The high point in Jesus’ earthly ministry, both literally and figuratively, was the revealing of His glory atop the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17). The obvious conclusion, drawn from this event, is that Jesus is God. The Gospel writers desire for their readers to have that in mind, as Jesus heads for Jerusalem, for His passion week. The deity of Christ remains a significant issue in this unique pericope, found only in Matthew, commonly known as, “the two drachma tax,” or the story where Peter gets a coin out of the mouth of the fish (Mt 17:24–27).
The setting is Capernaum. This was Jesus’ last visit to his Galilean ministry home base, before His death and resurrection. The scene, however, excludes Jesus at first. Tax collectors approached Peter (17:24). There was a tax in the days of Jesus called, “the two drachma tax.” It was a temple tax with an obscure history. In Exodus 30:11–16, God instructed Moses to collect a half shekel flat tax from those over the age of twenty. This occurred during the time of the census, which is the Book of Numbers.
The purpose of the tax was for the service of the tent of meeting that traveled with the Israelites through the wilderness. Israel’s history basically viewed this tax as a one-time event. It was not prescribed for every generation, but in Jesus’ day, it had been reinstituted in the name of tradition. King Herod’s temple restoration and enhancement program was still ongoing in its forty-sixth year, at the time of this encounter.
The inquiry was really about patriotism. Rome occupied Israel, and zealots abounded, along with other groups vying for the people’s allegiance. Is your rabbi a patriotic teacher? Does your Galilean master love the temple at Jerusalem? Does He pay the two-drachma tax? In Peter’s typical knee-jerk fashion, he gave the tax collectors an affirmative answer. No doubt Peter answered “yes” in order to defend the reputation of Jesus (17:25). Galileans were suspect, as sell-outs to Greek culture, etc.
When Jesus next met up with Peter, He began the encounter with a question (17:25). Are taxes for sons or strangers? Although He had not been there, Jesus knew about Peter’s taxing appointment. Matthew wants to emphasize Jesus’ omniscience. By noting that Jesus began the conversation clearly alluding to Peter’s encounter with the tax collectors, Matthew was pointing us to Jesus’ divinity.
Many commentators miss the point of this passage. It is not to argue that Christians should pay taxes. The key to this text is the issue of Sonship. This is evident by Jesus’ question to Peter. Jesus wants to make a point about His true identity. Peter made Jesus a stranger to His Father’s house, the temple at Jerusalem. Strangers pay temple taxes, and Peter claimed that Jesus was a temple taxpayer. Jesus brought a corrective, by asking a question about who pays taxes to kings. Strangers do, but sons do not.
Before we get to the providential fish, we must consider two words in the Exodus 30 passage. The first is “ransom (Ex 30:12),” and the second is “atonement (Ex 30:15–16).” God instructed Moses, “each one of them shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord.” A ransom is a payment to set a captive free from bondage. Atonement brings enemies into a fully reconciled state. Again, the instruction, “You shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting.” The ransom separated the Israelites from bondage to sin, and the atonement brought them into peaceful union with Yahweh. These concepts are crucial, especially for interpreters prone to be immersed in fish tales. We avoid sub-aquatic taphephobia, with regard to interpretation, by exegeting doctrine. The story of the two drachma tax is not about taxes and it is not about fish.
Jesus was not thwarted by paying this half shekel tax (17:26). First, He did not want to offend the traditionalists (17:26a). This was a minor issue, whereas, ransom and atonement are major issues. Paul became all things to all men that some might be saved. It is important to adapt to our situations in order to not lose our witness and testimony. Jesus had made His point with Peter: He is the Son of God, and He is exempt from paying the temple tax in His Father’s house. He did not wish to create trouble over those who were supporting His Father’s house. It was a good cause, for Jesus loved His Father’s house. It made more sense just to pay the tax.
Second, there was the issue of funding the tax (17:26b). Most men would rather fish than work. Jesus blessed Peter, by giving him an opportunity to work for his tax payment. “Go to the sea” which is the Sea of Tiberias. “Throw in a hook” is far different from the other fish catching stories of the Bible, which always include a net. One hook for one fish was Jesus’ prescription. It did not offer the type of sales volume to pay the equivalent of two days wages (1/2 shekel), but there was a catch to it (sorry!). The first fish caught would have a shekel in its mouth (17:26c). A full shekel would provide the tax payment for Peter (1/2) and Jesus (1/2).
Peter was a man. He was not the Son of God. He was a tax owing stranger. He owed a debt he could not pay. Jesus was not just a man. He was the Son of God. He was a tax exempt Son. Therefore, He paid a debt, He did not owe.
The lessons are rich. Somewhere in the eternal decree of God a shekel would fall out of a man’s possession and land at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee. In time, a fish would take possession of the shekel with its mouth. This would occur at precisely the same time he would bite the hook of a fisherman, sent on a mission from his Master to secure a double tax payment. In that one coin, a providential God would make provision for a debtor. Jesus paid it all.
The point of this story is that Matthew writes to affirm the deity of Jesus Christ. It was highlighted in his account of the Mount of Transfiguration, and it was reinforced in a divine fish story. Jesus paid the ransom for many. His blood is our atonement for sin. That precious blood was of far greater value than a silver shekel. We owe God a debt we cannot pay. Jesus canceled out our debt of sin (Col 2:14). He is able, and He makes grace abound toward us. Exodus 30 teaches us what to look for in Matthew 17. It is not a moral or ethical lesson on paying taxes. It is not some disconnected fish tale.
We have considered a glorious view to Jesus, who is fully man and fully God. Jesus the man was put into a position of saving Peter’s character, while Peter was trying to save Jesus’ reputation. Jesus saved them both because Jesus is God. In His providence, He made preparation for the provision of a tax debt. When He supplied it, He was fully God. When He needed it, He was fully man. In love, He graciously avoided offending some zealous Jews, who wanted to support Jesus’ Father’s house at Jerusalem. He was happy to be a blessing to everyone desiring to serve the Lord, both Peter and the traditionalist, zealot tax collectors. The story points us to all that Jesus Christ is for us. He is our God, giving us provision for what we need most. He is our representative head, paying our ransom and making atonement for us, at the Cross.
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
December 26, 2020