Taxes for Love’s Sake


Matthew 17:24-27

Text Comment

v.24     We know a good bit about this two drachma tax, as you will see.

v.25     As so often in the Gospels, it is Peter who represents the band of disciples.  And as on so many other occasions, the Lord turns the remark of someone else into an opportunity to teach his disciples a lesson in faith and life.

v.27     From the fact that Matthew does not tell us that Peter did what Jesus told him to do – that he went to the lake, caught a fish, and found the coin in its mouth – it has been supposed by some that Matthew doesn’t expect us to take the Lord’s words literally.  This may have been only a humorous way of saying to Peter, “Get on with your fishing and the tax will look after itself.”  In a book of far greater miracles than this, however, it is doubtful that we should take the Lord’s remark in this way.  If that is what he was intending to say, he chose a strange way to say it.  Far more naturally it is assumed that Peter did as he was told and found what he was told he would find.

One of the reasons why people have wondered whether we are really to think of a miracle here is that it seems to have been the rule that Jesus never performed miracles for his own benefit, but always for the benefit of others.  This, it is argued, would be a violation of that principle in that he was securing money to pay his taxes in this way.  However, we shall see that it was not for himself that he sent Peter to find the coin in the mouth of the fish and it was not for himself that the miracle happened.

By the way, the kind of catfish commonly found in the Sea of Galilee is a scavenger, attracted to landing places, and it had no scales, so Jews did not eat it.  One scholar makes the point that this fish “…grows to a length of four feet or more.  It has a large mouth and…would be attracted to a bright disk, which when taken into its mouth ‘might easily be caught in the framework of the [rear] part of the mouth.”  It is known today as St. Peter’s fish.  [Derrett in Morris, 455]

Now this passage is not to be confused with the episode, related later in this Gospel, when the Pharisees tried to trip up the Lord by asking him whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar.  That conversation, related in Matthew 22 and also in Mark and Luke, concerned the payment of a Roman tax that was deeply resented by the Jews.  Only Matthew records this conversation about a tax that was imposed on Jewish males by Jewish authorities for the support of the temple in Jerusalem.  Matthew, being a tax collector himself, was perhaps more likely to be interested in this subject and perhaps that explains why only he of the Gospel writers includes this exchange between Jesus and Peter.  But Matthew, as we have often said, is also deeply interested in the nature and obligations of Christian discipleship, and, as we will see, Jesus here is teaching a lesson about how he lived and how he intends his followers to live as well.

In any case, this tax was not a tax that was widely resented though there was some controversy attached to it.  The Sadducees, who represented a very small portion of the population, objected to the tax, perhaps especially because it was of recent origin.  The Essenes at Qumran paid the tax but only once in a lifetime.  The tax was supposedly based on the requirement of Exodus 30:11-16 that every Israelite man should pay half a shekel for the upkeep of the tabernacle in the wilderness.  There is no mention in Exodus of an annual levy.  But most Jewish men paid the tax each year, including Jews who lived outside of Palestine.  The tax provided a significant portion of the revenue needed to operate the temple.  Its importance is underscored by the fact that there is an entire tractate of the Mishnah devoted to this single tax.  Because the tax had to be paid in Jewish coin, money had often to be changed for the purpose and it was with these moneychangers at the temple that Jesus had his famous run-ins.

In any case, unlike Roman taxes, by and large this tax was paid with patriotic pride by the Jews until after the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70.  At that point this tax was diverted to the temple of Jupiter in Rome and became a symbol of Jewish subjection to Rome and a source of Jewish bitterness.

It was apparently the Lord’s custom to pay this tax as a Jewish man.  Peter says as much in v. 25.  Obviously he knew already the Lord’s practice in the matter.  Perhaps it has been a point of discussion, given the fact that all Jews didn’t agree about how the tax was to be paid and a few even objected to it altogether.  But the question asked of Peter and answered by him provided the Lord with an opportunity to make an important point.  And so he poses a question of his own.  “Do kings tax their subjects or their sons?”  And the obvious answer comes back, “From their subjects.”  And that is right.  Until very, very recently, anyone would have answered the question the same way.  We take it for granted that our president and his family pay taxes just as we do.  We even get to inspect his tax return.  But in all of human history up to the very recent past it was not so.  Princes and princesses received tax revenue, but they did not contribute to it.

