JESUS PAID THE TEMPLE SUPPORT TAX TO AVOID OFFENSE DESPITE BEING THE LEGITIMATE FOCUS OF TEMPLE WORSHIP
David Thompson: To understand this passage, we must understand the Jewish background. It took a lot of money to run the temple in Jerusalem and God made provisions for this in the O.T. Law. . .
At the temple there were daily morning and evening sacrifices which included a year-old lamb at every sacrifice. There were wine, flour and oil offerings. The incense which was burned and the oil to operate the lighting system took a lot of money. One writer observed just the robe of the High Priest would have cost a “king’s ransom” (Barclay, p. 168). God knew it would take a lot of money to run His temple so He made abundant provisions for it. In Ex. 30:13-14, it was required that every Jew over age twenty must pay an annual temple tax of one-half shekel. Barclay observed “In the days of Nehemiah, when the people were poor, it was one-third of a shekel” (Vol. 2, p. 168). One-half shekel was equal to two Greek drachmas. That is precisely what is referred to in this passage. This tax was equivalent to about two days’ pay. So every year, every male over twenty was required to bring two days’ pay to the temple to maintain its operations. This was in addition to the regular offerings. Now the method of collection was very systematic. On the first of the month, Adar, which is our March, it was announced that the tax was to be paid. On the 15th day of March, booths were set up in every town and village where the taxes were collected. If the tax was not paid by the 25th, it had to be paid directly to the temple. This scene takes place in March. What we have are temple authorities going to Peter to ask whether or not Jesus would pay this tax. There is an important lesson to see from this passage.
JESUS CHRIST PAYS A TEMPLE TAX SO THAT HE AND HIS DISCIPLES WOULD NOT BE OFFENSIVE.
Truth is this whole scene is offensive to Him. It occurs after His transfiguration. Had Israel come to terms with Jesus Christ, they would have been bringing Him everything rather than asking Him for a tax. The temple was His temple and His Father’s temple. He said that when He was 12 (Luke 2:49). He is the focal point of everything in the temple. They should have given Him all of their wealth, but instead they want Him to give them some money.
Stu Weber: Even though the king’s death exempts his servants from obligations under the old covenant, we must be willing to give up our privileges for the ministry of the kingdom in the lives of others. . .
Jesus was not teaching a lesson about civil taxes. Rather, he was paralleling the temple tax with the civil tax. The kings of the earth are parallel to God, and the sons represent true believers and children of God (5:9, 45). The customs or poll tax paralleled the temple tax. Jesus left the implications for members of God’s family unstated, but it is clearly implied: God’s royal children are free from old covenant obligations that have been nullified by the new covenant.
Charles Swindoll: As the saying goes, two things in life are certain: death and taxes. Jesus had just prophesied that He would die, which confused and disturbed the disciples (17:23). Now the question of paying taxes came up. . . William Barclay notes, “There is little doubt that the question was asked with malicious intent and that the hope was that Jesus would refuse to pay; for, if he refused, the orthodox would have grounds for making an accusation against him.” Here we see the opponents of Jesus trying to snare Him any way they could. If outright, face-to-face confrontation simply ended in embarrassment, they would try to take Jesus down through less direct means.
The problem was that at the time the temple tax wasn’t actually obligatory, either by Roman law or by a literal reading of the Law of Moses. It was merely customary and voluntary. At the time of Jesus, the temple tax was more a test of one’s loyalty to the temple in Jerusalem and of patriotism toward Israel. As such, this wasn’t a test of Jesus’ fidelity to the Law of Moses but to the religious and political culture of the time. Would Jesus conform to cultural expectations? Or would He defy the man-made social rules and take a path of independence? . . .
By conforming to the cultural expectation and simply paying the minimum tax, Jesus was demonstrating to His followers that they needed to pick their battles wisely. On the one hand, there was nothing sinful about paying a temple tax. On the other hand, it wasn’t actually obligatory. Because it was neutral, the righteous should prudently weigh the benefits of paying the tax vs. the negative impact of not paying it. Nothing could be gained for the proclamation of the kingdom of God by thumbing noses at the temple-tax collectors. And by simply paying the tax, they would avoid placing a pointless obstacle in the path of outsiders.
Grant Osborne: The application of this passage to the life of the church depends on whether one sees it restricted to the temple tax, thus having primarily a christological significance (so Carson, Luz), or sees both the temple tax and the civil tax included, thus seeing it as the precursor to “submission to the government” passages (France, Davies and Allison). In light of the presence of both in the text (the temple tax the basis of the story, the civil tax noted in Jesus’ metaphorical question), I believe both aspects are intended here.
R. T. France: This apparently rather trivial exchange in fact has significant implications for the reader’s understanding of the status and mission of Jesus. The half-shekel temple tax was an annual levy on adult Jewish males, and one which unlike Roman taxes might be expected to be paid as a patriotic duty, but the Sadducees disapproved of it as a relatively recent Pharisaic institution and the members of the Qumran community on principle paid it only once in a lifetime. This approach from the tax-collectors suggests a suspicion that Jesus also might not accept this as an obligation.
