Just before his death, Jesus faces life’s other inevitability: taxes. As he and Peter travel through Capernaum for the final time together, a question arises as to whether Jesus is a tax dodger (Matthew 17:24-27). This is not wholly surprising as the temple tax was collected in or near a citizen’s place of residence and Jesus and Peter are based out of the fishing village.
Presumably Peter has already assumed his position as the disciples’ spokesperson as he is approached by tax collectors and interrogated: “Does your [plural] teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” (Matthew 17:24 NASB). Without consulting Jesus, Peter responds affirmatively (Matthew 17:25). Peter reads like the type of person who would answer quickly and confidently regardless of his knowledge base. It is debated whether the disciple is attempting to sound informed, covering for his boss or he actually knows with certainty that Jesus honors the tax.
In a sidebar with Peter, Jesus relates the superfluousness of his meeting the temple tax to a prince paying taxes to a king (Matthew 17:26). Even so, he then gives the disciple precise instructions as to how to procure the funds for the tax (Matthew 17:27).
“However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.” (Matthew 17:27 NASB)The story ends with this implausible command; no fulfillment passage is attached. There are other abnormalities in the pericope. Perhaps this is why Matthew is the only canonical gospel to include the story and it is overlooked in the Revised Common Lectionary. Those who subscribe to the traditional view that a tax collector penned the gospel (Matthew 9:9-13) note that it is not surprising that he would latch onto this tale.
The story is perplexing; Jesus’ solution reads like a parlor trick. Grant R. Osborne (b. 1942) exclaims:
This is the strangest miracle in the gospels, not only because it is never reported as happening but also because it seems to be “performed for relatively trivial and self-serving purposes,” namely, for paying the temple tax for Jesus and Peter. The purpose is undoubtedly to show that the royal Father continues to provide for the needs of his children. (Osborne, Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 664)N.T. Wright (b. 1948) asks:
Jesus told them they were going to be fishers of men, not money (Matthew 4:19)! This is one of the most peculiar little stories in the whole New Testament. What on earth does it mean? (Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28, 23)The story is decidedly unique. D.A. Carson (b.1946) explains:
The miracle itself has no close canonical parallel. This is the only place in the New Testament where a fish is caught with a hook (nets were normally used)...Some scholars point out that the event (“miracle”?) itself is not described, but only the command: “We do not know what resulted. Given Peter’s track record of misunderstanding, it would be rash to hazard a guess” (Craig L. Blomberg [b. 1955] [NAC]; cf. R.T. France [1938-2012] [TNTC]). (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], 447)W. F. Albright (1891-1971) and C. S. Mann (b. 1917) speculate:
The narrative in Matthew 17:27 is so highly condensed that it is more than likely a much-abbreviated summary of an actual catch of a fish with a coin in its mouth...Alternatively, the narrative may be the remnant of a parable, much on the lines of folk tales found in th rabbinic tradition of the lost-and-found-again variety. In this case, the parable remnant will have been attracted to its present position by the presence of Matthew 17:24-26. (Albright and Mann, Matthew (Anchor Bible), 213)The account does not fit its immediate Matthean context any better than its larger canonical one. Larry Chouinard (b. 1948) acknowledges:
Why Matthew included this scene at precisely this point in the narrative is not easy to discern. However, if one observes that the issue of paying the temple tax is resolved by the principle of not needlessly offending (σκανδαλίσωμεν, skandalisōmen, Matthew 17:27) others, then the episode does prepare the reader for a major theme developed in Matthew 18. (Chouinard, Matthew (The College Press NIV Commentary), 318)Even the passage’s genre is difficult to pinpoint. W. D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) designate:
This ‘reasonably stylish passage’, with its ‘comparatively elaborate use of participles, a wide range of vocabulary and a liveliness almost like Luke’s at his most free and individual’, may be labelled what Gerd Theissen [b. 1943] calls a ‘rule miracle’...The miracle itself, however, is not in fact recounted...so one might contend that, form-critically considered, the episode has as much claim to be classified a scholastic dialogue. (Davies and Allison, Matthew 8-18 (International Critical Commentary), 738)Most contemporary scholars agree that the tax in question is the temple tax. W. D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) submit:
Before one can proceed with the interpretive task, one must establish the identity of the τὰ δίδραχμα λαμβάνοντες and the nature of the tax collected. The broad consensus of modern commentators, a consensus enshrined in the paragraph headings of synopses and annotated Bibles, is that our text concerns the temple tax, the half-shekel levy believed to be prescribed by Exodus 30:11-16. (Davies and Allison, Matthew 8-18 (International Critical Commentary), 738)This reading has not always represented the majority opinion. Richard A. Horsley (b. 1939) chronicles:
This passage was traditionally understood, e.g., by Jerome [347-420], Ambrose [340-397], and Augustine [354-430] as referring to the Roman tribute, whereas most modern scholars assume that the tax being collected was the “half-shekel” paid to the Temple by adult Jewish males. (Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine, 279)Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) rationalizes:
It has been suggested that the debate originally centered on a Roman or civil tax, but the point of the story (“Then the children [of God] are free” [Matthew 17:26]), as well as the monetary value involved, cohere with the controversial temple tax. (Evans, Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 327)The temple tax was a flat, annual tariff though its regulations were not concretized. David E. Garland (b. 1947) describes:
