A couple of months ago, I was celebrating mass for our Columban community here at our house in Essendon. The Gospel of the day was the text of Matthew 17, 22-27, one of the strangest texts I know. However, since my course at Tantur, I now have what might be called an ‘intimate’ connection to it. Tantur is an ecumenical Institute initially set up by Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem, close to the gigantic Separation Wall erected by Israel to separate the West Bank (what is left of Palestine) from Israel proper.
We regularly had excursions to other parts of the Holy Land as part of our course. On one such excursion, we visited Capernaum (Kfer Nahum) and lunched at a local restaurant on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Looking out at the lake from a table by the window was inspirational. Always eager to try local delicacies, I, and several others, decided on ‘St. Peter’s Fish’ on the menu.
The fish came served with a coin in its mouth, which originated in the Gospel story I quoted above. The fish may have been a novelty, but was so full of external and internal fish bones that one could scarcely note the taste!! I could only hope that Peter and his fishing companions caught better fish than this.
After reading the footnotes to this text in ‘The New Community Bible – Catholic Edition’ I re-read the text ‘But so as not to offend these people (the Temple tax collectors) go to the lake, throw in a hook and open the mouth of the first fish you catch. You will find a coin in it, take it and let it be paid for you and for me.’ Jesus was suggesting that the Temple tax should be paid so as not to offend the Jewish neighbours of the mostly Jewish-Christian community in which Matthew’s gospel was written. Hence, a little-known text from his gospel is a forerunner of enculturating the Good News of Jesus into the world’s cultures, just as St. Paul did when he told the Athenians, ‘As I walked around looking at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed To an Unknown God. Now, what you worship as unknown, I intend to make known to you.’
This demonstrates the importance of respecting the culture one enters into and presenting the Good News from within, and not imposing it from the outside.