‘Baiting the tax man’ -Monday, 19th week in ordinary time – Matthew 17:22-27
The text of today finds Jesus in Capernaum. The transfiguration has recently taken place and Jesus is back in his de-facto headquarters. This is the village of Peter’s mother-in-law and Peter would certainly be a known figure, even more due to his association with Jesus. It is no wonder then that Peter is accosted by the temple tax collectors with a question that rather seems to throw aspersions on the religiosity of Jesus. Were they insinuating that Jesus was a bad Jewish Rabbi? Perhaps they were attempting to prove Jesus’ disloyalty to the temple or His violation of the Law? The question asked could have been one that sought clarification but was designed more to embarrass Jesus. “Does your teacher NOT pay the temple tax?”
So, what then was this temple tax and even more what were these temple tax collectors doing so far in the North, away from Jerusalem? By Jewish religious law, as commanded in the Bible itself (Exodus 30:13; 38:25) Moses instituted a half shekel sanctuary tax to help fund the tabernacle (Exodus 30:12-13). Every male Jew over the age of 20 had to give an annual contribution of “half a shekel”. However, this tax was only collected when Israel performed a national census.
In time the Jewish priests connected with Herod’s temple instituted another tax, a voluntary tax for the temple which was fixed at half a shekel for each male over the age of 20. The priests cleverly patterned it after the temple tax as mandated by Moses in the Old Testament. According to the Talmud, the temple tax was to be collected during any one of the Jewish festivals, namely the Passover, Pentecost, or feast of the Tabernacles. This Temple tax was not enforceable under Roman law, so they couldn’t make it compulsory. However, the priests considered it a sin if you didn’t pay it. So, you can call it a temple guilt tax, if you want and clearly there was pressure to pay it. So strong was this pressure that one can only suspect that temple tax collectors were probably going door to door to collect the tax and landed as far as Capernaum.
Scripture tells us that when Peter was asked if Jesus paid the tax, he said that he does. Perhaps as the evidence shows us, he did pay the tax but not in this year. Why do I say this? We are told that finally Jesus instruct Peter to cast a line and take from the mouth of a fish a coin enough to pay for both of them. It’s obvious that Peter was caught in a difficult situation, perhaps not sure if Jesus had paid the tax or not and to avoid embarrassment affirmed that Jesus did pay the temple tax. Poor Peter, he must have felt caught between a rock and a hard place.
When Peter came into the house where Jesus was, the Lord asked him, “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” Peter replied that kings collect from others because their children are exempt. Jesus’ point was that, since the temple was His Father’s house, Jesus was exempt. Why should the Son of God pay a tax to His own Father?
Jesus uses the question about the temple tax to teach a lesson, a lesson for us even today. Christians are free, but they must sometimes relinquish their rights in order to uphold their witness and not cause others to stumble. True freedom is not serving ourselves but others.
Yet Jesus pays the tax so as to ‘not offend’ the tax collectors. Jesus was no stranger to ‘offending people’, remember how he tore into the Pharisees and overturned the desks of the money changers in the temple? So, what was so different this time? I believe Jesus paid the tax simply because Peter had already given his word that Jesus had payed his temple tax and the Lord did not want to cause offense with this ‘lie’. So, Jesus told Peter to go fishing and to open the mouth of the first fish he caught because he would find a coin that would pay the temple tax for both Christ and Peter. By making the tax payment in such an extraordinary way, Jesus reinforced that this was not a tax they were obligated to pay. If so, there would have been enough money in the mouth of the fish to pay the temple tax for all the disciples.