So Jesus draws attention to the meaning of Peter’s answer, an answer anyone would have given:  so the sons of the king are exempt from paying taxes.  That is what Peter said in other words.  The king’s sons have a different relationship to taxes than everyone else.  Now Jesus doesn’t explicitly draw out the implications of what he has just said, but as the next verse makes clear, he is the king’s son.  Peter himself just called Jesus the Son of God in chapter 16.  In other words,  Jesus is not obliged to pay the tax.  As the Son of God, as the Prince of Life, as the one whose life and work is actually depicted in the sacrifices of the temple, as the living God to whom the worship of the temple is offered, if offered rightly, he does not have to pay the tax that supports the operations of the temple.  He does not have to pay the taxes that support the operation of his own Father’s house. He is exempt.

But then Jesus went on to make this point:  if he did not pay the tax, it would be a cause of offense.  It would be a stumbling block.  Here is our verb “to scandalize” once again.  People would take his refusal to mean that he didn’t support the worship of the temple or approve of it, that he was not loyal to the Jewish church.  They would conclude that he didn’t think others should pay the tax.  And what of those charged to collect the tax.  Jesus would have been making their life more difficult.  Hardly anyone at this point understood that he was the King’s son, that he was the Son of God in a way that no other human being had been, was, or ever would be the Son of God.  So for him to refuse to pay this tax would be to create all manner of confusion and offense.  And so he paid it.  He paid it not out of any necessity.  He was, in fact, exempt from the tax.  He was under no obligation to pay it.  He paid it out of love for others, out of concern not to give offense, out of a desire not to put difficulties in the way of people coming to understand who he was and what he had come into the world to do.  He did not want people to think of him as a tax cheat.  If they did it would be that much harder for them to believe that he was who he was: the Messiah.

He provides money for the payment of his tax in a remarkable way to draw attention to his lesson.  He is not obliged to pay.  So he doesn’t take the money from his ordinary sources, the gifts of others or the income of his disciples.  He sends Peter to get it from a fish.  In that way he pays the tax in a way that leaves an indelible impression on his disciples.

But what then is the lesson that Jesus taught Peter and that Matthew was concerned for his Christian readers to learn a generation later?

Well it comes in two parts.

  • First, this is another revelation of the Lord’s own humility before and on behalf of others.

Take note of the setting.  The Lord had just come down from the mountain on which were revealed to him and to others his divine glory and the Father’s approval.  He had spoken with Moses and Elijah.  And now, perhaps only hours later, he was being treated like any other Jewish man and asked to pay his taxes.  Taxes are a form of subjugation.  They are an illustration of our place in the world.  If you don’t think so, remind yourself how you feel when you have to begin the long process of filling out your tax return, the offense you find in it.  But you are just a mere citizen like everyone else.  You may not like it, but there is no question that you are obliged to pay your taxes.

But the Son of God, the Creator of heaven and earth, was not obliged to pay.  In pointing out his own freedom from this tax, the incongruity in their asking him, of all people, to pay this tax, Jesus was pointing out to Peter that it was an indignity for him to be so naturally numbered with everyone else.  So utterly hidden was his true dignity that he has to pay his taxes just like anyone else.

He was a king’s son.  And not the son of any king.  He was THE KING’S ONLY SON.  He was the prince of all princes.  But you would never know it by the way others treated him, by what they expected of him, by how they spoke of him.  And you would not know it from how he carried himself in so many ways.  He was the Son of God but he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  He was the creator of heaven and earth but he had no place to lay his head.  He was the lawgiver, but he was made subject to the law, he made himself subject to it, to redeem those under the law.  He was subject to all the laws of God’s house, the ritual regulations – circumcision, sacrifice, and, yes even taxes – even though he was the substance to which all these shadows pointed.

His life was one grand indignity from beginning to end, one long humiliation, which is the very good and accurate word that Christian theologians have long used to describe the entire course of Jesus’ life from his conception in the womb of his virgin mother to his death and burial – it was the humiliation of the Son of God.

To be sure, paying this tax was not the worst of that humiliation.  It was not the wilderness, it was not Gethsemane, it was not his trial, or his scourging; it was certainly not Calvary, but it was of a piece with all of that.  And it is the perfection of his patience, and of his humility, and of his love for his people, that he did not stumble even at these more minor irritations, these more minor evidences of the fact that the Son of God and the Savior of the World, whom all men should have worshipped with impossibly glad hearts, was thought of and treated as just another man.  So much was he just another man to the multitude – no matter his miracles, no matter his teaching that left them all dumbfounded – they expected him to pay his taxes like anyone else. We know, we Americans, how taxes level people.  We would be highly offended if the President suggested he shouldn’t have to pay taxes, why, we would think, does he think he is better than us.  And so they would have thought about Jesus.  Be he was not offended and gave up his rights so as not to offend them.