The half-shekel tax (substituted by two didrachma) was levied annually on all Jewish males over the age of twenty (Exodus 30:11-16) to fund the daily sacrifices in the temple. Some in Jesus’ day argued that they were free from the tax (priests, according to Mishna Šeqalim 1:3-5) or that they need pay only once in a lifetime (Qumran, 4q159). (Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 189)The temple tax was a hot button issue in Jewish religious circles, like the topic of homosexuality in many contemporary churches. M. Eugene Boring (b. 1935) educates:
While in pre-70 Judaism it was generally assumed that loyal Jews would pay the two-drachma temple tax, precisely who should pay, how often, and how the tax related to Scripture were disputed issues. Originally derived from Nehemiah 10:32-33, where leading elements of the Jewish population take upon themselves a yearly obligation of one-third shekel for support of the temple cultus, the Pharisees later considered every male Jew throughout the world to be liable for half a shekel, and related it to Exodus 30:11-16. Strangely enough, Sadducees argued that the annual payment should be a voluntary gift rather than an imposed tax, from which priests were exempt. Josephus [37-100] and Philo [20 BCE-50 CE] indicate the diaspora Jews also (voluntarily) contributed their offering to the Temple. The Qumran community understood the requirement in terms of Exodus 30:11-16 as a one-time only contribution. Thus the question was a live issue in the spectrum of pre-70 Judaism concerning which Jesus might have been asked and to which he may have responded. (Leander E. Keck [b. 1928], Matthew, Mark (The New Interpreter’s Bible), 371)R.T. France (1938-2012) infers:
This approach from the tax collectors suggests a suspicion that Jesus also might not accept this as an obligation. Their question is of the form that expects the answer Yes, and Peter takes that answer for granted, but the fact that they had to ask it is surely significant. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 664-65)Whether intended or not, the seemingly innocuous inquiry is an ambush. Like the Internal Revenue Service auditing Al Capone (1899-1947) when the FBI could not charge him with his more notorious crimes, so Jesus is faced with questions about taxes while his adversaries’ theological provocations fall short (Matthew 17:24-27; Mark 12:13-17).
Taxes are merely a surface matter concealing far deeper issues. Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) exposes:
Like most taxes...this one was popular with few and actively resisted by some. Groups like the Pharisees supported the tax, but many other Jews found some way to claim an exemption, simply neglected to pay, or vigorously refused to pay as a matter of principle and an act of protest against the temple establishment...So the tax collectors’ question is not innocent. They want to know if Jesus is loyal to the temple or not. The tax collectors are not asking if Jesus’ current tax bill is paid up; rather, they are asking whether he is an establishment man or a tax rebel, a part of the mainstream Judaism or on the fringe. (Long, Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion), 199)Jesus’ stance on the temple tax has far reaching ramifications in terms of identity. His opponents are trying to put him in a box where they can more easily label him. They also present him with an either/or scenario forcing him to pick a side which will no doubt alienate advocates of its opposition. Jesus is in a Catch-22 and his response could necessitate a crisis in his ministry. Though this seems like an important enough issue for Peter to know his master’s stance, it is not surprising that he immediately answers for his teacher in favor of the questioners’ view.
Later, when Peter arrives home he is confronted by Jesus regarding who is deserving of tax breaks. Then, like now, some received tax exemptions. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) surveys:
Head- or poll-taxes (cf. Matthew 22:19-21) normally listed specific exceptions who would not have to pay; in Egypt, for instance , the Romans exempted the small minority of Roman citizens, urban Greeks, and some other high-class residents of Egypt (Naphtali Lewis [1911-2005] 1983: 169, cf. 177). Conquerors subjected conquered peoples, not their own subjects to taxation (Bruce J. Malina [b. 1933] and Richard L. Rohrbaugh [b. 1936] 1992: 116). Nero [37-68] “freed” Greece, that is, exempted them from taxation (for which the gods were pleased, one Greek writer remarked — Plutarch [45-120] Divine Vengeance 32, The Moralia 568A); Persian officials had earlier reportedly allowed Judeans “freedom” from tribute (I Esdras 4:49-50). Priests were exempt from the two-drachma tax cited here (Bo Reicke [1914-1987] 1974: 168; E.P. Sanders [b. 1937] 1990: 50); so in later times were rabbis (R.T. France [1938-2012] 1985: 268)...Most significantly, dependents of a king were naturally exempt from taxes (J.D.M. Derrett [1922-2012] 1970: 255). Jesus will soon tell a story of a king who settles accounts with his servants, tax farmers (Matthew 18:23-34); but here he speaks in the first-person plural with a disciple who has begun to understand some...mysteries of the kingdom as one of the king’s “sons” (cf. Matthew 28:10). Unlike some of their Jewish contemporaries, they do not depend at all on the temple or on the atonement some teachers claimed the temple-tax effected for them (William G. Thompson [1930-1996] 1970: 57-59). (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 445)Specifically, Jesus asks if monarchs obtain their taxes from their children or constituents and Peter accurately selects the outsiders (Matthew 17:26). This trend holds true in modern times as well. In the United Kingdom, the Queen and the Prince of Wales did not pay voluntary income tax until 1993 and then only in response to the Queen’s plummeting approval ratings. In the United States, presidents are tax exempt for life.
