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.