When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the tax?" He said, "Yes." And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?" And when he said, "From others," Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast 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 me and for yourself." — Mt 17:24-27
I seriously hate taxes. I got audited as a college student (yes.. so terrible, and because of my mistake) and I've been scarred ever since. I used to get calls from "Unknown" numbers, and I knew it was the IRS. I wonder if Peter felt a little like he was being grilled by the IRS when the collectors came to him. Capernaum was Peter's hometown. The two-drachma tax was for upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem-- so the tax collectors were Jews themselves, collecting money to be spent on the Temple. I think it's significant that Matthew says "Jesus spoke to him first", because it once again shows that Jesus knows us before we come to him, and he knows exactly what's going on before we tell him. Just imagine what it must have been like for those disciples who spent every day with Jesus; they couldn't have a conversation or a thought without Jesus knowing about it! What a way to keep your mind pure and focused. But he asks Peter a question, about who kings toll: sons, or others (ie citizens of the land)? Of course, the answer is, the citizens.
Jesus is drawing a distinction here between his followers-- Sons of God-- and those who are not. It makes sense to our 21st century Christian minds. But to the disciples, it was likely a continual, unfolding understanding. They knew the distinction between themselves as Jews and others-- but all Jews were the people of God, different from the rest of the world. But Jesus was saying here, "I'm creating a whole new order. There are those who are children of God, and those who are not; and the children are FREE."
There's another understanding of the Temple: Jesus is the replacement of the Temple. He is bringing something better into the world (Matthew 12:6). And his presence testifies to the fact that we no longer have to go to the Temple, because the Temple has come to us. Jesus incarnate is who we worship. The one who was glowing and talking to Moses and Elijah days earlier. He is our Temple.
I also think it's interesting to notice that Jesus makes a point, but he doesn't make a protest. He chooses his protests wisely. He knows that He is the son of God, and those who follow him are heirs to his Kingdom, but he is so intentional about everything he says and does, that he decides to pay the tax "not to give offense to them". So often, when I feel a certain way about something, when I know something to be true, I want to make a big deal about it out of principle. It doesn't even matter what it is, necessarily-- I just need to stand up for what I know is the truth. But Jesus is bigger and better and wiser than my impulsive self. He's also kind of amusing, as well.
Sure, he could have had Peter get a gold coin from anywhere. He could have said, "go ask the spice merchant down the road, and he will give it to you". He could have told him to go sell something off. But he does it in this clever, interesting way: in the mouth of a fish. And, a fish in the waters where Peter made his living. He's saying, "see, you work your entire life on these waters, you toil and seek and try. You've cast your nets for days without getting a bite. But when you trust me, I'll always provide for you. It may be unconventional, it may be a quirky way. But I will provide."
Everything about the Temple was rigid: strict rules, placements, hours, taxes. But Jesus was bringing freedom and love to people-- everything the Temple was not. And when you worship out of freedom and love, and not the rigid restraints of the Temple, then God will provide. Does it mean he's always going to give us what we want? Of course not. But he will always provide us with what we need-- and in a way we may never expect.
Dear God, The cleverness of this story astounds me. You could have chosen any way to bring the money to Peter. I am grateful for a creative God who provides for us beyond what we can imagine. Let us live into the freedom and love that Jesus brings by faith. In Jesus' name, Amen.
Dig Deeper: Do you believe that God can, will, and has shown up for you in unexpected ways? Do you lean more towards rigid rules, or freedom and love?