To avoid offending the Pharisees, Jesus pays the temple tax (with a coin from a fish’s mouth) but offers a subtle lesson in hypocrisy (Matthew 17:24 – 17:27).
After Jesus and the disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax went to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
“Yes, he does,” he replied.
“From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch, open its mouth, and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
What the story means to us today
Jesus’ birthright exempts him from the temple tax, but he pays it out of respect for authority
When the temple tax collectors approach the disciples about paying their annual temple tax, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the temple tax. The tax was collected from all citizens – but the children of the temple leaders were exempt. Jesus shows his disdain for their practices, not by given them hard-earned wages, but by giving them coinage found in a fish’s mouth. Thus, even though the son of God should be exempt from taxes on his own house, he shows his respect for their authority by paying the tax and avoiding causing a commotion.
Additional thoughts and considerations
The tax collector waiting for Jesus and the disciples
The tax collector seems to be waiting for Jesus and the disciples when they arrive back in Capernaum. Apparently, they had not paid their annual temple tax. Only kings and their dependents, priests, and later rabbis were exempt from the tax. Refusing to pay the template tax would be violation of Old Testament law.
Jesus speaks first
After the tax collector asks Peter about paying the temple tax, Peter enters the home where Jesus is staying. The Bible clearly notes that Jesus speaks to Peter about the temple taxes before Peter even has a chance to ask him about it. Jesus uses the situation as an opportunity to teach the disciples a lesson.
Just as the kings of earth and their dependents were exempt from paying temple taxes, so should the “children” of Jesus be exempt. Peter does not have to pay the temple tax with his own money (he presumably pays it with the coins found in the fish’s mouth) and thus for all intents and purposes, is exempt.
Was Jesus’ response a vague reference to God’s grace?
Jesus pointed out to Peter that kings of the earth do not collect taxes from their children. The children of kings are exempt from payment. Jesus may have been eluding to the disciples in his reference to “children”. Just like the children of kings on earth, Jesus and his followers are exempt from spiritual “payment” given God’s grace through Jesus’ sacrifice.
The science and history behind the story
The temple tax in ancient Israel
Drachmas came in a silver coin worth four drachmas. One drachma was equal to one denarius and was the standard pay for a day’s work. Thus, the temple tax was equivalent to two-days’ wages.
Outside historical documentation tells us that every male Jew between the age of 20 and 50 was required to pay a temple tax of half a shekel (two drachmas) each year. But drachmas were out of circulation at the time of this story. The reference to it in the verses shows the term was retained even after the country moved to a system based on shekels.
24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
The NET Bible
17:24 After they arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Your teacher pays the double drachma tax, doesn’t he?” 17:25 He said, “Yes.” When Peter came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect tolls or taxes—from their sons or from foreigners?” 17:26 After he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 17:27 But so that we don’t offend them, go to the lake and throw out a hook. Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a four drachma coin. Take that and give it to them for me and you.”
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
24 When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?”
25 He said, “Yes.”
And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?”
26 Peter said to Him, “From strangers.”
Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.
24 When they arrived at Capernaum, the tax men came to Peter and asked, “Does your teacher pay taxes?”
25 Peter said, “Of course.”
But as soon as they were in the house, Jesus confronted him. “Simon, what do you think? When a king levies taxes, who pays—his children or his subjects?”
26–27 He answered, “His subjects.”
Jesus said, “Then the children get off free, right? But so we don’t upset them needlessly, go down to the lake, cast a hook, and pull in the first fish that bites. Open its mouth and you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to the tax men. It will be enough for both of us.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
King James Version
24 And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? 25 He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? 26 Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. 27 Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.