A Fishy Story
Please read Matthew 17:24-27 in your preferred version of the Bible. I have used the NIV (1984) to prepare the following.
Because of the law of love, keep the law of the land.
1. The problem as the tax collectors saw it. (17:24)
The tax collectors saw Jesus and Peter as being delinquent on their taxes. That was the presenting issue anyway. I suspect this was a trap set for Jesus. The passive aggressive way the question is framed supports this view. Also, the Gospels mention several occasions when Jewish leaders tried to catch Jesus in an error or taking sides in a hotly-debated issue. Kind of like our media!
This event happened in Capernaum, Jesus’ usual home when in Galilee, the province north of Jerusalem in Judea. The word “tax” doesn’t actually appear in verse 24. It literally says “two-drachma coin,” which was the temple tax rate.
This was the only tax collected by the Jews not the Romans. The Romans were historically lenient when it came to religious observances that did not compromise imperial taxes and/or loyalty to the empire. Interesting fact: even after the Jewish temple was destroyed in 72 AD, the Romans continued the tradition of the “temple tax,” but they used it to find their temple to Jupiter!
We might call this a “head tax;” if you’ve got one, you’ve got to pay it. It was commanded in Scripture: see Exodus 30:11-16. It is also mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:6+9, where it is called “atonement for your soul.” That sounds important!
One drachma was a day’s wage for a typical worker. Imagine me showing up on your doorstep once a year and hitting you up for two day’s income. It might not bankrupt you, but it wasn’t painless either.
Commentator William Barclay explains the need for the tax:
“The temple at Jerusalem was a costly place to run. There were the daily morning and evening sacrifices each of which involved the offering of a year-old lamb. Along with the lamb were offered 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.”
(The Daily Study Bible Series, Matthew, p. 168.)
2. The problem as Jesus saw it. (17:25-26)
Jesus’ saw the problem as being the tax collector attempting to collect from Peter and Himself a tax from which they were exempt. The encounter started with the tax collectors jumping Peter at the door. Maybe they were trying to surprise Peter and intimidate him? Peter may’ve been intimidated or surprised and he blurted out, “YES, HE DOES,” then went inside to make sure He did.
Jesus overheard; I imagine the tax collectors made a loud accusation, trying to make Jesus look bad in front of the folks that typically gathered outside any place He settled. When Peter came inside, Jesus commented: “WHAT DO YOU THINK, SIMON? FROM WHOM DO THE KINGS OF THE EARTH COLLECT DUTY AND TAXES - FROM THEIR OWN SONS OR FROM OTHERS?”
The answer was obvious, and Peter got it; “FROM OTHERS” he replied. This was true; it was the habit of kings of the day to excuse members of their family from paying taxes. Jesus’ first point is that the king’s kids are excused from paying taxes. This was one of many examples of the powerful oppressing the needy.
His next point is that He is Son to a much greater King; the very God who commanded the tax be collected! Jesus’ knowledge of His unique place came early in life. In Luke 2:49 we see that Jesus, as a 12 year-old, referred to the temple as “MY FATHER’S HOUSE.” As God’s Son, He was not - according to usual standards - required to pay any taxes.
A third point is that if this tax really was “atonement for the soul,” He needed to do no atoning, because He was not guilty of sin. There was no separation between God the Son and God the Father. No offering was needed. Just the opposite; Jesus IS our atonement! In His sacrifice on the cross we find our sin forgiven and our relationship with God restored.
He turned the occasion into a teachable moment, revealing two things about Himself. First, Jesus is LORD. “THEN THE SONS ARE EXEMPT” Jesus said to Peter, continuing the dialogue (26). As the Son of God, Jesus was not required to pay that tax.
When we accept the Lordship of Jesus, we accept His right to rule over our lives and offer ourselves in service to Him. Ironically, it is in this surrender that we realize true freedom. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:17; NOW THE LORD IS THE SPIRIT, AND WHERE THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS, THERE IS FREEDOM.
Second, Jesus revealed that He is LOVE. Jesus went on to say, “BUT SO WE MAY NOT OFFEND THEM…” (27). The Gk word for OFFEND is skandalizein. It meant to be a “stumbling block, a reason for sin, an obstruction in someone’s path.” We must carefully guard against bringing offense or scandal if it’s at all possible.
A basic moral principle is the “preciousness of others.” It’s based on Phillippians 2:3; DO NOTHING OUT OF SELFISH AMBITION OR VAIN CONCEIT, BUT IN HUMILITY CONSIDER OTHERS BETTER THAN YOURSELVES. Jesus was under no legal obligation to pay their tax, but He did pay it, out of love.
3. Jesus’ solution to the problem. (17:26-27)
The customs of the day did not require Jesus to pay the tax - the law did not apply to Him. However, He voluntarily paid the tax because of the greater law of love. Even though it was just tricky tax collectors setting a trap, He voluntarily paid the tax.
He performed a miracle to prove His legal exception and His true nature. This miracle drives some people crazy. The whole coin and the fish thing sounds like - well, like a fish story! After all, why not just reach in His pocket and give Peter two coins?
First, pockets hadn’t been invented yet. The French did that hundreds of years later.
Second, when we do what anybody can do, how does God get any glory out of that? Miraculous and supernatural things serve as better evidence for God than everyday things.
Third, I picture the crowd outside waiting on the results of this confrontation and understood it to be a demonstration that will literally show them who is boss.
Jesus sent Peter out to the lake, which was probably nearby. “Go fish” He said. The first fish to bite would have something special in its tummy. Peter was to take the coins he found there and use those funds to pay their taxes.
People who are troubled by these verses have not taken time to think it out or have a nutty predisposition against miracles. Some think they are too smart - too “scientific” - to believe in miracles. Others think it depicts Jesus as misusing His divine power.
They’re both wrong. Every Gospel miracle had a shared purpose: to show people Jesus is God’s Son. The purpose of this miracle is no different. Only the occasion is different. Jesus claimed to be God’s Son and then proved He was by means of this miracle.
4. How does this help you pay your taxes?
Go fishing - what can it hurt? You will likely find this is a one-time event and won’t be repeated for you. Notice that the fish had exactly what was needed, no more. God supplies our “daily bread” without wasting any extra “dough.”
He supplies our needs, not our “greeds.” Biblically, the ideal is that we can be self-sufficient enough to be generous with those in need and support God’s work too.
It can help with your attitude if you follow Jesus’ example of humility and love. Love for others is the second greatest command. Jesus showed love by sincerely attempting to avoid causing offense to the legalistic crowd hung up on his taxes.
Because of the law of love, keep the law of the land.
I’ll admit: on the outside this story reads strangely. One commentator wrote that he’d been ashamed of the story because it felt so contrary to our reasonable and scientific culture. It can feel silly to moderns who are so proud of their brains and have put their trust in science.
It is my prayer that we’ve looked more deeply. With God’s Spirit we’ve seen this event through the eyes and ears of the people on the scene when it happened. Hopefully it will make more sense and be visible to us as a time when Jesus used an unusual circumstance to teach very typical lessons on who He was and how we are to live like Him.
While it is a “fish story,” it is true and a parable of sorts that reminds us about God’s provision for us, our provision for each other, and our responsibility to see God in the details of daily living.