24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Your teacher pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?” 25 “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 children or from others?” 26 “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offence, 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.”
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- This incident happened when Jesus and the disciples had returned to their home base in Capernaum.
- The men who collected the temple tax came to Peter.
- The temple tax amount was worth two drachmas.
- They asked him if Jesus paid the temple tax.
- Peter told them “Yes.”
- When Peter returned to the house, he said nothing about it to Jesus.
- Jesus did start a conversation with Peter.
- Jesus asked his opinion about taxes.
- He asked Peter to give his opinion on whether the children of a king paid taxes or only other people.
- Peter answered by saying that the king’s children were exempt from paying taxes and that the king only took taxes from other people.
- Jesus told Peter that it was true. In the normal world, the children of the king would not pay taxes.
- Then Jesus said that he and Peter should pay the temple tax, not because they were obliged but to avoid causing unnecessary offence.
- He told Peter to go to the lake and throw in a line to catch fish.
- He said that if Peter looked inside the mouth of the first fish, he caught he would find a four-drachma coin.
- He was to take the coin to the people who collected the tax and pay his own and Peter’s temple tax.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
When we read about “temple tax” in this story, most of us are going to be wondering what it means. More to the point, we are going to assume that unless we find out what it means the central message of the story will not be clear. The tendency would be to go straight to the Bible Dictionary. There is nothing wrong with that of course. In our part of the world, there are endless sources of helpful information. Dr Google will no doubt come up with the goods. But my suggestion would be to leave it for later. Use it as a secondary source rather than primary. I think it is a more reliable principle for interpreting the Bible. It is way better for making and multiplying disciples.
This is part of the reason why I am not a great fan of study bibles. It sounds almost sinful to suggest that notes at the bottom of the page in Study Bibles would be anything but helpful. I am jealous for the text itself. I just want it to be allowed to provide the primary information. The Bible is a relationship book, not an academic one. If you head away from the text for the primary information, you may end up imposing that information on the text rather than allowing the text and the story to provide its own context. We should go as far as we can with the information given and then use other sources to comment on what we have read.
My motive here is that of a disciple-making practitioner. I want to find ways we can connect with God through the Word and Spirit ourselves. I am talking about FOR ourselves, not BY ourselves. The more we can develop such skills the better equipped we will be to reproduce what we learn rather than becoming co-dependent consumers. The best way to get the main message of Scripture is to join personal responsibility with a good Christian community. When this happens, our observations and conclusions are checked and formatted with input from fellow believers. This is one of the reasons why Jesus invented a thing called ‘church.’
Sadly, we have built churches on the premise that professional knowledge is needed to maintain orthodoxy and success. We have developed a caste system in the church where professionals are educated way beyond their obedience. In this world, processing information becomes a substitute for faith-based obedience I am all for people being educated, by the way. I am all for people studying to do a better at knowing and serving God. What I am not so convinced about is the idea that academic ability is a primary requirement for multiplying disciples. Ar the present time, it is evident that the more academically inclined parts of the world are doing a much poorer job of making disciples and the parts where there is less emphasis on academic training for leaders are doing much better.
The result is that we produce church systems that become co-dependent on academically trained professionals. This system pumps out masses of information that seems to bear little fruit. People have become sermon-proof in my part of the world. Good people can show listen to sermons but remain largely unaccountable for any application or implementation. High value on the transfer of information and low value on obedience.
So, I want to work hard to keep the process as simple and accessible as possible. This is the only way to maximise reproducibility. The revelation that comes through a Bible story is simple, accessible and calls for a faith/obedience response. Even if we don’t know exactly what “temple tax” means, we can learn as much as we can from the story. My guess is that it will not be as important to that process as it might seem. Afterwards, we can read up about temple tax and see if it helps build on what we have discovered.
24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Your teacher pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?” 25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
According to the information provided, Jesus came back to the house in Capernaum that he and his disciples used as a ministry base. Jesus was inside the house and Peter was somewhere outside. We don’t know where. We just know that the men who represented the temple met Peter and asked him their question without Jesus being present. It wasn’t a long conversation, and they weren’t there to demand a payment as if it was overdue. They knew that Peter was one of the disciples of Jesus and they wanted to know whether this teacher had modelled and taught about the two-drachma temple tribute.
