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THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION ( Matthew 17:1-8 )
17:1-8 Six days after, Jesus took Peter, and James, and John his brother, and brought them by themselves to a high mountain, and his appearance was changed in their presence. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as the light. And, look you, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him. Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is a fine thing for us to be here. I will make three booths, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, look you, a shining cloud overshadowed them; and, look you, there came a voice out of the cloud saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!" When the disciples heard that, they fell on their faces and were exceedingly afraid. Jesus came and touched them and said, "Rise, and do not be afraid." They lifted up their eyes, and saw no one, except Jesus alone.
The great moment of Caesarea Philippi was followed by the great hour on the Mount of Transfiguration. Let us first look at the scene where this time of glory came to Jesus and his three chosen disciples. There is a tradition which connects the Transfiguration with Mount Tabor, but that is unlikely. The top of Mount Tabor was an armed fortress and a great castle; it seems almost impossible that the Transfiguration could have happened on a mountain which was a fortress. Much more likely the scene of the Transfiguration was Mount Hermon. Hermon was fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi. Hermon is 9,400 feet high, 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan valley, so high that it can actually be seen from the Dead Sea, at the other end of Palestine, more than one hundred miles away.
It cannot have been on the very summit of the mountain that this happened. The mountain is too high for that. Canon Tristram tells how he and his party ascended it. They were able to ride practically to the top, and the ride took five hours. Activity is not easy on so high a summit. Tristram says, "We spent a great part of the day on the summit, but were before long painfully affected by the rarity of the atmosphere."
It was somewhere on the slopes of the beautiful and stately Mount Hermon that the Transfiguration happened. It must have happened in the night. Luke tells us that the disciples were weighted down with sleep ( Luke 9:32). It was the next day when Jesus and his disciples came back to the plain to find the father of the epileptic boy waiting for them ( Luke 9:37). It was some time in the sunset, or the late evening, or the night, that this amazing vision took place.
Why did Jesus go there? Why did he make this expedition to these lonely mountain slopes? Luke gives us the clue. He tells us that Jesus was praying ( Luke 9:29).
We must put ourselves, as far as we can, in Jesus' place. By this time he was on the way to the Cross. Of that he was quite sure; again and again he told his disciples that it was so. At Caesarea Philippi we have seen him facing one problem and dealing with one question. We have seen him seeking to find out if there was anyone who had recognized him for who and what he was. We have seen that question triumphantly answered, for Peter had grasped the great fact that Jesus could only be described as the Son of God. But there was an even greater question than that which Jesus had to solve before he set out on the last journey.
He had to make quite sure, sure beyond all doubt, that he was doing what God wished him to do. He had to make certain that it was indeed God's will that he should go to the Cross. Jesus went up Mount Hermon to ask God: "Am I doing your will in setting my face to go to Jerusalem?" Jesus went up Mount Hermon to listen for the voice of God. He would take no step without consulting God. How then could he take the biggest step of all without consulting him? Of everything Jesus asked one question and only one question: "Is it God's will for me?" And that is the question he was asking in the loneliness of the slopes of Hermon.
It is one of the supreme differences between Jesus and us, that Jesus always asked: "What does God wish me to do." we nearly always ask: "What do I wish to do?" We often say that the unique characteristic of Jesus was that he was sinless. What do we mean by that? We mean precisely this, that Jesus had no will but the will of God. The hymn of the Christian must always be:
"Thy way, not mine, O lord,
However dark it be!
Lead me by thine own hand;
Choose out the path for me.
I dare not choose my lot,
I would not if I might:
Choose thou for me, my God,
So shall I walk aright.
Not mine, not mine the choice
In things or great or small;
Be thou my Guide, my Strength,
My Wisdom and my All."
When Jesus had a problem, he did not seek to solve it only by the power of his own thought; he did not take it to others for human advice; he took it to the lonely place and to God.
THE BENEDICTION OF THE PAST ( Matthew 17:1-8 continued)
There on the mountain slopes two great figures appeared to Jesus--Moses and Elijah.
