The Temple Tax – Matthew 17:24-27

In a story unique to Matthew, a tax collector asks Peter is Jesus intends to pay the Temple Tax. This is another private moment between Peter and Jesus. But this unusual miracle story provides an opportunity to talk about paying taxes and obedience to authorities.

Fish with a coin in its mouth

What is this “two-drachma tax”? Most commentaries agree this refers to the half-shekel tax on Jewish men to support the sacrificial system in the Temple (Exodus 30:11-16). By the first century, a half-shekel was the equivalent of two drachma, or two denarii. This was about two-days wages for a laborer. The two-drachma coin was no longer in circulation by the New Testament Period (BDAG), so this tax collector expected to collect two denarii.

People usually paid the temple tax wherever they happened to reside at the time, usually on the fifteenth day of Adar (m. Seqal. 1:1-3).

m.Seqal. 1:1 A On the first day of Adar they make public announcement concerning [payment of] sheqel dues and concerning the sowing of mixed seeds

m.Seqal. 1:3 A–C On the fifteenth of that same month [Adar] they set up money changers’ tables in the provinces. On the twenty-fifth [of Adar] they set them up in the Temple. Once they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges.

People could pay the temple tax for others (a poor man or a neighbor), or in this cased Jesus and Peter both. For example, a tetradrachma (worth 4 denarii) would pay two temple taxes. The coin in this story is a full shekel, so it is worth two temple taxes.

The tax collector in this passage would not be hated by the locals since he is not working for the Romans. He represents the Temple and is doing the locals a service. He will collect all their taxes and will deliver them on their behalf. These tax collectors might set up tables or booths in the market on Adar 15 to collect the tax, like the March of Dimes (everyone gives a small amount so that a large amount is generated) or Salvation Army at Christmas (you give a fake Santa your money rather than send it directly to Salvation Army).

There is no real evidence people complained about this tax. Even in the Diaspora, people generally supported the Temple and saw it as their duty as loyal Jews to give this small amount of money to support the sacrifices in Jerusalem.

A tax-collectors ask Peter if his teacher pays the tax (Matthew 17:24-25a). Why do they ask Peter rather than Jesus? It may be a case the tax collectors are being polite, approaching the “head disciple” rather than the teacher himself. The question expects a positive answer, “your teacher pays the tax, doesn’t he?”

Jesus explains the tax privately to Peter (Matthew 17:25b-26). Like Matthew 16:21-27, This is another private conversation away from the crowd (back in the house).  Jesus asks Simon a question, put as a statement, “the kings of this earth exempt their sons from taxes.” If the sons of the king are free, so too will the sons of the Kingdom of Heaven be free from the temple tax.

Nevertheless, Jesus is going to pay the tax! Why? Jesus says it is so they will not “give offense” (σκανδαλίζω), to cause someone to sin. Matthew always uses this word for giving or taking offense (looking forward to 18:6-9). Wilkins suggests Jesus pays the tax so as not to offend the temple authorities (Matthew, 600). I would expand this to include the people in Capernaum. If the tax was popular, to publicly refuse to pay the tax would look anti-Temple and disloyal to traditional Jewish religious values. Not unlike Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:13-9:1, it is better to be inconvenienced rather than to cause people to sin (σκανδαλίζω), driving people away from Jesus and the gospel.

The miracle: Go catch a fish… (Matthew 17:27). Peter catches a fish with a stater (στατήρ) in its mouth. The ESV calls it a shekel, but the word refers to a silver coin worth four drachmas, or a shekel. It is possible this was a Tyrian tetradrachma, a coin known for having the purest silver content (and the coin required at the temple for paying the temple tax). Although fish do swallow shiny things, this is clearly God’s miraculous provision.  Does Peter do what Jesus commanded? Probably, but Matthew does not narrate catching the fish, etc.

Tyrian tetradrachma

Tyrian shekel of Alexander Balas, 152/1–145 BC

If you heard a congressperson refused to rise and pledge allegiance to the flag, you would assume they were not loyal Americans. If you heard a politician refused to pay his fair share of income tax, most would assume they were not good American citizens. Most politicians are happy to declare how much money they make, how much they donate, and how much they pay in taxes.

It is easy enough to draw application from this attitude toward the temple aristocracy and Christians obeying laws to not cause offense and drive people away from the Gospel. Christians pay taxes to a government that ultimately does things with them that are antithetical to Christian ethical commitments (bomb countries or provide abortions). To “not pay your taxes” is to be a disloyal citizen and the IRS will insist you pay your taxes with the full force of the law if necessary.

In the world of COVID-19, there are people who refuse to wear masks out of some vague commitment to American freedoms or alleged concerns over health, etc. Yet to be known as a Christian community that flaunts health codes may offend the unsaved (no one is impressed with your logic, honestly).  Christian freedom is not unrestricted ability to do whatever we want, but rather the ability to do what is right for others (Wilkins, Matthew, 607).

Many in the evangelical Christian church has forgotten what Jesus and Paul taught about respecting authorities and offending outsiders. People claiming to be Christians often behave in shocking and offensive ways without any regard to the fact they drive people further away from Jesus.

Jesus’s conclusion: the tax does not really concern us since the worship in the temple is tainted and eventually going to be replaced, but we should pay the tax to keep the peace with the people in Caperna

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