Matthew 17: 24-27 Something is Fishy with these Taxes

A Corinthian Stater By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=510397

Matthew 17: 24-27

24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” 25 He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

Throughout Matthew’s gospel we have heard of the approaching kingdom of heaven, and yet the disciples and Christians across the generations have needed to negotiate their participation in the earthly society they are a part of when their citizenship is in heaven. The paying of taxes is a reality that people of Jesus’ world, Matthew’s church, and modern Christians share and there are times when one may live in a society that either oppresses Christians and Jews (since the first followers of Jesus were Jewish) or embodies a set of values which contradict the values of the disciples of Jesus. We will see shortly that Jesus will be in conflict with the temple and its leadership, but the hearers in Matthew’s church probably heard this reading reflecting two different contexts: the context of Jesus’ life where the temple exists and collects tribute for support and the context of their own time where the temple is destroyed and there is a tax Jewish people are required to pay after their defeat in the Jewish war and the destruction of the temple.

Peter has continued to be the person who speaks on behalf of the disciples and he is the one approached the collectors of the ‘two drachma’ and is asked ‘Does your teacher not fulfill the two drachma?’ As mentioned above, in Jesus’ time there would be a tax or contribution that supported the temple in Jerusalem but after 70 C.E. and the conclusion of the Jewish War the temple was destroyed and Emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on Jews to pay annually and the tax was used to build the temple to Jupiter Capitolinus. (Carter, 2001, p. 135) Jesus may have had issues with the temple establishment but the payment of taxes to a occupying empire to construct a temple to a different God may have been a contentious subject for many devout Jews. How does one maintain allegiance to the kingdom of God in the midst of the Roman empire? Does one pay this tax or does one resist? How does one render to God what is God’s, to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to the temple what belongs to the temple? Are the followers of Jesus to resist or to hand over these taxes?

As Peter enters the home, Jesus uses the moment to frame the ‘two drachma’ tax within the framework of understanding one’s position in relation to the temple (and by extension in Matthew’s time Rome) as being connected to one’s identity in the kingdom of heaven. At the beginning of this chapter, in the transfiguration, we were reminded of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and using the reasoning of the world Jesus invites the question whether the sons of kings pay the taxes or whether others pay these taxes. Jesus invites Peter to use the logic of the world around him to see that Jesus’ relation to God in the world’s logic would exempt him from paying taxes to the temple. As we heard in 12:6, one greater than the temple is here and the sons (children NRSV) but while Jesus may not be subordinate to the temple, he provides for the tax to be paid. Like Paul in Romans 12: 18, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In order not to give offense (again the Greek scandalizo is behind this term) Jesus provides another way and again demonstrates who he is in relation to the creation.

We have seen Jesus provide food for multitudes by making provisions for thousands with a little bread and fish (14: 13-21, 15: 32-39) and demonstrate his mastery over the sea (8: 23-27, 14: 22-33) so perhaps this strange little story where Jesus has one of his fishers of men return to their original vocation as a fisherman casting a line into the sea may not be so strange as it initially appears . While there may be something fishy about the coin pulled from the mouth of a fish, but the master of the fish and the sea is the creator and not Caesar. God provides a stater, a coin about three times the size of a drachma, for the payment to be given. We are not told if this is a gold or silver stater which would either be worth far more than the tax for a gold stater or slightly less than the tax for two people for a silver (based on weight) but ultimately what is provided is enough and a way is found to navigate the demands of earthly authorities while affirming the ultimate sovereignty of God and the position of Jesus as Son of God. Peter, and by extension the disciples, are also invited into participating in the benefits of the children of God but will also forgo their own rights for the sake of peace or to not give offence.[1] One can find ways to grant to temple or Caesar what they claim without impinging on God’s ultimate claim on the followers of Christ and all of creation.

Each of the gospels, the letters of Paul and other epistle writers and Revelation all deal with navigating one’s faithfulness to Christ within the world of the Roman empire. These texts give us examples to follow as we try to faithfully navigate our own time. Many of the authors in the New Testament illustrate this third way between resistance and submission which allows one to understand one’s privileges as a child of God while acting in a way that does not provide offense. As I reflect on this passage I remember an experience Eberhard Bethge shares about a time he shared with Dietrich Bonhoeffer June 17, 1940

While we were enjoying the sun, there suddenly boomed out from the café loudspeakers the fanfare signal for a special announcement: the message was that France had surrendered. The people round about the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arm they sang ‘Deutschland, Deutschland űber alles.’ We had stood up too. Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. ‘Raise your arm! Are you crazy?’  he whispered to me, and later: ‘We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” (Bethge, 2000, p. 681)

Jesus will have plenty of conflicts with Pharisees, Sadducees, and the chief priests in Jerusalem, but he also seeks peace where possible. Part of the struggle for followers of Jesus is navigating when they can conform to the societies in which they live without compromising their allegiance to Christ and when they must prophetically resist. When it comes to the question of taxes for the temple or Rome, Jesus shows a way to render the tax without losing one’s identity as a child of God.

[1] A gold stater would cover the ‘two drachma’ tax for all the disciples and this may be what Matthew intends theologically but it is not explicit in the text.

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