It is fascinating to see in how many respects the experience of these two great servants of God matched the experience of Jesus. When Moses came down from the mountain of Sinai, he did not know that the skin of his face shone ( Exodus 34:29). Both Moses and Elijah had their most intimate experiences of God on a mountain top. It was into Mount Sinai that Moses went to receive the tables of the law ( Exodus 31:18). It was on Mount Horeb that Elijah found God, not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, but in the still small voice ( 1 Kings 19:9-12). It is a strange thing that there was something awesome about the deaths of both Moses and Elijah. Deuteronomy 34:5-6 tells of the lonely death of Moses on Mount Nebo. It reads as if God himself was the burier of the great leader of the people: "And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day." As for Elijah, as the old story has it, he took his departure from the astonished Elisha in a chariot and horses of fire ( 2 Kings 2:11). The two great figures who appeared to Jesus as he was setting out for Jerusalem were men who seemed too great to die.
Further, as we have already seen, it was the consistent Jewish belief that Elijah was to be forerunner and herald of the Messiah, and it was also believed by at least some Jewish teachers that, when the Messiah came, he would be accompanied by Moses.
It is easy to see how appropriate this vision of Moses and Elijah was. But none of these reasons is the real reason why the vision of Moses and Elijah came to Jesus.
Once again we must turn to Luke's account of the Transfiguration. He tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus, as the Revised Standard Version has it, "of his departure which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem" ( Luke 9:31). The word which is used for departure in the Greek is very significant. It is exodos ( G1841) , which is exactly the same as the English word exodus.
The word exodus has one special connection; it is the word which is always used of the departure of the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, into the unknown way of the desert, which in the end was going to lead them to the Promised Land. The word exodus is the word which describes what we might well call the most adventurous journey in human history, a journey in which a whole people in utter trust in God went out into the unknown. That is precisely what Jesus was going to do. In utter trust in God he was going to set out on the tremendous adventure of that journey to Jerusalem, a journey beset with perils, a journey involving a cross, but a journey issuing in glory.
In Jewish thought these two figures, Moses and Elijah, always stood for certain things. Moses was the greatest of all the law-givers; he was supremely and uniquely the man who brought God's law to men. Elijah was the greatest of all the prophets; in him the voice of God spoke to men with unique directness. These two men were the twin peaks of Israel's religious history and achievement. It is as if the greatest figures in Israel's history came to Jesus, as he was setting out on the last and greatest adventure into the unknown, and told him to go on. In them all history rose up and pointed Jesus on his way. In them all history recognized Jesus as its own consummation. The greatest of the law-givers and the greatest of the prophets recognized Jesus as the one of whom they had dreamed, as the one whom they had foretold. Their appearance was the signal for Jesus to go on. So, then, the greatest human figures witnessed to Jesus that he was on the right way and bade him go out on his adventurous exodus to Jerusalem and to Calvary.
But there was more than that; not only did the greatest law-giver and the greatest prophet assure Jesus that he was right; the very voice of God came telling him that he was on the right way. All the gospel writers speak of the luminous cloud which overshadowed them. That cloud was part of Israel's history. All through that history the luminous cloud stood for the shechinah, which was nothing less than the glory of Almighty God.
In Exodus we read of the pillar of cloud which was to lead the people on their way ( Exodus 13:21-22). Again in Exodus we read of the building and the completing of the Tabernacle; and at the end of the story there come the words: "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" ( Exodus 40:34). It was in the cloud that the Lord descended to give the tables of the law to Moses ( Exodus 34:5). Once again we meet this mysterious, luminous cloud at the dedication of Solomon's Temple: "And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord" ( 1 Kings 8:10-11; compare 2 Chronicles 5:13-14; 2 Chronicles 7:2). All through the Old Testament there is this picture of the cloud, in which was the mysterious glory of God.
We are able to add another vivid fact to this. Travellers tell us of a curious and characteristic phenomenon connected with Mount Hermon. Edersheim writes: "A strange peculiarity has been noticed about Hermon in 'the extreme rapidity of the formation of cloud upon the summit. In a few minutes a thick cap forms over the top of the mountain, and as quickly disperses, and entirely disappears.'" No doubt on this occasion there came a cloud on the slopes of Hermon; and no doubt at first the disciples thought little enough of it, for Hermon was notorious for the clouds which came and went. But something happened; it is not for us to guess what happened; but the cloud became luminous and mysterious, and out of it there came the voice of the divine majesty, setting God's seal of approval on Jesus his Son. And in that moment Jesus' prayer was answered; he knew beyond a doubt that he was right to go on.
