The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
The Temple Tax
24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel.[a] Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
This scene no doubt took place at Peter’s house, where Jesus stayed when He was in Capernaum.
The temple tax was a religious tax and not a Roman one.
John MacArthur says it was first recorded in the Book of Exodus (emphases mine):
In Exodus chapter 30 when the tabernacle was established and it was carried from there to the temple, God gave a law through Moses. “And the Lord spoke unto Moses,” Exodus 30:11, “When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord.” How much, verse 13 says, “Half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary.” A half shekel shall be the offering to the Lord. Verse 15 says, “They shall not give more if they’re rich, they shall not give less if they’re poor when they make an offering to the Lord, half shekel for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation that it may be a memorial to the children of Israel before the Lord to make atonement for your souls.” Half shekel.
Now Nehemiah reduced it to a third shekel when they came back from captivity because they were so poor. But the half shekel had been reinstituted and in this particular temple in Jerusalem, there was a half shekel temple tax that had to be paid by every Jewish male and had to be paid annually. And, by the way, if you didn’t pay it, they took compensation out of your personal belongings.
As for the word ‘two-drachma’, or ‘didrachma’ in some translations, and Jewish term ‘stater’, meaning ‘half a shekel’, he explains:
Now the term used here is didrachma. And basically a half a shekel, that’s a Jewish concept, was equal to two Greek drachmas, d-r-a-c-h-m-a-e, two Greek drachmas. And the tax then became known as the double drachma, or the didrachma, that’s the Greek term. And that is the one…it basically represents two days wages. That is the tax they were after. The half-shekel which equals the didrachma in Greek coinage.
And so, they came to collect that. Now commonly speaking, it was customary because there was no double didrachma in Greek coinage, they had the term but the economy had inflated to the point where they didn’t have didrachma. So what they used was a stater. And the stater was equal to two didrachma, or four drachma. Are you with me? So people would normally go together and pay one stater, and that would cover their temple tax.
However, Matthew Henry says that this tax was not insisted upon so much in Galilee. Therefore, when the temple tax collectors asked Peter whether Jesus paid the tax (verse 24), it was not meant as an attack but as a genuine, respectful enquiry — so much so that they did not want to bother Him, so they asked Peter. The tax collectors knew of Jesus, possibly witnessed His teachings and miracles, and thought He might be exempt from paying the tax:
The demand was very modest[;] the collectors stood in such awe of Christ, because of his mighty works, that they durst not speak to him about it, but applied themselves to Peter, whose house was in Capernaum, and probably in his house Christ lodged he therefore was fittest to be spoken to as the housekeeper, and they presumed he knew his Master’s mind …
they asked this with respect, intimating, that if he had any privilege to exempt him from this payment, they would not insist upon it.
Peter answered ‘Yes’, meaning that Jesus paid His taxes (verse 25). MacArthur reminds us that His is our example to follow:
There are people who are Christian people who don’t pay taxes. They don’t think they have any reason to pay taxes, they don’t like what’s done with their money and so forth and so they don’t pay. And some of them get away with it because the government knows that to prosecute and track them all down and go through the fight would be to lose more money than you would gain. But Jesus, does He pay taxes? Verse 25, “Peter said yes…yes, Jesus always pays His didrachma.” And you can imply from that that He always paid His taxes…always. Jesus is not a tax evader. He’s not a tax dodger.
Peter went indoors and Jesus asked him if kings taxed their own sons or other people. He was asking whether God would tax His Son. Peter replied that taxes came from other people, and Jesus affirmed that kings’ sons do not pay it (verse 26). The implication is that He is actually exempt from paying temple tax.
However, in order ‘not to give offence’ (verse 27), Jesus told Peter to go to the Sea of Galilee, take the first fish he caught and give the coin in its mouth to the tax collectors. The shekel would cover both Jesus’s and Peter’s temple tax.
Henry explains the possible offence given and why Jesus paid the tax:
Few knew, as Peter did, that he was the Son of God and it would have been a diminution to the honour of that great truth, which was yet a secret, to advance it now, to serve such a purpose as this. Therefore Christ drops that argument, and considers, that if he should refuse this payment, it would increase people’s prejudice against him and his doctrine, and alienate their affections from him, and therefore he resolves to pay it.
He makes this point:
Note, Christian prudence and humility teach us, in many cases, to recede from our right, rather than give offence by insisting upon it.
Henry also observes that a humble fish had the coin which would go to pay for the maintenance of the temple and provide the spiritual sustenance for God’s people:
when he could have taken it out of an angel’s hand.
That Peter had to go angling in order to catch the fish signifies that:
Peter has something to do, and it is in the way of his own calling too to teach us diligence in the employment we are called to, and called in. Do we expect that Christ should give to us? Let us be ready to work for him …
Peter was made a fisher of men, and those that he caught thus, came up where the heart is opened to entertain Christ’s word, the hand is open to encourage his ministers.
Finally, Jesus allowed Peter to benefit from his obedience and endeavour:
Peter fished for this money, and therefore part of it went for his use. Those that are workers together with Christ in winning souls shall shine with him. Give it for thee and me. What Christ paid for himself was looked upon as a debt what he paid for Peter was a courtesy to him. Note, it is a desirable thing, if God so please, to have wherewithal of this world’s goods, not only to be just, but to be kind not only to be charitable to the poor, but obliging to our friends. What is a great estate good for, but that it enables a man to do so much the more good?
Next time: Matthew 18:1-4