R.T. France (1938-2012) analyzes:
The analogy assumes that the temple tax...is similarly levied by a ruler from his subjects. But who is the ruler of the temple? No human could claim that title; the reference must be to God, and the Jewish people are his subjects. Who then are the “sons” who are exempt? The obvious reference in context is to Jesus himself, whose payment of the tax was the subject of the question, and who has recently been declared “Son of God” on the mountain (Matthew 17:5); the plural might then be explained as derived from the analogy rather than determining its application. But the plural raises the possibility that here, as in Matthew 12:1-8, his disciples are also understood to share in his privilege as (in that case) “Lord of the sabbath.” (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 669)Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) determines:
Because in secular life kings do not collect taxes from their own sons, one may infer that the king of heaven (i.e., God) doe not collect taxes from his own children. The temple tax is therefore illegitimate. Because it is very unlikely that Jesus opposed what Moses taught in Exodus 30:11-16, he probably opposed the interpretation that called for annual payment. Accordingly, Jesus’ view of the matter was probably the same as that held at Qumran (as seen in the excerpt from 4Q159). (Evans, Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 327)This temple tax was instituted to support atonement offerings (Exodus 30:11-16). Jesus did not need sacrifices of atonement to be offered on his behalf as he was the ultimate atonement sacrifice. If anyone was ever exempt from this tax, it would be Jesus.
After establishing his exemption, Jesus opts to waive his rights to boycott the tax (Matthew 17:27). Craig A. Evans (b. 1952) compares:
Jesus’ willingness to pay what he believes he really does not owe is consistent with his willingness to be baptized, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). The great church scholar Jerome [347-420]...commented “Therefore as the son of a king he [Jesus] did not owe tax, but as one who had assumed the humility of the flesh he has to fulfill all justice” (Commentary on Matthew 3.17.26 [on Matthew 17:24-27]). (Evans, Matthew (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 327)This text provides a rare glimpse into the rationale behind Jesus’ actions: He does not wish to “offend” (HCSB, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NLT), cause “offense” (ESV, NIV, NRSV, RSV), cause to “stumble” (ASV), cause “trouble” (CEV) or cause others to become “upset” (MSG).
The Greek verb is skandalízō, from which English derives the word “scandal”. W. D. Davies (1911-2001) and Dale C. Allison, Jr. (b. 1950) define:
What precisely does the verb...which is used again shortly in Matthew 18:6-9, mean here? It obviously does not mean ‘cause to sin’. Probably the best translation is ‘give offence’. What Jesus and his followers should avoid, if at all possible, is offending the devout people who, in collecting the temple tax, believe themselves to be serving God. (Davies and Allison, Matthew 8-18 (International Critical Commentary), 746)Donald Senior (b. 1940) observes:
Matthew is not clear about who it is that might be scandalized by failing to pay the temple tax. Presumably it is the Jewish community for whom the tax had important symbolic meaning. (Senior, Matthew (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 203)Eduard Schweizer (1913-2006) recognizes:
Whether the point is an actual mission to the Jews, the conversion of individual Jews, or merely avoidance of unnecessary friction cannot be determined. (Schweizer, The Good News according to Matthew, 357)Incidentally, Jesus seldom gives much consideration to public sentiments. Daniel M. Gurtner (b. 1973) questions:
Why is Matthew here concerned that his Jesus not offend people, when only a few chapters later such concerns are by no means obvious? Ulrich Luz [b. 1938] suggests the concern is to “compromise for the sake of peace and love” on matters that are not fundamental to faithfulness to the Torah. W. D. Davies [1911-2001] and Dale C. Allison, Jr. [b. 1950], however, capture more of Matthew’s view of the Temple when they assert that “Voluntary payment should be made in order to prevent others from inferring that Peter or Jesus has rejected the Temple cult.” (Gurtner and John Nolland [b. 1947], “Matthew’s Theology of the Temple and the ‘Parting of the Ways’, Built upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, 137)R.T. France (1938-2012) discusses:
The word for “cause to stumble” here is the same as for “scandalize” in Matthew 15:12. On that occasion Jesus seems to have had no qualms about “scandalizing” the Pharisees by his free attitude, so why is it different here? Probably simply because the saying which caused the “scandal” in Matthew 15:11 was a matter of fundamental principle for Jesus, and one which exposed the deep divide between his attitude to the law and that of the Pharisees, where here it is simply a matter of custom, where compliance, even if not necessary, will do no harm, and to flout it would serve no useful purpose. But Robert J. Banks [b. 1939] also notes the difference in the attitude of the people involved: here, in contrast with the settled hostility of the Pharisees in Matthew 15:1-14, we have simply people “seeking genuine information concerning his attitude to their customary practice.” Whatever the reason, the principle at stake is one which can and should be more widely applied: while there are times when a disciple must make an unpopular stand and so alienate others, many of the issues and practices on which we might legitimately differ from conventional assumptions are not worth fighting over. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 670)Jesus is concerned not to offend this particular audience. David L. Turner (b. 1949) surmises:
