? Who do they have power over and how do they exercise that power? Even more important, who owes them obedience in the form of tribute? And on the surface the answers to those questions might seem obvious. Obviously the Romans or the temple authorities in Jerusalem are in charge. They have the power and they are not afraid to use it to enforce their will.
But, on the lips of Jesus, Peter realizes, the answer to that question is not so obvious. Jesus is not the son of the authorities of this world. He has no power according to the ways of this world but he answers to an authority that is far beyond anything that this world has ever been able to claim. So what does he owe the authorities of this world? Nothing. And the message that lies behind all of this is a message for Peter and ultimately for all of us.
We serve Jesus. He is the one to whom we owe our primary allegiance. If Jesus doesn’t owe anything to Rome, neither do we. This is the primary learning for the Christian in the matter of being a citizen of a nation in this world: our first allegiance cannot be to the state; we have a higher authority.
But if Jesus just left it there, we would have a very big problem, wouldn’t we? There is a practical concern because we may live in a nation that we love and are proud of and if we all refused all obedience, that nation would not be all that it could be both for ourselves or for others.
So Jesus doesn’t leave the answer there. borth b “Then the children are free,” he says confirming his point that we do not owe obedience but he continues: “However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook.” Here too is a principle we can follow. We may not owe obedience, but we can give it freely and indeed we should whenever possible.
I believe that the story is saying that that those who are children of God and give their obedience and service freely within their country are able to offer more to their country than anyone else. I think, anyways, that that is what the rest of the story is about where Jesus instructs Peter to go and catch a fish saying that he will find enough money inside its stomach to pay the tax for both Peter and himself.
What is the point of this part of the story? Is it to highlight Jesus’ ability to perform miracles? Well, perhaps to a certain extent, that is the point, but there are certainly much better examples of Jesus’ wonderworking to be found in the gospels. To find a shiny coin or bauble inside a fish that you catch, as any experienced angler would know, is hardly impossible. Fish will occasionally swallow all kinds of things and there is a wealth of stories about fishers finding incredible things inside what they catch.
So it is certainly not impossible that Peter might find some coins in a fish – just wildly improbable that he should find just the right amount for the tax at just the right time. Jesus’ expectation that he will find it, therefore, is a part of an expectation that lies at the foundation of his life: that if he truly needs anything, his Father in heaven will provide it. Jesus just always expected God to provide what he needed. He sent his disciples out carrying nothing and taught them to expect that God would provide them with what they needed when they needed it and somehow God always did.
So this coin in the fish is really just a more extreme example of the principle that Jesus lived by all the time. But when we see it applied to this question of what we owe our country in the way of service, what it means is that we, as people of faith, actually have more that we can offer to our country than the population in general. We have deep wells of resources to draw on because we do not merely draw on our own strengths and abilities but on the limitless resources of God. So as people of faith, we simply bring more to the table and this is so that we may be a greater blessing to our nation.
Our Canadian national anthem, as you may know, was originally penned in French but, when it was first translated into English, there was a line that went, “True patriot love thou dost in us command.” That was deemed a little bit archaic and so it was soon changed to the more familiar, “True patriot love in all thy sons’ command.” Of course, the exclusively male language of that line has become awkward today for a number of reasons so there is talk (and even legislation) concerning changing it again and I realize that that has been somewhat controversial. I personally don’t have problem with the proposed change. I recognize that the language has changed and Canada has changed and there is nothing wrong, as far as I’m concerned, with acknowledging that in the words of the anthem.
What does give me some pause, however is the notion underlying the line: that true patriot love is something that can be commanded. Love isn’t commanded, is it? Love is only love when it is given freely and not out of a mere sense of obligation. I think many do approach the question of love for their country with a sense of obligation. But we can be different. We are children, by adoption, of our heavenly Father. We are free from the obligations that others answer to in this world, free to serve the one who reigns over it. But what that means is that we are also free to choose to offer our true patriot love as a gift which in my mind only makes it worth more.