The question from the temple collectors was framed in a way that anticipated a “Yes” response. It is not exactly a loaded question, but it is making a statement at the same time. Jesus was by no means a neutral figure from the perspective of the religious leaders. He operated well outside orthodox parameters and was attended by crowds of people everywhere he went. Just think about it. He was counter-cultural and popular. That gave him serious leverage. If he had wanted to organise a normal revolution he had the social capital to do so. We are used to seeing anti-establishment people becoming popular and powerful. I have seen many churches and movements achieve astounding popularity during my short span of years. Sadly, that success has so often turned inward and becomes independent and self-serving. There is no surprise that the temple collectors wanted to know whether Jesus was for or against the temple. Their question searched for an answer.
Peter’s answered in the affirmative straight away. He could have said, “Yes, of course, he does.” It seems that the matter was settled and the conversation finished. They went on their way, and Peter returned to the house but said nothing to Jesus.
The temple in question was a very ornate building in Jerusalem. Jesus was found there when he stayed behind on a family visit. Jesus had been there for various festivals during these years of ministry. The temple in Jerusalem is “God-ville.” The building was built as a permanent replacement for a tent that God told Moses to build in the wilderness. It was a symbol of the presence of God in their midst. Jesus said it was his Father’s house.. In John’s gospel, the disciples thought of another reference from the Psalms as they saw Jesus overturning money tables and driving out animals in his Father’s house: “The zeal for my house has consumed me.”
The stories covered so far in this gospel show that Jesus had an ambivalent relationship with the temple in Jerusalem. At least, he had a tenuous relationship with the religious leaders from the temple rather than the temple itself. We are aware that he has re-booted the laws of Moses in the sermon on the mount. He has been challenged on numerous occasions for failing to keep traditional practices that were derived from, but not truly representing the law of Moses. So, the question is probably a reasonable one for the collectors to ask. By my reading, their question is asking whether Jesus was supportive of the temple or rebelling against it. I have known plenty of Christian leaders over the years who were unwilling to support a particular Christian cause because they disagreed with one or two of the beliefs or practices. They felt they had to maintain separation for the sake of being faithful to the truth (their theological system). And it is an interesting issue for us to think about. Was Jesus opposed to the temple or supportive of it? I think the answer would have to be, both. He was critical of some of its practices, but he didn’t start agitating to have it torn down.  He didn’t start an oppositional political/religious organisation with a plan to overthrow the incumbent leaders. His kingdom was not going to be represented by either buildings or institutions. We should keep on learning this lesson.
There is something profoundly pragmatic about the way Jesus related to the Jewish religious establishment. There is so much for us to learn by following him in this. We might be able to see endless reasons for him to start up a separate movement. That’s the way we have generally ‘resolved’ our disagreements. I am no exception to this. At a certain point in time, most of the members of our congregation separated from our former denomination and started a new church. Eventually, that church was a foundation member of a different movement (called Crosslink Christian Network). To me, it was a relief not to have to fight battles about things that seemed to be unimportant to us (e.g. mode of baptism, lay celebration of communion, institutional ownership of property), but were given huge importance by the leaders of that denomination. I have often reflected on the decision we made to form a separate congregation. The reasons have everything to do with what was happening here.
If the temple collectors put their question in another way and said, “Is your teacher a supporter or a detractor of the work of the temple?” the answer Peter readily gave was “Yes of course.” His reasons for saying this would have come from the fact that for two years he had watched Jesus honour synagogues by attending them and honour the temple by going up to celebrate the festivals. True, he didn’t do a lot of the things that were expected of a “temple supporter,” but there was no evidence that Jesus was wantonly schismatic or arrogantly rebellious. So the answer was a definite, “Yes, or course he supports the temple!” Jesus had a unique way of creating new wineskins without the need to destroy the old. I observed only recently for the first time that Jesus didn’t say that the old wineskins should be destroyed. He just said that old wineskins were for old wine and new wine needed new wineskins. He was pointing out was that the demonised and fractured Old Testament system that had developed around the temple was not going to handle the new wine of the kingdom message. That message needed a new wine skin, and he went about building that new wineskin in the midst of and alongside the old one but without the need to denigrate and destroy it. Paul did the same thing. He didn’t refuse to enter a synagogue in the next town just because he was kicked out of one in the previous town. He maintained his commitment to the gospel to the end but also maintained his commitment to his own people. It is ironic that it was in honouring the wishes of the church leaders in Jerusalem that he was falsely arrested and spent two years in a prison in Caesarea. He was a skilled craftsman when it came to maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is an expensive exercise, and I am certain he learned it from Jesus.