Jesus did not mind offending the Pharisees on the matter of ritual hand washing (Matthew 15:12), but in the spirit of Matthew 12:19 (cf. Isaiah 42:2) he does not protest the temple tax. He has had cordial relations with the tax collectors at Capernaum, yet this only exacerbated his tension with the Pharisees (Matthew 9:9-11). Jesus generally treated sinners gently (yet cf. Matthew 15:21-28) and religious hypocrites more harshly, but his followers today tend to get this backward, treating religious hypocrites with much deference and protesting loudly against known sinners. Foregoing one’s liberties in order to avoid offense and further the kingdom’s testimony is also a Pauline teaching (Romans 14:13-23; I Corinthians 8:9-9:1, 9:19-23). (Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 430)Though it is not always his custom to avoid offense, here Jesus chooses others’ feelings over his own rights. He also selectively picks his battles, realizing that he has bigger fish to fry. He is the embodiment of an actor playing the dual role of harmless dove and wise serpent (Matthew 10:16).
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) realizes:
Now was not the time, Galilee was not the place, and a minor tax-collector was not the person, for Jesus’ major protest to be made. Before too long he would be in the Temple itself, turning over tables, spilling coins to right and left (Matthew 21:12). For the moment it was better not to raise the alarm, not to let word out that his kingdom-movement was indeed aimed at challenging the authority of the Temple and its rulers. So the tax had better be paid. (Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28, 24-25)The reason for Matthew’s inclusion of the story cannot be to illuminate the matter of the temple tax. Jesus does not pay for the other eleven disciples and since the temple was destroyed at the time of Matthew’s writing, paying the temple tax was no more relevant for the ancient reader than for her present-day counterpart.
Instead, John P. Meier (b. 1942) deduces that the text’s function is encapsulated in the word “offense”:
Since the temple tax was converted into a tax for the temple of Jupiter Capitoline after A.D. 70, and since Matthew’s church has broken its ties with the synagogue by the time of the gospel’s composition, Matthew retains the pericope not for its specific lesson but because it both underlines the role of Peter (giving answers to problems in the name of Jesus) and stresses the obligation of disciples to avoid giving scandal — a theme prominent in chapter 18. (Meier, Matthew (New Testament Message), 198)In lieu of risking offense, Jesus poses a radical alternative to paying the temple tax. He sends the apostle to fish with the assurance that the proper coinage will appear the mouth of the first catch Peter hooks (Matthew 17:27). This nuance is part of Matthew’s interest to rehabilitate Peter who had experienced failure in the previous chapter (Matthew 16:21-23). His disciple got him into this mess and he is given the opportunity to get him out of it as well.
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) scrutinizes:
The tax collectors asked only about Jesus’ payment. But he tells Peter to pay for himself as well as for Jesus. Why? To make Peter a model imitator of Jesus in paying the temple tax despite his and Jesus’ nonobligation to do so because of their membership in God’s royal family (compare Matthew 12:46-50) but for the purpose of not putting a stumblingblock in the way of Jews who might convert to the Christian gospel. (Gundry, Commentary on Matthew)George T. Montague (b. 1929) denotes:
The role of Peter in this story is surprising. He is, of course, the spokesperson for the other disciples. But more than that, he and Jesus seem to have a particularly close relationship. The dialogue takes place in Peter’s house, and the one coin pays for both Jesus and Peter...This role of Peter fits with the prominence given him throughout Matthew’s Gospel, particularly in this ecclesiastical section. It also explains, perhaps, why the other disciples will not ask Jesus about ranks in the kingdom. (Montague, Companion God: A Cross-Cultural Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 212)Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) recounts:
This was one of many miracles that Jesus performed for Peter. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-34), helped Peter to catch fish (Luke 5:1-11), enabled him to walk on the water (Matthew 14:22-33), healed Malchus’s ear (Matthew 26:47-56), and delivered Peter from prison (Acts 12:1ff). (Wiersbe, Matthew, Be Loyal, Following the King of Kings, 156)Though Peter is often singled out, John Nolland (b. 1947) contends:
At the practical level, by having the (other) disciples come to Jesus in Matthew 18:1, Matthew is probably making room for other disciples not to have been there at the time (for reasons unspecified). Nothing here encourages the view that Peter is coupled with Jesus as the son of God in a manner not allowed for the other disciples. But he is the beneficiary of distinctive experiences. (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 728-29)Here, Peter uses his professional expertise on behalf of Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) applies:
Peter’s skill as a fisherman is now enlisted in an unusual way for the kingdom. Peter and the disciples will be fishers of men and women for the kingdom, and it is significant that they bring to that task their everyday skills. (Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 159)Though Peter is a fisherman by trade this is not the net variety to which he is accustomed. In fact, this marks the only New Testament occurrence of the word “fishhook” (ánkistron) and the only biblical miracle involving a single fish.