The Mount of Transfiguration was for Jesus a spiritual mountain peak. His exodus lay before him. Was he taking the right way? Was he right to adventure out to Jerusalem and the waiting arms of the Cross? First, there came to him the verdict of history, the greatest of the law-givers and the greatest of the prophets, to tell him to go on. And then, even greater still by far, there came the voice which gave him nothing less than the approval of God. It was the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration which enabled Jesus inflexibly to walk the way to the Cross.
THE INSTRUCTION OF PETER ( Matthew 17:1-8 continued)
But the episode of the Transfiguration did something not only for Jesus but for the disciples also.
(i) The minds of the disciples must have been still hurt and bewildered by the insistence of Jesus that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die. It must have looked to them as if there was nothing but black shame ahead. But start to finish, the whole atmosphere of the Mountain of Transfiguration is glory. Jesus' face shone like the sun, and his garments glistened and gleamed like the light.
The Jews well knew the promise of God to the victorious righteous: "Their face shall shine as the sun" (2Esdr 7:97). No Jew could ever have seen that luminous cloud without thinking of the shechinah, the glory of God resting upon his people. There is one very revealing little touch in this passage. No fewer than three times in its eight brief verses there occurs the little interjection: "Behold! Look you!" It is as if Matthew could not even tell the story without a catch of the breath at the sheer staggering wonder of it.
Here surely was something which would lift up the hearts of the disciples and enable them to see the glory through the shame; the triumph through the humiliation; the crown beyond the Cross. It is obvious that even yet they did not understand; but it must surely have given them some little glimmering that the Cross was not all humiliation, that somehow it was tinged with glory, that somehow glory was the very atmosphere of the exodus to Jerusalem and to death.
(ii) Further, Peter must have learned two lessons that night. When Peter woke to what was going on, his first reaction was to build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He was always the man for action; always the man who must be doing something. But there is a time for stillness; there is a time for contemplation, for wonder, for adoration, for awed reverence in the presence of the supreme glory. "Be still, and know that I am God" ( Psalms 46:10). It may be that sometimes we are too busy trying to do something when we would be better to be silent, to be listening, to be wondering, to be adoring in the presence of God. Before a man can fight and adventure upon his feet, he must wonder and pray upon his knees.
(iii) But there is a converse of that. It is quite clear that Peter wished to wait upon the mountain slopes. He wished that great moment to be prolonged. He did not want to go down to the everyday and common things again but to remain for ever in the sheen of glory.
That is a feeling which everyone must know. There are moments of intimacy, of serenity, of peace, of nearness to God, which everyone has known and wished to prolong. As A. H. McNeile has it: "The Mountain of Transfiguration is always more enjoyable than the daily ministry or the way of the Cross."
But the Mountain of Transfiguration is given to us only to provide strength for the daily ministry and to enable us to walk the way of the Cross. Susanna Wesley had a prayer: "Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in thy presence." The moment of glory does not exist for its own sake; it exists to clothe the common things with a radiance they never had before.
TEACHING THE WAY OF THE CROSS ( Matthew 17:9-13 ; Matthew 17:22-23 )
17:9-13,22,23 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus gave them strict injunctions: "Tell no man about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." The disciples asked him, "Why then do the Scribes say that Elijah must first come?" He answered, "It is true that they say that Elijah is to come and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him what they wished. So also the Son of Man is to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them about John the Baptizer.
When they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised." And they were exceedingly distressed.
Here again is an injunction to secrecy, and it was much needed. The great danger was that men should proclaim Jesus as Messiah without knowing who and what the Messiah was. Their whole conception both of the forerunner and of the Messiah had to be radically and fundamentally changed.
It was going to take a tong time for the idea of a conquering Messiah to be unlearned; it was so ingrained into the Jewish mind that it was difficult--almost impossible--to alter it. Matthew 17:9-13 are a very difficult passage. Behind them there is this idea. The Jews were agreed that, before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to be his herald and his forerunner. "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." So writes Malachi, and then he goes on: "And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse" ( Malachi 4:5-6). Bit by bit this idea of the coming of Elijah gathered detail, until the Jews came to believe that not only would Elijah come, but he would restore all things before the Messiah came, that he would, we might put it, make the world fit for the Messiah to enter into. The idea was that Elijah would be a great and terrible reformer, who would walk throughout the world destroying all evil and setting things to rights. The result was that both the forerunner and the Messiah were thought of in terms of power.