And it was to teach Peter that about himself, and about his ministry, that he said what he said to Peter in Capernaum that day.  He wanted his disciples to know, and later to remember, that for him to pay this tax was a humiliation for him, it was a complete incongruity for him, it was evidence of an appalling failure on the part of everyone to understand that the Son of God had come among them.  It was like, only like – in fact it was far worse – than a tax collector coming up to the crown prince and demanding taxes from him as if he were just any other subject of the king.  But it was his way in this world, it was his ministry to refuse to claim his rights, indeed to abandon them all, for the sake of his people and their salvation.  And he did that in things both small and great, in paying taxes and going to the cross.  It is all of a piece: his humiliation as the Son of God so that we might also become the sons of God.

The Lord said to Peter, in effect, I am willing to go unrecognized, I am willing to be treated as a common man, I am willing, even after the breathtaking honors that were heaped on me on the mountain the other night, to make no demands that others recognize me and worship me for the Son of God that I am.  I could say that the temple is my Father’s house and that I am free from any obligation to pay for its upkeep; I could stand on my dignity as the Son of God, but I did not come into the world to stand on my rights, but to give them up, to suffer the loss of them as part of the price I must pay to deliver you from your sins.  I am rich, but I have become poor so that you might become rich.

And to reinforce that lesson, as the Lord of nature, he sent Peter to find the money to pay the tax in the mouth of one of countless fish in the Sea of Galilee.

  • But the lesson the Lord draws then turns to us and becomes a summons for us to behave as Jesus did for the sake of others. We are to be as selfless as he and for the same reason.

The reason the Lord gave for paying the tax – there were other reasons to be sure, as we just said, it being part of his humiliation – but the explicit reason he gave to Peter was that in this way he avoided offending others, or causing them to sin.  He avoided giving the wrong impression to others, even though it would have been sinful for them to draw the conclusions that they might have drawn:  that Jesus was unfaithful to the temple, that he was a rebel, that he was unsubmissive to the proper authorities, and the like.  Jesus knew what conclusions people would draw and he acted to prevent them being offended by his behavior.  He wanted to put no stumbling block in the way of their recognizing him as the Messiah and putting their faith in him.  There were stumbling blocks enough already; he did not wish to add to them.

In other words, the Lord surrendered his rights for the sake of others; he allowed others to think less of him to make it easier for others to do the right thing; he suffered the loss of face in order to keep others from doing wrong.

Think of what he could so honestly have said.  “I, least of all, should pay to support a priesthood so thoroughly corrupt.  I, least of all, should pay for the upkeep of a temple soon to be destroyed.  I, least of all, should support a religious establishment that has doomed the people to unbelief and damnation but its opposition to me.”  [A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 221] But he said no such thing.  Rather, he said, “I don’t want my behavior to make the lives of others more difficult and I don’t want what I do to put them an inch further from salvation than they already are.”

In this, of course, he was setting an example that his disciples should follow in his steps.  That is why he made a point of drawing this lesson out for Peter.  Now it is a fundamental principle of the interpretation of the Gospels that the preacher should read and preach the Gospel that he has before him and not bring in material from the others.  Obviously each of the four Gospels stands on its own and each should be allowed to deliver its message in the way in which its author and the Holy Spirit behind him chose to frame it.  For all that the Gospel writers share in viewpoint and in content, each has his own perspective to offer, each his own concerns to address.  No doubt these arise, in part, from the unique circumstances in which each Gospel was written and from the unique viewpoint of each Gospel writer.  Matthew is not John, John was not Luke.  There should be little doubt, I think, that Matthew alone records this particular conversation because of his interest in taxes and their collection, being a tax collector himself. Perhaps he knew personally the men who came to Peter with the original question.