John Nolland (b. 1947) construes:
Since Capernaum is near the Sea of Galilee, the possibility of fishing is immediately at hand. Elsewhere in the New Testament fishing is always with boats and nets; only here do we have fishing with a line and hook. But the limited catch involved fits fishing with a line. The active form ἀναβάντα is literally ‘comes up’, but it is often taken for the passive and so taken to mean ‘being brought up’, and that is, ‘caught’. It is probably better, however, to allow the force of the active and think in terms of the fish coming up from the depths to where the baited hook is dangling in the water. On this understanding the landing of the fish is passed over as implied, and attention moves at once to the directive to take up the first fish hooked in order to examine its mouth. (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 728)The precise species of fish is not noted though this has not prevented speculation. The musht fish and St. Peter’s fish (clarias macracanthus) have been considered. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (b. 1946) investigates:
In the Sea of Galilee there actually exists a fish...called chromis Simonis, the male of which species hatches the eggs in his mouth. When he expels them at length he has so grown used to having his mouth full of alien objects that he is said to substitute the eggs with pebbles and other things taken from the lake bottom. Thus, it is possible that Peter’s fish chanced upon a stray statēr. (Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Volume II, 598)Leon Morris (1914-2006) relays:
J.D.M. Derrett [1922-2012] argues that the fish in mind would have been a catfish, which scavenges near landing places, is without scales, and thus is not to be eaten by Jews. It grows to a length of four feet or more. It has a large mouth and, according to Derrett, would be attracted by a bright disk, which when taken into the mouth “might easily be caught in the framework of the hinder part of the mouth” (p. 259). (Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 455)From the fish’s mouth Peter will acquire a statēr, translated “coin” (CEV, HCSB, MSG, NRSV), “shekel” (ASV, ESV, NASB, RSV), “piece of money” (KJV, NKJV), “drachma coin” (NIV) or “large silver coin” (NLT). Michael J. Wilkins (b. 1949) identifies:
The coin found in the fish’s mouth was the stater, a common coin minted in Tyre or Antioch. It was the equivalent of the tetradrachma or didrachma, hence, one shekel...A treasure jar found at Qumran dating to around 10 B.C. was filled with Tyrian staters (shekels), which bore the laureate head of Baal Melkart portrayed as a Grecian Heracles: on the other side the Seleucid eagle strode fiercely toward the left with a palm of victory and the Greek legend: “Of Tyre and the Holy City-of-Refuge.” This is one of many indications that Herod the Great [73-4 BCE] originally had these coins minted in Jerusalem for use in paying the temple tax. It is estimated that the temple tax drew in silver alone the equivalent of 14.5 tons every year. Silver staters were most likely the coins paid to Judas for his betrayal of Jesus (cf. Matthew 26:15). (Clinton E. Arnold [b. 1958], Matthew, Mark, Luke (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 111)Leon Morris (1914-2006) adds:
A στατήρ was worth four drachmas and was thus equivalent to the temple tax for two men. “It was minted at Antioch, Caesarea in Cappadocia and in Tyre” (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, II, p. 1022). It is mentioned in the New Testament only here. Richard Gutzwiller [1896-1958] comments: “God needs no one and nothing. If he gives, the giving is his right and his free choice. The tax-money in the fish’s mouth, rather than in the hand of man, shows God’s sovereign freedom: he takes where he will and gives to whom he will” (p. 202). (Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 455)The stater was valued at more than a day’s wages. More importantly, this currency was commonly used for a duo to collectively pay the temple tax since the didrachma was not in coinage at the time. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) connects:
The “stater” or “four-drachma coin” of Matthew 17:27 probably is a Tyrian stater, precisely enough to pay two persons’ temple dues (Michael Avi-Yonah [1900-1974] 1974/76a: 60-61). (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 445)The stater would be a good return for a day’s fishing much less one cast. The ancients followed a “finders, keepers” philosophy; “found” money did not belong to anyone and as such it was socially acceptable for finders to claim unattached property.
