Hey Presto

By Sarah Cornwell

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 17:22-27

22 As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23 and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”


It looks like Jesus just performed a pretty impressive magic trick. He sends his lovely assistant, St. Peter, to the sea. Jesus tells him to pull out a fish, and inside the fish’s mouth will be a coin to cover the temple tax. Presto! Is this your coin, temple tax collectors?

It can be tempting to turn Jesus into The Great Magician. He shows up, is generally nice, albeit a little weird, does a magic trick or two, and then he goes on his way. Entertaining enough for kids, but something we adults have long outgrown. Real adults leave The Great Magician behind.

This is entirely appropriate, because in reality, Jesus is not a magician. He would be terrible at it. First, he depresses his audience. Jesus tells his disciples that “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” Unlike an audience excited to see a woman sawn in half and then put back together again, Jesus’ disciples are extremely distressed when they hear what’s about to happen. Second, Jesus talks too much. How many magicians discuss the nature of the rabbit in the hat or the economic system surrounding the coin behind the ear before they get on with it? Finally, his “magic” isn’t even useful. Jesus establishes that he is exempt from the temple tax, but he pays it anyway, as well as Peter’s.

When we encounter the mysteries of the faith, do we allow them to draw us deeper into a world that is beyond our control, or do we write it off as an illusion, or even a delusion? Do we treat the mysterious and miraculous Jesus like a magician, one we have long outgrown and are allowing our children to outgrow too, or are we treating him like the savior of the world, the Christ? Our Lord has never outgrown us. May we be able to say the same.

Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have six children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.

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Today we pray for:

The Diocese of Hpa-an (Church of the Province of Myanmar)
The Diocese of the Rio Grande


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