I’ve always loved this quirky story, but I only recently realized how many assumptions I have made about it.
Like the assumption that Jesus actually did pay the temple tax. Really, we only have Peter’s word for this. And let’s think for a minute about how reliable Peter is—particularly under pressure. We know how Peter responded in the courtyard after Jesus was arrested when people asked him– “Aren’t you one of his followers?” “Oh no,” said Peter. “I never heard of this Jesus guy.” Right? That’s Peter.
So this confrontation with the temple tax collectors: “Hey! You! Does that teacher of yours pay the temple tax like he’s supposed to?” I imagine that Peter would say “Of course he does!” regardless of the truth of the matter. Peter says Jesus pays the tax, but it’s entirely possible Peter is lying.
Another assumption I’ve always made is that this is a story about Peter catching a fish with money in its mouth. In reality, it is a story about Jesus telling Peter to go catch the fish—we never actually see Peter go fishing. In fact, I was so sure that the story of Peter catching the fish was in the Bible that when I realized he doesn’t catch the fish in Matthew, I went in search of the story somewhere else . . . but it’s not there.
What if it didn’t happen? Not because Jesus couldn’t arrange for Peter to catch a money-filled fish, but because Jesus wasn’t being serious. Because, just maybe, Jesus was being snarky and sarcastic. It’s possible Jesus wasn’t actually telling Peter to go catch a fish with a coin in its mouth, but rather Jesus was pointing out the ridiculous nature of the temple tax and chastising Peter for telling the tax collectors that he was willing to pay it.
“Sure. I’ll be happy to pay that tax. Just go catch a fish with the money in its mouth.”
We can’t know for sure whether Jesus really expects Peter to pay the tax with the fishy money or whether he is making a pointed joke, but I’m intrigued by this alternate reading of this story. The crux of Matthew’s brief narrative here isn’t really Peter’s statement to the tax collectors or the instructions for him to go fishing. The central point of this passage is Jesus’ question: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?”
Of course the king’s children don’t pay taxes. With this simple question, Jesus points out the deeply rooted injustice of the taxation system. It is a harsh critique.
And after establishing that the taxation system is unjust, Jesus says, “however, so that we do not give offense to them, go and cast your hook . . .”.
“So that we do not give offense to them.”
Think for just a minute. Can you think of another story from the Gospels in which Jesus’ primary objective is to not cause offense. . . . Anyone? . . .
Maybe, rather than a glimpse of a compliant Jesus who can perform nifty tricks, Matthew is giving us a glimpse of an exasperated Jesus. A Jesus who is weary from the injustices that surround him. A Jesus who is tired of his followers not understanding what he is really about. A Jesus who does not pay taxes and is not about to give money to a corrupt temple system and wishes Peter had the guts to just tell the tax collectors to go jump in the lake. A Jesus who will pay his stinking temple tax when Peter catches a fish with a gold coin in its mouth!
Maybe. It’s hard to say for sure. But at any rate, it is a great fish story.