A Fishy Story

After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”

“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 sons or from others?”

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him.“But so that we may not offend them, 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.”

I wonder if Peter actually went out fishing after this conversation? Most commenters on the text assume that he did and found his coin and paid the tax. Another of Jesus’ miracles. But the bible doesn’t say anything about it. You would think that it would at least add, “Peter did as he was instructed and found it just as Jesus had said” or something. I kind of think that he didn’t do it.

The two drachma tax was a yearly tax collected to support the upkeep of the temple. It would have been paid to the temple one attended. It wasn’t exactly something that a good Jew paid when visiting a town as Jesus was visiting Capernaum. Some have speculated that visiting rabbis would pay the tax in order to teach at the local temple. But we know that at various times and places, priests exempted themselves from paying the tax altogether. Perhaps the collectors weren’t actually demanding payment. Perhaps they were inquiring as to whether Jesus paid the tax as a lay-person or if he exempted himself as a priest. Or maybe they were just doing the sort of thing that gave tax collectors such a bad rep and trying to shake down righteous Jews who were afraid of causing offense or falling out of line.

Whatever the reason, Peter gives an immediate wrong answer. The question is one of those “when did you stop beating your wife, senator?” sort of questions that impugns the person it is directed towards. And Peter gives what seems like the right answer to the implied slur against his teacher. “Yes, of course he pays it! Why would you think he doesn’t?” It is entirely possible that he doesn’t actually know if Jesus paid the temple tax. Perhaps the question and the reality that Jesus didn’t have a home temple made him wonder if Jesus had paid the tax at all. Where would he pay it? In Nazareth? Jerusalem? He didn’t have a home temple. Peter was a zealous Jew. The idea that maybe his master had skirted the rules made him uneasy. Should they have been paying the tax at each temple in each town they visited? They traveled an awful lot – that could get to be an onerous burden. (I tend to think that the tax collectors were not actively trying to collect the tax as many commenters assume. There is no mention of any further conversation between Peter and the tax collectors in the text.)

When he arrives back at the place where Jesus is staying, perhaps a bit unsettled by the exchange he just had, Jesus immediately pipes up. He makes it clear that the whole thing is a bit silly. He’s the son of the king. Even if they were supposed to be paying the tax everywhere, he’s exempt. Stop being such a worry-wart. You’re straining at gnats and swallowing camels, he tells him.

Then he offers Peter the zealous rule follower and out: go fishing and you’ll find the coin. Take it and pay the tax. That way you will know that the tax has been paid. You won’t risk being embarrassed at my bad behavior. If someone ever asks again, you can answer with certainty that the tax has been paid. I kind of think that there was some good natured ribbing going on here. Jesus offends people all the time, especially the religious establishment. What does he care if the tax collectors are “offended”? They were probably trying to shake Peter and Jesus down anyways. The solution is a bit silly: go get a coin from the mouth of a fish. Not that he couldn’t do it or that it wouldn’t happen as he said. But why not just tell him to go talk to Judas to get the money? And finally, his suggestion that Peter take the money for both him and himself is a final, sharp jab, I think. If Peter did that, he would essentially be admitting that neither he or his master had already settled this debt. He would be admitting that his answer was premature at best. And frankly, if they are the sons of the king and exempt from paying the tax, isn’t paying it an admission that their station is not all that Jesus has been claiming it to be?

So what does Peter do? Does he go and find the fish and it’s coin? Salve his zealous, rule following conscience? Or does he feel a bit foolish for taking the tax collector’s bait and doubting himself and his master and just sit down? We don’t really know.

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One thought on “A Fishy Story

  1. “Doesn’t your teacher __ ?” has the sound of “Why don’t your disciples __?”
    Neither of these are neutral questions; the tone is accusatory. There’s hostility between Jesus & his supporters — and the authorities, religious and/or political. Which is evident many other places in the gospels.

    Neither Jesus nor the peasants who are his primary audience & supporters at this point are wealthy people. A drachma is roughly the value of a denarius, which William Herzog (_Prophet and Teacher_) estimates to be enough (maybe) to support a day laborer for about four days. The tax is highly regressive, the same amount for Herod and for a laborer who might only be able to work sixty days a year, thereby earning enough to feed himself 2/3 of the year. [Without the support of family and fellow villagers, such people could not hope to survive for long.] It is one example of many in which the religious authorities and their exactions are heavily burdening people living at the ‘if-we’re-lucky’ subsistence level, a situation Jesus has been consistently denouncing. Herzog: “To a peasant population excluded from the Temple because they could not afford to pay their tithes and offerings, this was a welcome word and a response in keeping with Jesus’ emphasis on the forgiveness of sin or cancellation of debt.”

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