Finding prized items in fish is a common motif in ancient literature. R.T. France (1938-2012) surveys:
A number of ancient stories tell of finding something valuable in a fish that has been caught; the most famous is the recovery of Polycrates [d. 522 BCE]’s ring (Herodotus [d. 522 BCE] Histories 3.41-42), but there are similar Jewish stores in Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 119a; Genesis Rabbah 11:4, and other cultures provide numerous examples. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 671)R.T. France (1938-2012) footnotes:
W. D. Davies [1911-2001] and Dale C. Allison, Jr. [b. 1950], 2:742, n. 18, mention a number of similar legends relating to medieval Christian saints. C. H. Dodd [1884-1973], Historical Tradition, 225, n. 7, adds an example from a newspaper story from Cyprus in 1961 and compares the Hans Christian Andersen [1805-1874] story of the Little Tin Solider. See also The Arabian Nights, tale of the 499th night. For other examples see Robert Eisler [1882-1945], Orpheus — the Fisher (London, 1921), 100-105; Richard J. Bauckham [b. 1946], Gospel Perpsectives 6:237-44. Such stories normally refer to the recovery of something previously lost, and the find is usually inside the fish rather than in its mouth (so William Horbury [b. 1942], in Ernst Bammel [1923-1996] and C.F.D. Moule [1908-2007] [editors], Jesus, 274), but these are hardly material differences. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 671)This phenomenon is plausible as many fish are attracted to shiny objects.
Given the fantastic nature of the story, it is not surprising that since its early days many have chosen not to read it literally. John Nolland (b. 1947) edifies:
Various attempts have been made to understand Jesus’ saying non-literally: the fish could be sold for a stater (but what fish would be worth four days’ wages?); we have a statement of inability to pay, even to void offense (a quite unnatural reading of the words); ‘the fish’ is a wealthy convert who can act as a patron (nothing prepares us for this, and it would introduce a cynical note otherwise unmatched into the Jesus material); the present form is a secondary misunderstanding of an earlier statement which more clearly meant one of the above (but even with postulated changes of wording the above senses have little to commend them). (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 728)
Howard Clarke (b. 1929) debriefs:
Although Origen [184-253] allegorized this incident as Peter’s “catching” a convert, it was one example for David Strauss [1800-1874] of how folkloristic motif—a fish that swallows valuables—has infected the biblical narrative. Since it appears only here, many scholars regard it as, well, a fish story. To paraphrase Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin [1888-1937]’s Porgy and Bess (1935), this may be one example of how “the things that you’re liable/to read in the Bible,/They ain’t necessarily so.” (Clarke, The Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel, 152-53)Origen (184-253) argues that Jesus is telling Peter to go catch a “whale”, a rich convert. This explanation is highly problematic as it presents Jesus objectifying and using a person. It would also set a horrible precedent of viewing people as potential sources of income rather than as individuals to be loved.
Others think that Jesus is telling Peter to take the fish from the water and liquidate the assets. R.C.H. Lenski (1864-1936) recalls:
Some think that Peter sold the fish. Friedrich Blass [1843-1907] arrives at this meaning by changing εὑρήσεις, “thou shalt find,” to εὑρήσε, the fish “will bring” when it is sold. But this involves an unwarranted change of the text. (Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel 15-28, 677)
Some interpreters have seen this imperative as an example of Jesus’ humor. This reading has a sarcastic Jesus making light of the situation and the misguided tax collectors who are missing the point like a modern church that exhausts great energy arguing over the color of its sanctuary carpet. Hugh Melinsky (b. 1924) figures that the quip “may have been a humorous way of saying, ‘Get on with your fishing and the tax will look after itself.’” (Melinksy, Matthew: The Modern Reader’s Guide to the Gospels)
R.T. France (1938-2012) believes the command to be an exemplar of Jesus’ sense of humor:
This seems to me more probable than the suggestion that Jesus meant that Peter should sell his catch and pay the tax with the proceeds (Jocahim Jeremias [1900-1979], New Testament Theology, 87) or even that he, as a “fisher of men,” should go out and make a rich convert! For a similar approach see M.D. Goulder [1927-2010], Midrash, 397: “The good Lord will provide: go and try with your rod, and the first fish you catch will have enough for two of us in its mouth! The suggestion is not meant to be taken literally.” Goulder, however, attributes the saying to Matthew rather than to Jesus. (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 671)If Jesus is attempting to avoid offense (Matthew 17:27), sarcasm would only serve to alienate his audience and defeat his purpose. In addition, Jesus’ disciples seldom properly interpret non-literal commands. Finally, an ironic gibe is not the natural reading of the text. The line’s specificity precludes the probability it is tongue-in-cheek. Just the opposite: The precise detail of the catch lends itself to a literal reading.
Jesus easily evades the charge of tax evasion, brushing off the accusation and potential scandal like a speck of debris. Capernaum is a fishing village and Jesus pays his taxes as do most of its residents: at the expense of a fish.
Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) resolves:
This is irony of a sort: the king’s children can pay the tax because the king gives the money to do so (Daniel Patte [b. 1939] 1987: 247). Matthew encourages his missionary community that Jesus can take care of his people who walk close to him. (Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 446)Warren Carter (b. 1955) connects:
The gospel’s audience knows three previous stories about fish in the gospel; see Matthew 7:10, 14:13-21, 15:32-39. In each God overcomes impossible circumstances to demonstrate compassion and sovereign power by supplying fish. Peter’s procuring of the coin from the fish’s mouth to pay the tax at Jesus’ bidding emphasizes the same qualities. Fish are subject to God’s sovereignty. God ensures that it is caught. God supplies both fish and coin...This affirmation of God’s powerful sovereignty is profoundly significant in a world that believed the emperor’s numen or genius (personal power) influenced not only people but also birds, animals, and fish to recognize him as master of worship. Martial [40-102] (Epigrams 4.30.4-5) notes fish wishing to lick Domitian [51-96]’s hand, and Juvenal [First-Second Century CE], in parody, describes a large fish given to Domitian, “the ruler of lands and seas and nations,” because it “wished to be caught” (capi voluit). The fisherman’s motive for giving Domitian the fish attests Domitian’s (oppressive) sovereignty...But in Matthew’s story, the fish is subject to God’s sovereignty, not Rome’s. For God’s sovereignty over the sea, see Matthew 8:23-27, 14:22-33. (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, 359-60)The passage exhibits a theology of abundance. Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) remarks:
Jesus, who will be charged with predicting the destruction of the temple (Matthew 24:1-12, 26:60-62), obtains the funds by chance in order to support the temple. The way the money to pay the tax is obtained is a display of God’s abundance. His payment is what the faith of a mustard seed looks like [Matthew 17:20]. (Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 159)Thomas G. Long (b. 1946) applies:
We get these gifts—the money, the mercy, the patience, the food, the time, and the whatever else needed...Jesus promises, as unmerited gifts from God, something like finding an unexpected coin resting in the mouth of a fish that happens to swim by. Jesus is not talking about a magic trick or even a miracle in the typical sense; the coin in the fish’s mouth is a parable of the whole Christian life. When we put aside any thought that we have earned this and deserved that, when we think about our lives as children of the heavenly king, then we see that pulling wonderful unmerited gifts from the endless bounty of God’s merciful sea is the way everything comes to us—everything, every day. (Long, Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion), 200-01)In enlisting Peter’s prowess, Jesus is also testing his disciple; will Peter have the faith to take him at his word and cast his hook? There is no fulfillment passage but the miracle is implied. The story would not have been canonized had Peter not completed the task. The open ended passage encourages the reader to finish the story by fishing for her own taxes.
Stanley Hauerwas (b. 1940) challenges:
Christians rightly desire to do great things in service to God and in service to the world. But to often Christians think such service must insure the desired outcome. We simply do not believe that we can risk fishing for a fish with a coin in its mouth. Yet no account of the Christian desire to live at peace with our neighbor, who may...also be our enemy, is intelligible if Christians no longer trust that God can and will help us catch fish with coins in their mouth. No account of Christian nonviolence is intelligible that does not require, as well as depend on, miracle. Christian discipleship entails our trusting that God has given and will continue to give all that we need to be faithful. (Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 159)The passage offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the kingdom of God. John Proctor (b. 1952) projects:
Whatever Jesus meant, this little saying matches a regular theme of the Gospels. With Jesus, creation acquires a new generosity—bread and fish for thousands, water becoming rich wine (John 2:1-11), miraculous shoals of fish (Luke 5:1-11; John 21:1-14), provision from God (Matthew 6:31-33). The kingdom is about glimpses of light and generosity breaking through from heaven. And this fish saying points to an event on the limits of normality, ‘a significant crack in ordinary experience...to enable us to glimpse...the dawning of the kingdom of God’ (Richard J. Bauckham [b. 1946], in Gospel Perspectives, Volume 6, editors David Wenham [b. 1945] and Craig Blomberg [b. 1955], Sheffield Academic Press, 1986). God, for whose Temple the tax was gathered, provides the wealth for his children to pay. (Proctor, Matthew: Daily Bible Commentary: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer, 149)A fish with a coin lodged in its mouth provides a striking image reminding us to trust in God. It also gives hope that there might yet be coins in fish mouths for those willing to cast their hooks.
Are paying taxes a spiritual matter? What issue is used today to pinpoint a person’s theological or political position? When have you waived your rights to avoid a fight? When do you wish you had better picked your battles? Of all of the places a coin could be found, why is the stater discovered in a fish’s mouth? Why does Jesus not simply make the coin materialize? Why does Jesus send Peter as opposed to catching the fish himself? What everyday skills do you posses that can be used to serve God’s kingdom? At its most basic level, is Jesus’ method of paying taxes any different from the standard means, God’s grace? What does the relative ease with which Jesus pays his tax bill say to modern readers struggling to make ends meet? When have you seen someone miraculously come into money at just the right time? Who, if anyone, paid the other eleven disciples’ temple tax? Why does Matthew neglect to include a fulfillment passage leaving the story incomplete? What is the greatest leap of faith you have undertaken? How did Matthew’s original audience apply this story; what is the point?
