August 30, 2015
This morning we are finishing up our summer series on Who is Jesus?. We are looking at this particular passage because it is unique to this Gospel. You won’t find this story in Mark or Luke or John. Just Matthew. And I wanted to consider something unique so we could think about what the writer of Matthew might have been trying to communicate about Jesus. Who was Jesus for this Gospel writer?
This is an odd story all around: Jesus enables Peter to pull a fish out of the sea that has just the right amount of money in it to pay off their temple tax. I can see why the other writers didn’t put it in their narratives. It kind of reminds me of those stories I mentioned a couple of weeks ago from the infancy Gospel of Thomas. Where a young Jesus curses people who make him mad and brings people back to life that he doesn’t want dead, and makes Joseph’s board longer so he can build a bed. This grown-up Jesus miracle is a lot like those childish ones: Impulsive. Self-serving. A bit showy.
So why does Matthew include it? What does this story about temple taxes reveal about Jesus—or at least about Jesus as the writer of Matthew understood him?
Now might be a good time to explain the temple tax. During Jesus’ day, it was an annual tax levied on adult male Jews to support the daily sacrifices at the temple. It was a religious, not a legal, obligation. Considering Jesus’ criticism of the temple in general and the sacrificial system in particular, I cannot imagine he was a big fan. It is reasonable that the temple tax collectors would wonder about whether or not Jesus paid the tax.
So maybe, with this story, Matthew is revealing a Jesus who plays by the rules . . . kind of. He pays the temple tax, but in an unconventional way. It’s like he’s saying, “We won’t give you a reason to arrest us, but we won’t give you the money out of our pocket and you won’t be able to keep your hands clean when you take it.”
That sounds like Jesus all right. This is sort of a turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile scenario. Subversive obedience to the religious power structure.
When we read this story, though, we need to understand that the temple tax significantly altered between Jesus’ day and the time the Gospel of Matthew was written; most scholars date the writing of Matthew some time after 70 CE. Extra credit if you know what happened in 70 CE. . . . The Romans destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Romans did, however, keep the temple tax. Only they used the revenue to re-build the temple of Jupiter in Rome. Which, understandably, made the Jewish people quite upset.
As you might imagine, many Jews—those who followed Jesus and those who didn’t—objected to contributing money to the temple of a Roman god. Some people think Matthew included this little story because the community for which he was writing was struggling with whether or not to pay the tax. This story can be read as Matthew’s assurance that Jesus would want them to go ahead and pay the temple tax so they didn’t get into any trouble. . . . Maybe so.
This week, though, I realized how many assumptions I have made in the past when I read this story.
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 about the story of Peter catching a fish with money in its mouth. Earlier I said it reminded me of the infancy stories of Jesus: Impulsive. Self-serving. A bit showy. The story of Peter catching the fish with money in its mouth has something else in common with the stories from the Infancy Gospel—none of them are in the canonical Gospels.
I’ve always thought this story was in the Gospel of Matthew. But re-reading the scripture this week, I realized that we are only told that Jesus tells Peter to go catch the fish—we never actually see Peter catch the fish. 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.
The story we have is not about Peter catching a fish with a coin in its mouth. The story we have is about Jesus telling Peter to go catch a fish with a coin in its mouth. And I realized that it’s possible Jesus was being a bit snarky, 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. And there are a couple of points in the story that make this second reading a distinct possibility.
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.”
Most of you are pretty faithful church people. Been attending church for years. Heard probably hundreds of sermons. Many of you have read and studied the Bible extensively—especially the Gospels. We are Mennonites. We know about Jesus. So I’d like you to 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? . . .
Being inoffensive doesn’t seem to be a strong motivation for Jesus. I would contend that if Jesus had been concerned with not causing offense, he would not have gotten himself crucified.
The entire reason for Peter’s assigned fishing expedition is to avoid offending the powerful people who are in charge of the temple taxes. And I have a really hard time believing Jesus cared a lot about offending those who were controlling an unjust system.
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 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 gold coin in it!
Maybe. It’s hard to say for sure. But at any rate, it is a great fish story.