In Matthew 17:27 Jesus teaches us 6 lessons on civility in the school of a small fish: However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.
Civility is an ark word housing a menagerie of kind dealings with others. Things like being courteous, respectful, thoughtful, and kind to people. Sadly, these things are as absent today as diplomatic language is from our President’s tweets. Since I find myself increasingly tempted to be uncivil with others, I need these lessons. Thinking you might need them too I share them with you.
1. The first lesson on civility Jesus teaches us in the school of a small fish is to recognize the danger of incivility.
When Jesus urges us “not to give offense” he’s telling us that we’re to be as concerned with being civil to people as the Good Samaritan was with being a paramedic to the man injured on the Jericho Road. A major reason for this is the fact that incivility offends. And offenses make it hard for us to live “love thy neighbor” lives. When you offend me I find it as hard to love you as Esau found it to love Jacob. And vice versa. Since offenses destroy love and incivility causes offense, Jesus urges us to be wary of incivility. The rule of thumb for us as believers is “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).
2. The second lesson on civility Jesus teaches us in the school of a small fish is to be civil even to people with whom I disagree.
The “them” Jesus speaks of isn’t made up of people who gave him a standing ovation reception. Most of them considered him a spiritual scoundrel. And were as vocal, vociferous, and vicious in their opposition to him as Democrats and Republicans to each other. Yet Jesus is concerned not to offend them. It’s no easy thing to be civil to people who are your polar opposite religiously and politically. Yet Jesus calls us to be gracious, courteous, and respectful in our dealings with them: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48).
3. The third lesson on civility Jesus teaches us in the school of a small fish is to avoid giving needless offense.
Jesus and Peter weren’t obligated to pay this temple tax. Non-payment wouldn’t have brought a divine IRS audit and a tax evasion charge. But not paying would have caused needless offense. So Jesus pays it. Many Christians are more like the late Yankee manager Billy Martin than we are like Jesus. Someone said of Martin, “Some people have a chip on their shoulder. Billy has a whole lumberyard.” Lumberyard Christians offend people needlessly by acting rudely and insensitively and speaking with bull in the china shop finesse. Sarcasm, ridicule, put-downs, and name-calling are “corrupting talk” that should no more come out of our mouths than curse words (Ephesians 4:29).
4. The fourth lesson on civility Jesus teaches us in the school of a small fish is to give up our own personal rights rather than cause offence.
Jesus has the right of tax exemption (see Matthew 17:26). Yet he jettisons his right rather than offend. Today people insist on their rights as loudly as a hungry six-month-old cries. While we must stand for the rights of others as surely and swiftly as a policeman puts himself between a civilian and danger; and we should participate fully in the political process to preserve the glorious liberties the Lord has given us; and common sense says there are times when we must stand for our personal rights when, for example, we’ve been overcharged on a bill or need to talk with our bank about subpar service, etc.; still, we are followers of the One who gave up his rights again and again as he walked on this earth (Philippians 2:5ff). We’re to march to the beat of his rights-sacrificing drum. Yet too many of us bristle, arch our backs, extend our claws, and swipe at the bark of an insult or the growl of an oversight or the snarl of a slight. But when these kinds of personal rights cause offence we’re to sacrifice them as readily as an arm with gangrene!
5. The fifth lesson on civility Jesus teaches us in the small fish’s school is that civility must characterize us when we stand for truth.
When God’s honor, God’s cause, or God’s truth is at stake we must imitate Luther and say, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” But even then we must make sure that what makes us as irritating to people as smoke in their eyes is not our incivility but God’s truth. This is the clear implication of what Jesus teaches us here. “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation . . . Honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:12, 17.)
6. The sixth lesson on civility Jesus teaches us in the small fish’s school is that it’s by being Grace-Focused Optimists that we can be civil to everyone.
You say, “Charley, how do you see Grace-Focused Optimism here?” This way: somewhere, somehow, a fish dined on a coin worth the exact amount of the temple tax for two people that was somewhere, somehow dropped in the sea. And exactly this fish with exactly this coin was caught by Peter at exactly the time and place Jesus said. What a mighty Lord we serve! Even the fish in the sea are students in the school of his sovereignty! My friend, the Jesus to whom you belong controls everything from minnows to monsters, soft summer breezes to category five Katrinas, caterpillars to conquistadors. Everyone with whom you deal is as much in his hands as that scaly little ATM. Because Jesus is looking out for you, you don’t need to look out for yourself. You are free to look out for others. You are free to treat them well because Jesus has your back.
Living as a Grace-Focused Optimist enables you to be civil with everyone. That’s the lesson Jesus teaches you in the school of a small fish.