What Jesus did was to stay on message. He refused to stop preaching the kingdom of God. It got him into a lot of trouble, but he kept doing it. Because his aim was to proclaim that message we don’t find him second guessing and modifying his message to pacify his opponents. We don’t find him just being critical of everyone who didn’t agree with him. He didn’t define himself by what he was against. He just kept on teaching, proclaiming and doing what he was called to. He was a positive and redemptive focus, day after day. He boldly and lovingly maintained that message before them to the absolute end. That’s why Peter could answer so firmly and immediately.
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 children or from others?” 26 “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him.
Peter didn’t raise the matter, Jesus did. Perhaps, we could say that before Peter could raise the matter Jesus did. It was something that he thought was important to make clear and this great teaching moment had arrived. Jesus excelled in this approach to training. What follows now is a pithy little excursion into the tax collecting practices of earthly kings. There are three different groups of people in this illustration: There is a king who is going to collect taxes so that he can live in splendour and pay his court members and army personnel to keep him in power. Then there are the members of his family. The success of the king will provide them with benefits just because they are family – if we were talking about Papua New Guinea or various of the Pacific Island nations we would be referring to the “one talk” system. The people who speak the same language as the ruler are the ones who expect to be offered benefits under the rule. They expect to be treated differently because of their communal way of thinking. It is the same amongst Aboriginal people in my own country, Australia. If one family member comes into some money, all the members of that family have a claim on it. And the member with the money will not think otherwise. The third group of people in this story are the people who are not related to the king. These are the people who will be the source of his wealth. Whether they were countrymen and women or conquered enemies, they will be kept under control by being taxed to the point where they have neither the strength nor the opportunity to create trouble or opposition.
The equation is simple. The king’s family don’t have to pay taxes as other people do. The others pay more because they are not family. Peter gets this equation because, in that world at that time, it was a universal principle of society. The emphasis that Jesus wants to make is that the children of the Ruler are exempt from any taxes because they are family.
27 “But so that we may not cause offence, 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.”
I don’t want to form the next denomination because I make this principle into a system, but, if there is a surprise here, what is it? I have been saying all the way through these segments that the disclosure of the kingdom of God is found in the things that Jesus says, points to or does that are surprising. On this occasion, he seems to be saying that the temple belongs to his Father. His Father, the God who rules over heaven and earth and whose tangible presence on earth is identified with the temple, is asking for money. He is the Son of God. So is Peter. So are all the people of Israel in fact. If they are family, they shouldn’t have to pay tax. Jesus has taken a metaphor from the secular world to illustrate a spiritual matter. Sons of daughters of the king are under no obligation to pay taxes like those who are NOT sons and daughters. The tax should not be paid because of either obligation or intimidation. Jesus wants to take this matter into a very different realm: the realm of the kingdom of God where we do things to honour God and serve his loving purpose. On this occasion, the purpose was to avoid offence. Jesus was not fearful of causing offence. There were plenty of people who were offended by what he did and didn’t do. But offence was not his goal. He could, on the one hand, be so zealous for his Father’s house that he would go in and tip over tables. On another occasion, he was willing to financially support the temple because it was his Father’s house and he wanted to honour his Father. We need to be careful to make sure we offend the right people for the right reasons and avoid offending people for the wrong reasons. Here is a good example.