Jesus corrects this. "The Scribes," he said, "say that Elijah will come like a blast of cleansing and avenging fire. He has come; but his way was the way of suffering and of sacrifice, as must also be the way of the Son of Man." Jesus has laid it down that the way of God's service is never the way which blasts men out of existence, but always the way which woos them with sacrificial love.
That is what the disciples had to learn; and that is why they had to be silent until they had learned. If they had gone out preaching a conquering Messiah there could have been nothing but tragedy. It has been computed that in the century previous to the Crucifixion no fewer than 200,000 Jews lost their lives in futile rebellions. Before men could preach Christ, they must know who and what Christ was; and until Jesus had taught his followers the necessity of the Cross, they had to be silent and to learn. It is not our ideas, it is Christ's message, that we must bring to men; and no man can teach others until Jesus Christ has taught him.
THE ESSENTIAL FAITH ( Matthew 17:14-20 )
17:14-20 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him and fell at his feet and said, "Sir, have pity on my son, for he is an epileptic, and he suffers severely; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water; and I brought him to your disciples, and they were not able to cure him." Jesus answered, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to me!" And Jesus spoke sternly to him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured from that hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and said, "Why were we not able to cast out the demon?" Jesus said to them, "Because of the littleness of your faith. This is the truth I tell you--if you have your faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Be removed from here,' and it will remove. So nothing will be impossible to you."
No sooner had Jesus come down from the heavenly glory than he was confronted with an earthly problem and a practical demand. A man had brought his epileptic boy to the disciples in the absence of Jesus. Matthew describes the boy by the verb seleniazesthai ( G4583) , which literally means to be moonstruck. As was inevitable in that age, the father attributed the boy's condition to the malign influence of evil spirits. So serious was his condition that he was a danger to himself and to everyone else. We can almost hear the sigh of relief as Jesus appeared, and at once he took a grip of a situation which had got completely out of hand. With one strong, stem word he bade the demon be gone and the boy was cured. This story is full of significant things.
(i) We cannot but be moved by the faith of the boy's father. Even though the disciples had been given power to cast out devils ( Matthew 10:1), here was a case in which they had signally and publicly faded. And yet in spite of the failure of the disciples, the father never doubted the power of Jesus. It is as if he said: "Only let me get at Jesus himself, and my problems will be solved and my need will be met."
There is something very poignant about that; and there is something which is very universal and very modern. There are many who feel that the Church, the professed disciples of Jesus in their own day and generation, has failed and is powerless to deal with the ills of the human situation; and yet at the back of their minds there is the feeling: "If we could only get beyond his human followers, if we could only get behind the facade of ecclesiasticism and the failure of the Church, if we could only get at Jesus himself, we would receive the things we need." It is at once our condemnation and our challenge that, even yet, though men have lost their faith in the Church, they have never lost a wistful faith in Jesus Christ.
(ii) We see here the constant demands made upon Jesus. Straight from the glory of the mountain top, he was met by human suffering. Straight from hearing the voice of God, he came to hear--the clamant demand of human need. The most Christ-like person in the world is the man who never finds his fellow-man a nuisance. It is easy to feel Christian in the moment of prayer and meditation; it is easy to feel close to God when the world is shut out. But that is not religion--that is escapism. Real religion is to rise from our knees before God to meet men and the problems of the human situation. Real religion is to draw strength from God in order to give it to others. Real religion involves both meeting God in the secret place and men in the market place. Real religion means taking our own needs to God, not that we may have peace and quiet and undisturbed comfort, but that we may be enabled graciously, effectively and powerfully to meet the needs of others. The wings of the dove are not for the Christian who would follow his Master in going about doing good.
(iii) We see here the grief of Jesus. It is not that Jesus says that he wants to be quit of his disciples. It is that he says, "How long must I be with you before you will understand?" There is nothing more Christlike than patience. When we are like to lose our patience at the follies and the foolishness of men, let us call to mind God's infinite patience with the wanderings and the disloyalties and the unteachability of our own souls.
