This morning, I was flipping through the gospels looking for something to include for this week’s newsletter, and as I came to the last section in Matthew 17, I remembered some insights into this rather unassuming, though very strange, passage.
Matthew 17 closes with a four-verse story about Jesus arriving at Capernaum and some religious leaders came to ask them whether Jesus pays the temple tax. Let’s look at it now:
24 On their arrival in Capernaum, the collectors of the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” Peter replied. Then he went into the house.
But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Peter? Do kings tax their own people or the people they have conquered?”
26 “They tax the people they have conquered,” Peter replied.
“Well, then,” Jesus said, “the citizens are free! 27 However, we don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.” (Matthew 17:24-27 NLT)
What I find amazing is the parallel question that Jesus asks Peter, “Do kings tax their own people or the people they have conquered?” It is a little different in today’s world, but from Peter’s responds to Jesus, we learn that in Rome, only conquered nations/people paid taxes. With the temple representing God’s home on earth, a “temple tax” implies that God requires something from us (our money), and that we might be able to buy God’s favor using money, but more disturbing than money having this connection to God is that we are conquered – that we have no choice but to serve God as a conqueror. Perhaps, this is how some of the Jews felt about God’s role in their lives.
However, nothing could be further from the truth. John 8:36 says, “So if the Son [Jesus] sets you free, you are truly free.” (NLT) God promises us freedom through Jesus. Jesus came to rescue us: “But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When He was hung on the cross, He took upon Himself the curse for our wrongdoing.” (Galatians 3:13a NLT).
We can conclude that the temple tax represents something that is in opposition to what God stands for. So what does Jesus do in this tricky situation? He tells Peter to go fishing (something Peter knows how to do), and instructs him that in the first fish he catches, there will be a large silver coin that will cover both Peter and Jesus.
In this response is the beauty of the salvation story. It is impossible odds for someone to predict to someone else that they could go down to a lake to fish and that the first fish they catch will be carrying a large coin in its mouth. It is impossible, or a better word would be miraculous.
There is a price that we all must pay because of our sin; however, God paid this price (death) so that we wouldn’t have to pay it ourselves. In this story, Jesus paid the price for our ‘temple tax’, when we were a slave to sin.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t pay taxes? (No, we should pay. If in doubt, read Mark 12:13-17.)
Does this mean that tithe is not a salvation issue? Absolutely! We still should give, and a tithe (which simply means a tenth) is still important. But God paid the price for our salvation, and this gift is something that no amount of money can buy.
Then why pay? For me, paying tithe and offerings above the tenth is a regular reminder and thanks to God for paying the price that I could never pay. Giving back is one small way of always reminding myself that I am free because of Jesus’ sacrifice, and while I know that it isn’t required by God, I am able to model the Original Giver of the Universe, who gave us life, who gave us a home, and who gave us freedom.
P.S. Have an opinion? Share your thoughts, questions, or comments below!