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The Temple Tax

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma 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 sons or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not offend them, 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 little story — unique to Matthew’s gospel — concerns the temple tax which was a tax first imposed by Moses for the upkeep of the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 30.11-16). It is a story that is full of interest.

Under Moses, the tax was imposed every time there was a census, but by the time of Jesus it was an annual tax which, though it lacked the sanction of Roman law, every Jew between the ages of twenty and fifty was expected to pay. And that brings us to the first point of interest. For although Jesus and his disciples were all there, newly arrived together in Capernaum when the demand for the temple tax was made, only Jesus and Peter ended up paying the tax.

Why just those two? Surely it must have been that they were the only two people in the company who were over the age of twenty. In other words, Jesus’ other eleven disciples must still have been in their teens — though we usually imagine them to be older, closer to the age of Jesus. But the fact is that, in those days, someone who wanted to be a rabbi’s talmid or disciple would generally join him at the age of fifteen; so there would be nothing at all unusual about James, John, Andrew, Philip and the rest all being little more than boys.

The second point of interest is the fish. Commentators tend to pour scorn on the idea of a fish being caught with a coin in its mouth, but there is in fact a fish called a tilapia found in Galilee (Sarotherodon galilaeus galilaeus) that carries its eggs and later its young in its mouth. Once the young must be made to fend for themselves, the tilapia picks up a stone or any other suitably-sized object that it can find and carries that in its mouth instead of the young so as to prevent the young returning. So it is certainly within the bounds of possibility that a tilapia could be caught carrying in its mouth a coin that someone had lost overboard while sailing on Galilee.

So much for the background. What of the teaching? Peter is clearly being taken to task for affirming that Jesus does pay the temple tax, but why wouldn’t he pay it? He was a Jew over the age of twenty. On what grounds could he possibly be exempt? Jesus explains by way of a rabbinical kind of question. Do kings who impose taxes collect them from their own sons? No. So work it out for yourself Peter … Who is the king who collects the temple tax? God. The temple tax is an obligation to God. But what has Peter just heard God say about Jesus on the mount of transfiguration? “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17.5). So should Jesus, as God’s son, pay the tax due to God? No, “the sons are exempt”.

I note the plural. The sons are exempt; not the son is exempt. Jesus is including Peter in his sonship exemption, and when he instructs Peter to pay the tax it is “so that we may not offend them.” The new kingdom, the kingdom of God that has dawned with the coming of Jesus, is a kingdom of no-one but those who are sons and daughters of God. Or to put it the other way round: all who enter the kingdom of God through Jesus (and there is no other way) become sons and daughters of God by doing so.

But the teaching here is also that, until that kingdom comes in all its fullness, the sons and daughters of God must follow Jesus in his humble submission to the duties and demands that fall on everyone in this world. We cannot go around claiming our exemption. What we can do, however, is to rely on the fact that Jesus will enable us to fulfil what is required of us. This story ends by assuring me that he will provide the wherewithal to pay my “tax” as well as his own — whatever that “tax” might be.

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19 comments on “The Temple Tax

  1. Kevin Harvey says:

    Excellent synopsis. Keep up the GOOD work.

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  2. JMG says:

    Thank you for sharing us your insights about this reading. It made me realize so many many things. God truly is a fair, faithful, considerate, humble God. He loves us so much that he shows us how it is to be human (weakness and all) and still be faithful and obedient to God. Thanks again and God bless you !

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  3. Jonathan says:

    Excellent and insightful. Really helped put things in prespective.

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  4. BJK says:

    The one thing that I find in this is that Peter answered for Jesus and did not ask Him why he did not pay the tax. But when Peter answered for Jesus, Jesus sent him out to fish for the tax which was Peters way of making a living before following Jesus. Jeus pervided a miricle, but he sent Peter back to work. Some times when we build a church or do other things for God and have a hard time paying is it us or God who wants it done. And thats why we pay for it instead of God. Just a thought.

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  5. mark ross says:

    here it is, 2011, and i just read this. i agree that this is insightful, but i guess i am a little curious of what the age of matthew would have been? a young man (especially a boy) wouldn’t have such a incredible responsibility as a tax collector.

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    1. Neil says:

      Good point! However, it may well have been that Matthew was not one of the tax-farmers (like Zacchaeus) who had won the bid at one of Herod’s auctions to collect the taxes for a particular area but merely one of the agents employed by the tax farmers to collect the taxes in a particular locality – a job that a 19 year-old could easily handle. Indeed, the job probably called for someone young and virile who could get rough with reluctant tax-payers if necessary.

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  6. mark ross says:

    makes perfect sense.

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  7. joshuad31 says:

    wow this is awesome! That is so cool. I was really supplied in my spirit by your ministering of Christ to me. Amen brother.

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  8. debbie says:

    for the upkeep of the tabernacle in the wilderness…this is not accurate

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    1. Neil says:

      I think it is. At the end of the very passage you quote in your next comment, it says the priests are to take the money and “use it for the service of the Tent of Meeting” (Exo 30:16) … i.e. the upkeep of the tabernacle. Indeed the very first collection of the tax was used for the silver sockets, the curtain etc. See Exodus 38.27.

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  9. debbie says:

    The temple tax was an “…offering to the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves…” Ex. 30: 11 – 16.

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  10. JGIG says:

    Neil!

    I was looking back at a link to Pass The Toast on my blog and wondered if you were posting again. I was glad to see your comment =o).

    I hope you’re doing well, brother.

    Blessings and prayers,
    Wendy at JGIG

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    1. Neil says:

      Good to hear from you again, Wendy. I’m not posting again yet. I’m busy working on a book. But as you can see I do still respond to comments and queries. Blessings, Neil

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  11. JGIG says:

    Cool post, btw, Neil =o). You always bring wonderful insight in your writing. I’m thankful for the work you’ve done here.

    Again, blessings,
    Wendy

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  12. Rose Heath says:

    What and how much is a temple tax 1- person?

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    1. Neil says:

      As it says in the text, two drachma.

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  13. David Butler says:

    Once imposed, taxes never go away, at least as long as the nation survives. But elsewhere I read that after the destruction of the Temple about 40 years later, the Romans took over and administered the tax helping to support the temple to Appolos! I wonder when it finally ended and whether Jews refused to pay. Three things are certain: death and taxes and the return of The Son of God, which will end forever the grasp of the tax collector.

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  14. Boyd Hatchel says:

    Thank you for your thoughts and wisdom. How much was two drachma in a day’s wages?

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    1. Neil says:

      Thanks for your comment, Boyd. The two drachma temple tax (equivalent to the half-shekel prescribed in Exodus 30.13) represented two days’ wages. Both Greek and Roman coins circulated in Israel in NT times (which is why money changers were needed) and labourers were generally paid either a drachma (a Greek coin) or a denarius (a Roman coin) for a day’s work (see the parable of the labourers in the vineyard – Matthew 20.)

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