(iv) We see here the central need of faith, without which nothing can happen. When Jesus spoke about removing mountains he was using a phrase which the Jews knew well. A great teacher, who could really expound and interpret scripture and who could explain and resolve difficulties, was regularly known as an uprooter, or even a pulverizer, of mountains. To tear up, to uproot, to pulverize mountains were all regular phrases for removing difficulties. Jesus never meant this to be taken physically and literally. After all, the ordinary man seldom finds any necessity to remove a physical mountain. What he meant was: "If you have faith enough, all difficulties can be solved, and even the hardest task can be accomplished." Faith in God is the instrument which enables men to remove the hills of difficulty which block their path.
THE TEMPLE TAX ( Matthew 17:24-27 )
17:24-27 When they came to Capernaum, those who received the half-shekel Temple tax came to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the tax?" Peter said, "He does pay it." When he had gone into the house, before he could speak, Jesus said to him, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings take tax and tribute? From their sons or from strangers?" When he said, "From strangers," Jesus said to him, "So then the sons are free. But, so as not to set a stumbling-block in anyone's way, go to the sea, and cast a hook into it, and take the first fish which comes up; and when you have opened its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take it and give it to them for me and for you."
The Temple at Jerusalem was a costly place to run. There were the daily morning and evening sacrifices which each involved the offering of a year-old lamb. Along with the lamb were offered wine and flour and oil. The incense which was burned every day had to be bought and prepared. The costly hangings and the robes of the priests constantly wore out; and the robe of the High Priest was itself worth a king's ransom. All this required money.
So, on the basis of Exodus 30:13, it was laid down that every male Jew over twenty years of age must pay an annual Temple tax of one half-shekel. In the days of Nehemiah, when the people were poor, it was one-third of a shekel. One half-shekel was equal to two Greek drachmae ( G1406) ; and the tax was commonly called the didrachm ( G1323) , as it is called in this passage. The value of the tax was about 8 pence; and that sum must be evaluated in the light of the fact that a working man's wage in Palestine in the time of Jesus was only 3 1/2 pence. The tax was in fact the equivalent of two days' pay. It brought into the Temple treasury no less than about 76,000 British pounds a year. Theoretically the tax was obligatory and the Temple authorities had power to distrain upon a man's goods, if he failed to pay.
The method of collection was carefully organized. On the first of the month Adar, which is March of our year, announcement was made in all the towns and villages of Palestine that the time to pay the tax had come. On the fifteenth of the month, booths were set up in each town and village, and at the booths the tax was paid. If the tax was not paid by the twenty-fifth of Adar, it could only be paid direct to the Temple in Jerusalem.
In this passage we see Jesus paying this Temple tax. The tax authorities came to Peter and asked him if his Master paid his taxes. There is little doubt that the question was asked with malicious intent and that the hope was that Jesus would refuse to pay; for, if he refused, the orthodox would have a ground of accusation against him. Peter's immediate answer was that Jesus did pay. Then he went and told Jesus of the situation, and Jesus used a kind of parable in Matthew 17:25-26.
The picture drawn has two possibilities but in either case the meaning is the same.
(i) In the ancient world conquering and colonizing nations had little or no idea of governing for the benefit of subject peoples. Rather, they considered that the subject peoples existed to make things easier for them. The result was that a king's own nation never paid tribute, if there were any nations subject to it. It was the subject nations who bore the burden and who paid the tax. So Jesus may be saying, "God is the King of Israel; but we are the true Israel, for we are the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven; outsiders may have to pay; but we are free."
(ii) The picture is more likely a much simpler one than that. If any king imposed taxes on a nation, he certainly did not impose them on his own family. It was indeed for the support of his own household that the taxes were imposed. The tax in question was for the Temple, which was the house of God. Jesus was the Son of God. Did he not say when his parents sought him in Jerusalem: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" ( Luke 2:49). How could the Son be under obligation to pay the tax which was for his own Father's house?