I. (:24-25a) THE ISSUE OF PAYING THE TEMPLE TAX
A. (:24) Complicated Issue of the Temple Tax Raised by Local Jewish Collectors
“And when they had come to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax
came to Peter, and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?’”
- Why was this question posed to Peter instead of directly to Jesus?
- What was so complicated about this issue of payment of the annual temple taxes?
Grant Osborne: During the period covered by this narrative section (13:54 – 17:27), Jesus and the disciples have crossed the lake to the area of the Decapolis and returned (ch. 14), then traveled northwest to Tyre and Sidon and east to Gentile territory along the Sea of Galilee (ch. 15). Since then they have remained in the area of the lake, first at Magadan near Tiberias (15:39) and then twenty miles north of Galilee to the region of Caesarea Philippi (16:13 – 17:23) and now back to Jesus’ and Peter’s hometown of Capernaum. . .
The half-shekel tax (= two drachmas) stemmed from the tax imposed in Neh 10:32–33 (where it was one-third of a shekel) and was to be paid by every Jewish male over twenty years old (m. Šeqal. 1:3–4). Yet the practice was apparently late in the Second Temple period, and there was considerable debate over it. Qumran understood Exod 30:11–16 as requiring one payment in a lifetime (4Q159:6–7), and the Sadducees believed it was to be paid voluntarily. This was the lone exception to the Roman rule that foreign temples could not collect taxes from their people. After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the Romans required the temple tax to be given to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.
Thus, these were likely local Jewish collectors who visited the residents of Capernaum (like Peter and Jesus) and then sent the money to Jerusalem. The collection was taken in the month of Adar (February-March) and sent to Jerusalem in time for Passover. So much money was collected that the temple authorities had to find ways to use it, “eventually constructing a massive golden vine (cf. Josephus, War 5.210).”
R. T. France: If, as tradition holds, it was in Peter’s house that they lived while in Capernaum, the tax-collectors naturally approach Peter as the householder and therefore as responsible for those living with him. Jesus, though not the householder, is recognized as “your teacher,” the leader of the disciple group, and it is his attitude to the tax which is in question.
B. (:25a) Simplistic Automatic Response of Peter
“He said, ‘Yes.’”
Walter Wilson: Peter responds, rather impulsively it seems, in the affirmative (17:25a), his failure to consult first with Jesus reflecting a failure to grasp the significance of the matter at hand. Later, after Peter has entered “the house” (cf. 13:36), Jesus forestalls the disciple’s question with one of his own, a parabolic query that posits an analogy between the way in which human kings act toward their “sons” and the way in which God acts toward God’s children (cf. 18:23; 22:2). Implied in the comparison is the assumption that even if it is administered by human agents, the temple tax is ultimately imposed by God’s very self. Given the recent emphasis on Jesus’s identity as God’s Son (16:16; 17:5), it is also fair to assume that “sons” in the similitude refers to Jesus himself and his spiritual siblings, that is, to those who do the will of his heavenly Father (cf. 12:46 – 13:1, also set in “the house”), as opposed to non-followers, here characterized as “others” (ἀλλότριοι). Just as members of the royal family are obviously exempt from taxes of all kinds, the members of the family of God are “free” (ἐλεύθεροι), the unqualified declaration in 17:26b suggesting that they are not only exempt from the temple tax but also liberated in a more general sense as well.
II. (:25b-26) THE EXEMPTION DUE TO JESUS’ SPECIAL STAUS
A. (:25b) The Analogy from Civil Taxes
“And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying,
‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?’”
Grant Osborne: Jesus’ point is that kings never raise revenue from their own family but only from the rest of the people.
R. T. France: All rulers, it is taken for granted, need to raise revenue; the question is from whom do they raise it. The specific reference of “sons” and “strangers” will depend on which governing authority is in view: for the Roman poll tax the crucial division was between Romans and subject foreigners (a possible meaning of allotrios, “stranger”), but not all rulers rule over foreigners, and where they are taxing their own people the “sons” who are exempt are more likely to be their own family members as opposed to the wider populace. But whatever the exact reference, the principle assumed by Jesus’ question and Peter’s response is that rulers exempt those closest to them from taxation. Whatever our modern democratic ideals may suggest, that seems a valid observation of the natural human tendency as it would have been experienced in the first century.
Leon Morris: Many translations have something like “The citizens of the country or the foreigners?” and record Peter’s answer as “The foreigners” (so GNB). But this is not really the alternative, and it does not correspond to reality. Conquerors, of course, have always shamelessly plundered conquered peoples, and some of them may perhaps have been able to make do with this source of revenue, but the kings of the earth in general certainly have always taxed their own people and have never been in the luxurious position of being able to finance their activities solely from taxes levied on foreigners. Such translations do not pay enough attention to the language Jesus uses. He speaks of their sons, which draws attention to the male members of the royal households (and would probably include all in those households): the contrast is not between citizens and foreigners, but between those of the royal household and those outside. Kings regularly tax their citizens, not their families.