All of that being said, however, it is worth pointing out that this particular episode falls between two episodes recorded for us in Mark.  On the way back to Capernaum from their encounter with the demon-possessed boy and his father, the text we considered last Lord’s Day, Mark tells us that the disciples fell to arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  When they got back to Capernaum, the Lord brought their argument up and asked them about it.  That is the subject of our next paragraph, Matthew 18:1-9.  So, taking Mark and Matthew together, it seems that the conversation on the road to Capernaum about which of the disciples was the greatest, occurred just before this conversation between the Lord and Peter about the temple tax, and the Lord’s response to their conversation took place just after it.  In other words, on both sides of this conversation about the temple tax was the demonstration of the disciples’ pride.  They were arguing among themselves, in the first instance, about which of them was the greatest and, in the second instance, the Lord was teaching them not to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think and to love and practice humility before others.  Pride is in the air at this moment in Capernaum.  It is not difficult to see that Jesus is dealing with that pride in his discussions with Peter about the temple tax just as he will deal with his disciples about the same thing in his next remarks.

If a man is arguing in public that he is greater than some other man – and, somehow we expect that Peter was in the thick of that argument – and if that argument is between believers, well, they have lost sight of something supremely important and need to be slapped up the side of the head.  And that is what the Lord does.  He tells Peter and the disciples in no uncertain terms that he had rights that he never claimed precisely to do good to others.  That man who is worrying about his status and his station, the man who wants to be above others, in that moment and in that attitude is no follower of Jesus Christ.  That spirit is the exact opposite of the spirit of a man who forgets himself and his rights and his reputation in order to do good to others and help them.

What the Lord is going to need from Peter and the other disciples, and, thankfully, what he will eventually get from them, is a spirit of self-denial, a humility that frees them to forget themselves so that they can live and act and speak on behalf of others.  What we have from Jesus here is precisely the same spirit and the same example we find in Paul later on who will say that, though he has the right to eat any food he pleases, he would never eat meat again – and he loved to eat meat – if eating meat would put a stumbling block in a brother’s way; if it would scandalize him; if it would cause him to think wrong thoughts and do wrong things.  Why the Apostle Paul was anyone’s doormat when it came to their foolish opinions and incorrect notions.  He was always paying their dumb ideas respect that they did not deserve because he wanted to help them to something better rather than antagonize them and offend them.

And Paul explicitly, as Jesus implicitly here, teaches every Christian to do the same thing.  “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.  Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For even Christ did not please himself…”

What we have here in Matthew 17, then, is a summons to humility on behalf of others, to the laying down of our own rights and interests on behalf of the good of others.  And we have it in that form that ought to be the most powerful recommendation of the practice to our hearts, viz. the example of our Lord Jesus.

What then can I do but challenge you all, in the Savior’s name, and in imitation of his example, to set yourself during these Lenten days to begin each day conscious of your responsibility to live for others and not for yourself, in things both small and great.  I challenge you to practice our Savior’s interest in and sympathy for others, his ready willingness to forget himself, his rights, his comforts, even his opinions and his convictions in order to make right thoughts and right behavior easier for others.  I challenge you to imitate his way of life, a way in which others and the good of others and the salvation of others always came first.

I guarantee you that if you do this, if you set yourself seriously to imitate the Lord in this way, you will find out some things.  You will find out how hard it is to be good, to love others, to be selfless.  When you are trying to live for others it will be much more obvious to you how the love of self rages within you.  That is an important lesson in itself and will make you all the more grateful for the forgiveness of sins and for the Savior’s perfect self-sacrifice for you.

But you will also learn how powerful selflessness is as an influence upon others.  People see it so rarely, genuine selflessness, genuine sympathy for others making a person forget himself or herself, that they cannot help but be struck by it, moved by it, and changed by it.  Nothing is more likely to give power to your words as a Christian as the example of self-forgetfulness on behalf of others; not merely assent to the principle – every Christian gives that – but its actual practice to the disadvantage to oneself.  Interrupting your routine for others, losing your time to care for others, listening to others as if their words were more important than your own, caring for their feelings, seeking to love them in those ways that will seem most genuine and most important to them and not to yourself.  It is this example that ought so to astonish us about the life and ministry of our Savior. It is in this example that we ought to see how much he gave up for us and our salvation, how much he forgot himself because he was always remembering us.  And it is this example, of which we have a beautiful instance in our text this morning, that we ought to find our calling, our summons, our way of life.

Our Lord was a king who lived like a beggar for the sake of our salvation and the salvation of others.  We are someday to be kings; we are already the children of God; will we not want, at least for a few years, to have lived as he lived, done what he did, in the same spirit and for the same reason?  A disciple should strive to be like his master.