What do you make of the little supernatural errand Jesus sent Peter to do. Catch a fish. Get a coin you will find in its mouth and then pay the temple tax. This is also a kingdom of God activity. Supernatural provision is the inheritance of the children of God. It’s not a get rich quick scheme, but a means by which God enables important things to happen. There have been so many stories that show God’s faithfulness in making sure his people are provided for. What God did for the Israelites in the wilderness he has done for people in every generation. It is a core area of trust for the family of God. In the first place, it is worthy of his character. I know the struggles people have with money and other forms of provision. We have made a god of wealth in nations like my own. Our expectations are so easily messed up. But the truth is, God can be trusted. The fact that God can help Jesus and Peter find a four-drachma coin so that they make a statement about their commitment to what the temple represents is something we need to remind ourselves about all the time. God’s resources are for God’s purposes. We should not presume to think that God will bless our addiction to wealth and material possessions, but he will make sure we can get the work done because we have what we need.
When Peter got over the amazement of catching a fish with a coin in its mouth, packed up his rod and line and went to the temple collectors with hard evidence to back up the answer he had given them earlier, he was in the middle of a very holy moment. He was representing a kingdom purpose that had come about in a kingdom manner. He was living out the idea that the calling of Jesus would mean that he would probably be associated with his own people, the Jews for the rest of his life, but with a message that saw the original purpose for Israel restored. Without having to separate himself from his own people, he proclaimed the only message that would restore their mandate from heaven. At least he was one of a number who would carry that mandate every single day. In a very simple supernatural way, Jesus had allowed Peter to become part of that message not just carry the information. It was and still is the greatest privileges a person can have this side of heaven.
A NOTE ABOUT THE TEMPLE TAX
The temple tax was imposed after the return from Babylon when the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem. It was set at the rate of two drachmas for every Jewish male over the age of twenty. It was usually collected when they fulfilled their obligatory attendance one or more of the three festivals each year: Passover (March/April), Pentecost (April/May) and Tabernacles (September/October). It was a religious institutional tax, not a civil tax and it was to cover costs associated with the temple.
IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
- I love the way Jesus kept on bringing a revolutionary message to a religiously moribund world without a need to create walls and chasms between himself and the religious establishment. His commitment to keeping both of those commitments together was the hardest line to hold. If this were happening in my world, I would be free to speak that same message without the need to create the gap. Sometimes that gap is nothing more than an attitude. Or it can be a chasm with all guns blazing across the crevasse. I want to be able to bring my message with a measure of courage and patience that doesn’t need me to define myself by what I am opposed to, rather what I represent. If I could do this with a pure heart and not be intimidated by those who disagree with me, I think I would better represent Jesus.
- One of the ways this often happens is when people keep on having cheap shots at the church. There is a difference between offering some redemptive critique where the goal is to see the church achieve its God-ordained purpose in the world. The other is usually devoid of anything redemptive and full of poison. It is often used as a justification for withdrawing when the withdrawal is not to a place of more, but a place of much less. We see this in the self-centred world of western society where people drop out of church and belong to nothing, stand for nothing and end up having nothing. If there was anyone who got a raw deal from the “church”, it was Jesus, but he didn’t make that the issue. He kept on message and on track to provide the greatest set of redemptive possibilities ever. I want to be the same, so I can also help create doors and windows for people to see and walk into their God ordained purpose – to the point where they will be much more focused on living that journey than carping about people who may not be doing so.
HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?
- The gospel was proclaimed in the fact that Jesus was not willing to marry his renewing message with a separatist agenda. Jesus could have shaped his whole identity around what he didn’t like about the religious leaders and the religious system. His critique was always in the form of providing the kingdom of God alternative. It came in the form of revelation making that kingdom accessible even to those whose criticism was the most strident.
- The gospel was proclaimed to Peter as Jesus identified himself and themselves as “family” not just citizens. The children of the King don’t pay taxes. The children of God are not required to pay some “tax” to God to receive the blessings of his royal court. But the children will be loving and generous toward everything that God has established.
- The kingdom of God message came when Peter followed Jesus’ instructions and found that his prophetic word was fulfilled. He hooked a fish that happened to have swallowed a two-drachma coin. God was in this little enterprise as much as he had been in anything that had happened before that day. This miracle offered Peter a stepping stone to the journey he would later make without the physical presence of Jesus, where he could say, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you…..” (Acts 3)
 Mark 11:17 He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” Quoting from Isaiah 56:7
 Psalm 69:9
 Sadly the Romans were going to come and do that in a bit more than thirty years. The temple was destroyed by Roman armies in AD 70 and brought to a close some years where Rome and declared war on the Jews and Jerusalem in particular.