Look: “After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ‘Yes, he does,’ he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?’ ‘From others,’ Peter answered. ‘Then the children are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. ‘But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’” (Matthew 17:24-27)
This is another one of those passages that I’ve allowed to slide past my consciousness. In my mind, I think, I connected it to the question about paying the Roman tax which resulted in Jesus telling us to, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
But this is an entirely different issue, though probably raised, as the other one was, by opponents trying to “get the goods on Jesus.”
The temple tax of two drachmas per year was owed by every Jewish male. The proceeds went to support the operation of the temple. Two drachmas represented two days’ wages for the typical laborer.
Peter is asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the the temple tax?” Apparently without caring or knowing about the real answer, Peter says that Jesus does.
I suppose that Peter thought that was the end of it. But when Jesus and the disciples come “into the house” (House often is a codeword in Matthew for the assembled people of God, the Church), Jesus, in the know, asks Peter a seemingly hypothetical question: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” When Peter rightly answers, “From others,” Jesus says that means that the children are exempt. Then He tells Peter to throw his fishing line into the lake, then open the mouth of the first fish he catches to find four drachma, two for Jesus’ temple tax and two for Peter’s. Jesus does this, He says “so that we may not cause offense.”
I’m not entirely clear here: Is Jesus calling Himself the Child of the great King, God the Father? Or is He calling disciples like Peter children of God through Christ the King? I suppose that either or both of the interpretations is possible and it may not ultimately matter.
But several points are clear.
One, Jesus as the King is exempt from the taxes and all other temporal obligations imposed by earthly kings, even the “earthly authorities” who run the temple. So, Jesus may not, in fact, have paid the tax that Peter so breezily assured the two-drachma tax collectors that Jesus paid. The disciples may have been exempt by Jesus’ reason as well, since they were “children of the King.” As Christians, we also exempt from any coerced “tax” to support Christ’s Church. (This makes the preferred status of “state Churches” in Europe dubious, to say the least.) I take it that Jesus has not paid this tax.
Two, Jesus has, to use a bad pun, “bigger fish to fry” than to dispute over whether He needs to pay the temple tax. So, to avoid giving offense to those for whom this is a big deal, Jesus pays the tax.
In other words, if Jesus not paying the temple tax was going to be an impediment to people following Him, He would pay the temple tax.
The gospel is offensive enough to human sensibilities--the gospel that God took on flesh in Jesus and offers new and everlasting life to all who repent and believe in Jesus. There’s no point in creating artificial, tangential reasons for offending people when what we really want is for them to know Jesus Christ as their God, Savior, and Lord. So, Jesus tells Peter after making the point that He doesn’t “owe” the tax (and maybe His followers don’t either), to pay the tax.[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
Three, Jesus covers Peter’s temple tax obligation. The point here has nothing to do with financial obligations. Jesus isn’t commending a “prosperity gospel” here, because money isn’t what this entire incident is about. He IS NOT saying, "Believe in Me and I'll make you prosperous."
What Jesus is doing here is paying the price for Peter’s obligations. In this sense, it becomes a foretaste of what Jesus will do on the cross. He pays the penalty that we owe God for our sins. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...He redeemed us [or bought us out slavery to sin and death] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” (Galatians 3:13-15)
All Peter had to do was receive the gift of two drachma that covered his temple tax obligation.
Peter could have said, “That’s ridiculous! Whoever heard of a four drachma coin landing in the mouth of a fish?” (Although I can think of a man who landed in the mouth of a fish!) Peter could have thought, "I don’t trust such nonsense. I’ll just scrounge together the four drachma and pay it myself." He could have gone to Judas, the treasurer of the group, for the money needed and the whole bone of contention would be erased.
But we have no record of Peter, who often messed up and failed to trust Jesus, doing anything but what Jesus directed.
When we trust Jesus, He pays our debts for sin.
Listen: Lord, what do You want to teach me on all of this, because it’s rich?
One thing, I think, is for me to refrain from doing anything or saying anything that gives undue offense. This doesn’t mean that I should be a mealy-mouth. It means that I should stick to the gospel and stick to loving You and loving others. Even that will cause offense; but if people are offended by Your gospel, so be it. I just need to get out of the way and not offend them because of me, my words, my faults. As Your ambassador, I need to speak Your words and not my own, lest people think I’m speaking in Your name when I’m not.
I need to refrain from any behavior that might destroy my credibility for fulfilling my one mission, making disciples.
I need to refrain from any behavior that might keep me from being the one thing You call me to be, a disciple.
I suspect that this is part of why Jesus says, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)
Secondly, as a pastor, I need to refrain from laying obligations that You don’t command onto people or even to seem to do so. I’m not conscious of ever having done this with people; but this is an important cautionary lesson.
The temple tax was a kind of work. Yes, giving is part of the Christian life. But whatever giving we do to the cause of Christ in the world should be rendered joyfully, as an outgrowth of a maturing relationship with Jesus, not because someone from the Church reminds us to pay our “temple tax.”
Thirdly, I need to be more trusting. When Jesus told Peter to sink his line into the lake, catch a fish, and pull a four-drachma coin from the fish’s mouth, the record indicates that Peter did just that. There’s no indication that, even when Jesus was tried on trumped-up charges before Pilate, that Jesus’ payment of the temple tax was in dispute.
I need to trust what Jesus tells me to do and who He tells me to be. I need to trust His answers to my prayers, whether the answers are yes, no, or wait. I need to trust that I am forgiven not because of my works but because of what Jesus has done for me on the cross and from the empty tomb.
Respond: Lord, today, help me to major in the majors. Help me to not pursue my own agenda or seek affirmation for myself or the things I want, but help me to only pursue Your agenda, give You glory through my interactions with others, and only say those things needed to help people experience Your concern and love. In Jesus’ name.