The text presents a major ethical concern: If the story is read literally and fulfillment is presumed, this passage marks the only miracle where Jesus invokes divine power for his own ends. Also troubling is the notion that God provides a miracle when human initiative could have sufficed. Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) admits:
The miracle with which the story ends is at first embarrassing. In the Temptations Jesus learned never to use miracles selfishly [Matthew 4:1-11], but at first glace this story’s miracle seems a convenience miracle. Rudolf Bultmann [1884-1976], 254, for example, believes that this is one of only two places in Jesus’ ministry in Matthew where legendary materials appear (the other is Peter’s walking on water, Matthew 14:28-31). (Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, 204)One mitigating circumstance is the degree of Jesus’ involvement. There are many questions as to the agency of how the coin finds itself in the fish’s mouth. Most assert that Jesus does not produce the coin but instead merely communicates its location. A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) classifies:
It was a miracle of knowledge, not power. (Robertson, Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, 199)John Nolland (b. 1947) expounds:
The extent of Jesus’ miracle is to foresee that the coin will be found in the fish’s mouth. This is striking enough, but it belongs with other instances of Jesus’ uncanny knowledge...In any case, the stater is to be seen not as something that Jesus has conjured up miraculously, but as the Father’s provision to his sons. It is to be seen as a dramatic instance of precisely what Jesus has claimed is more generally true about how God deals with his own children. (Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 728)Donald A. Hagner (b. 1936) deflects:
The instructions Jesus now gives to Peter involve not simply mysterious foreknowledge (as in Matthew 21:2 or Mark 14:13) but a miracle of divine provision. This miracle is, however, unique in the New Testament in that Jesus performs it for his and Peter’s own convenience (in this sense it is more like the ad hoc miracle stories of the New Testament apocrypha). But like the miracle of the withering of the fig tree (Matthew 21:19), its primary function is to provide a “sign” to underline a theological truth: that God provides the fish (not a symbol of Christ, pace Neil J. McEleney [1927-2004]) with the coin in its mouth (which the fish had apparently seen shining in the water and taken for food). This serves to underline the truth of Jesus’ point that the children of the king do not themselves have to pay the tax. (Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary), 512)Jesus, who has forgone the privilege of tax exemption, is most definitely not being selfish. John A. Broadus (1827-1895) defends:
Jesus never wrought a miracle for his personal benefit. If he had procured the money for his purpose in an ordinary way, it might have obscured the fact of his extraordinary position as the Messiah. Matthew probably recorded this incident to show his Jewish readers on the one hand that Jesus felt himself entitled to the respect due to the Messiah, and on the other, that he was very careful to keep the law in all respects, so that no Jew had a right to stumble at him. Our Lord’s disposition to forego a privilege to which he was justly entitled, rather that the men should have an excuse for misapprehending him, was imitated by Paul (I Corinthians 9:1-27) and stands before us all as a part of the example of Christ. (Broadus, Commentary on Matthew, 380)Jesus is actually funding the temple coffers that will soon be used to pay his betrayer, likely with the very same type of coin that Judas will receive as compensation for his treason (Matthew 26:16). Michael Green (b. 1930) coheres:
The temple tax would go into the treasury of the very Establishment that would betray him to death. Yet he did it. He refused to use his freedom as an excuse for claiming personal immunity and escaping obligation. Jesus set an example in the voluntary abnegation of his rights, and this provided a great challenge and stimulus in the developing life of the church. He did it, even though such obedience was part of the path which led him to the cross. (Green, The Message of Matthew (Bible Speaks Today), 189)The stakes are far higher than the interrogators realize. The text’s structure underscores the significance of Jesus’ identity as its core is the exchange between Peter and Jesus (Matthew 17:25-26) and the completion of the miracle is not included as it is tangential to the real concern. The Messiah, whom Peter has professed Jesus to be in the preceding chapter (Matthew 16:16), need not pay the tax. As such, to pay the tax flies in the face of his very identity.
John Enoch Powell (1912-1998) studies:
To pay the tax would be to mislead, σκανδαλίζειν...as to Jesus’ true identity. It is not therefore paid by Jesus and Peter as taxpayers. (Powell, The Evolution of the Gospel: A New Translation of the First Gospel with Commentary and Introductory Essay, 154)Jesus is placed in a catch 22. He needs to pay the tax without actually paying the tax. Myron S. Augsburger (b. 1928) concludes:
By providing for the payment of the tax in this way, Jesus took a course of action which made the payment inconsequential rather than a rite of allegiance on His part to religious cultism. Only as we see the miracle in this manner is it free from the offense of Jesus; using His power for selfish advantage. Again, a greater than the temple is here, the One who is Lord over His house. (Augsburger, Matthew (The Preacher’s Commentary), 200)In having Peter collect the coin from a fish, Jesus pays the tax in a demonstrative, visible act which shows that he paid the tax but did not do so with his own money (John 12:6, 13:29). He protects his identity which is critical as Jesus’ nature is the most important subject in Matthew’s Gospel.
What should Jesus have done in this setting? Is there a better way to solve the problem than is presented by Jesus? Has your core identity ever been challenged? Who is Jesus to you?
“To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” - Norman Maclean (1902-1990), A River Runs Through It, p. 8