B. (:26) The Application to Jesus’ Situation
“And upon his saying, ‘From strangers,’
Jesus said to him, ‘Consequently the sons are exempt.’”
Walter Wilson: Specifically, the relationship that his followers have with God through Jesus relativizes all other ways of knowing and honoring God, even those associated with God’s temple, the piety of the temple being essentially transcended by the piety of God’s fatherhood. That such an experience could be depicted with the language of freedom is evidenced also by John 8:35–36, which employs the imagery of “the house” as well: “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (cf. Heb 3:5–6).
III. (:27) THE ACCOMMODATION AND DIVINE PROVISION
A. The Accommodation
“But, lest we give them offense,”
Walter Wilson: As the final verse of the pericope shows, however, freedom must be tempered by responsibility (17:27). As sons of God, Jesus and his followers must avoid “giving offense” to others (i.e., doing anything that might impede them from coming to faith), a theme to which the ensuing discourse will return (18:6–9). But rather than paying the tax themselves, Jesus informs Peter that their need will be met by a miracle of divine provision, the form of which corresponds to the view of God set forth in 17:25–26. God does not exact payment from the “sons” but on the contrary provides for them, as a father provides for his children (cf. 6:31–33). In this regard, it is important to note that Jesus foresees but does not enact the miracle. Rather it is something (we are led to presume) that God will do for Jesus and Peter, just as the heavenly Father gives what is good to all his children (7:9–11).
Grant Osborne: Jesus does not wish to give the impression that he is rejecting the temple or the Jewish people. This is a similar principle to Paul’s in 1 Cor 9:22b, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (cf. 1 Cor 8:13; 9:3–23). All decisions are made on the basis of what enhances the gospel, and Christ’s ambassadors are to surrender their “rights” for its sake.
R. T. France: The implication of the dialogue with Peter seems to be then that since Jesus has the status of a “son” in relation to God, he is “free” and so should be exempt from paying the tax (though the last step of the argument is left unstated). If he nonetheless does pay it, therefore, it is as a matter of accommodation, to avoid giving offense (which is what the verb “cause to stumble” probably means in this context), rather than of obligation. . . Is there a parallel here with his baptism, which, according to 3:14–15, was undertaken not because he personally required it, but to identify with repentant Israel and so to “fulfill all that is required of us”? The Jesus of Matthew’s gospel is not one to stand on his personal dignity, nor to dig his heels in on matters of secondary importance. His followers have not always been so perceptive in differentiating between matters of principle and adiaphora.
Leon Morris: If Jesus paid the tax he would be putting himself in the same position as others; he would be classing himself as an “outsider,” not as a “Son,” and that impression should be avoided. If he refused to pay the tax, he would give the impression that he rejected the temple and all that it stood for, whereas the Gospels make it clear that he did no such thing. Moreover, there were the people entrusted with the obligation to collect the taxes to consider. Had Jesus insisted on his rights, those men would not have been able to collect the tax from him. Jesus did not intend to be a snare to them, to lead them into sin in some way, though it is not clear precisely how a refusal to pay would cause the collectors to sin. . .
B. The Divine Provision
“go to the sea, and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up;
and when you open its mouth, you will find a stater.
Take that and give it to them for you and Me.”
Grant Osborne: Jesus’ command would be quite appealing to Simon, a professional fisherman. The reason for a “fishhook” rather than a net is the intention to catch just a single fish. The image of the fish “coming up” is part of the miracle; the fish, having swallowed a shiny coin on the bottom, arises from the depths and takes the hook. The coin is probably Tyrian silver, the exact amount for paying the temple tax for Jesus and Peter (“on behalf of me as well as you,” two shekels or drachmas each).
Michael Wilkins: The fish known popularly, but probably inaccurately, as “Saint Peter’s Fish” is the musht. The reason why it probably is not the type of fish Peter caught is that it feeds only on plankton and is not attracted by bait on a hook. More likely Peter caught the barbel, a voracious predator of the carp family that feeds on small fry like sardines, but also on mollusks and snails at the lake bottom. Peter may have baited the hook with a sardine, the most numerous fish in the Sea of Galilee, to which the barbel would have readily been attracted.
Jeffrey Crabtree: Not all fish stories are fabrications.
Grant Osborne: God will take care of his children, and so they must entrust themselves to his care. The purpose of the command of Jesus to Peter in v. 27 is both to show that God provides for the needs of his children and to tell Peter to be dependent on God to meet his needs. This is the meaning of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily needs” (6:11). It is not a consumer demand for God to give more and more but an expression of our reliance on God to meet our needs.
Leon Morris: “Found” money did not belong to anyone, so there was no barrier to Peter’s paying the tax with it. The little group’s meager store of money would then not have been used to pay taxes. It is also possible that the use of a “found” coin, while it satisfied the tax collectors, did not involve any admission that Jesus was liable to pay the tax; it was not “his” money. Jesus tells Peter to give the coin to the collectors for me and you.