None the less Jesus said that they must pay, not because of the compulsion of the law, but because of a higher duty. He said they must pay "lest we should offend them." The New Testament always uses the verb to offend (skandalizein, G4624) and the noun offence (skandalon, G4625) in a special way. The verb never means to insult or to annoy or to injure the pride of. It always means to put a stumbling-block in someone's way, to cause someone to trip up and to fall. Therefore Jesus is saying: "We must pay so as not to set a bad example to others. We must not only do our duty, we must go beyond duty, in order that we may show others what they ought to do." Jesus would allow himself nothing which might make someone else think less of the ordinary obligation of life. In life there may sometimes be exemptions we could claim; there may be things we could quite safely allow ourselves to do. But we must claim nothing and allow ourselves nothing which might possibly be a bad example to someone else.
We may well ask why is it that this story was ever transmitted at all? For reasons of space the gospel writers had to select their material. Why select this story? Matthew's gospel was written between A.D. 80 and 90. Now just a little before that time Jews and Jewish Christians had been faced with a very real and a very disturbing problem. We saw that every male Jew over twenty had to pay the Temple tax; but the Temple was totally destroyed in A.D. 70, never to be rebuilt. After the destruction of the Temple, Vespasian, the Roman emperor, enacted that the half-shekel Temple tax should now be paid to the treasury of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.
Here indeed was a problem. Many of the Jews and of the Jewish Christians were violently inclined to rebel against this enactment. Any such widespread rebellion would have had disastrous consequences, for it would have been utterly crushed at once, and would have gained the Jews and the Christians the reputation of being bad and disloyal and disaffected citizens.
This story was put into the gospels to tell the Christians, especially the Jewish Christians, that, however unpleasant they might be, the duties of a citizen must be shouldered. It tells us that Christianity and good citizenship go hand in hand. The Christian who exempts himself from the duties of good citizenship is not only failing in citizenship, he is also failing in Christianity.
HOW TO PAY OUR DEBTS ( Matthew 17:24-27 continued)
Now we come to the story itself If we take it with a bald and crude literalism, it means that Jesus told Peter to go and catch a fish, and that he would find a stater in the fish's mouth which would be sufficient to pay the tax for both of them. It is not irrelevant to note that the gospel never tells us that Peter did so. The story ends with Jesus' saying.
Before we begin to examine the story we must remember that all oriental people love to say a thing in the most dramatic and vivid way possible; and that they love to say a thing with the flash of a smile. This miracle is difficult on three grounds.
(i) God does not send a miracle to enable us to do what we can quite well do for ourselves. That would be to harm us and not to help us. However poor the disciples were, they did not need a miracle to enable them to earn two half-shekels. It was not beyond human power to earn such a sum.
(ii) This miracle transgresses the great decision of Jesus that he would never use his miraculous power for his own ends. He could have turned stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger--but he refused. He could have used his power to enhance his own prestige as a wonder-worker--but he refused. In the wilderness Jesus decided once and for all that he would not and could not selfishly use his power. If this story is taken with a crude literalism, it does show Jesus using his divine power to satisfy his own personal needs--and that is what Jesus would never do.
(iii) If this miracle is taken literally, there is a sense in which it is even immoral. Life would become chaotic if a man could pay his debts by finding coins in fishes' mouths. Life was never meant to be arranged in such a way that men could meet their obligations in such a lazy and effortless way. "The gods," said one of the great Greeks, "have ordained that sweat should be the price of all things." That is just as true for the Christian thinker as it was for the Greek.
If all this is so, what are we to say? Are we to say that this is a mere legendary story, mere imaginative fiction, with no truth behind it at all? Far from it. Beyond a doubt something happened.
Let us remember again the Jewish love of dramatic vividness. Undoubtedly what happened was this. Jesus said to Peter: "Yes, Peter. You're right. We, too, must pay our just and lawful debts. Well, you know how to do it. Back you go to the fishing for a day. You'll get plenty of money in the fishes' mouths to pay our dues! A day at the fishing will soon produce all we need."
Jesus was saying, "Back to your job, Peter; that's the way to pay your debts." So the typist will find a new coat in the keys of her typewriter. The motor mechanic will find food for himself and his wife and family in the cylinder of the motor car. The teacher will find money to pay his way in the blackboard and the chalk. The clerk will find enough to support himself and his dear ones in the ledger and in the account sheets.
When Jesus said this, he said it with that swift smile of his and with his gift for dramatic language. He was not telling Peter literally to get coins in fishes' mouths. He was telling him that in his day's work he would get what he needed to pay his way.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 17". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany