The Bible is filled with bizarre stories, and today one comes our way: the odd story of Jesus and the Temple Tax. Rarely will you hear this read in church on a Sunday morning! So here’s a recap: tax collectors ask Peter if Jesus pays the temple tax. “Yes, he does,” replies Peter. When they get home, Jesus asks him what he thinks of this, asking, “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” “From others,” replies Peter. “Then the children are free,” declares Jesus.
And then so no one takes offense, Jesus has Peter go throw a hook in the sea. The fish that comes out will have a coin in his mouth, declares the Lord. “Take that and give it to them for you and me.”
Strange story, wouldn’t you agree? OK a little background:
The temple tax was an annual tax, a half-shekel per adult Jewish male to support temple sacrifices. It appears that Jesus sees himself and the “true children of God” as exempt from this tax, that the true children of God do not need to contribute to God’s house, because they are of this house.
Preachers avoid this for obvious reasons. What? No tithing? Are members exempt from giving? Reading this passage at stewardship campaigns ends up in a complete bust.
It is a radical response, softened only by the folkloric aspects of St. Peter’s Fish with a coin in his mouth, and the fact that he paid the tax, in fact he would have been twice the required tax. (Did you know the fish of the Sea of Galilee was tilapia? It has become popular these days, and next time you have it on the menu at a restaurant, ask that it come with a coin in its mouth.)
It is difficult to know how this functions for the Gospel of Matthew. Is Jesus taking a stand against temple sacrifice? Against Rome? It appears it is a stand against giving to the temple altogether.
Matthew was dealing with specific problems, probably Jewish-Christians who were struggling with allegiances, temple taxes, and general identification with being Jewish. Matthew is helping them see the way forward, through the eyes of the true sacrifice, Jesus the Christ. So I don’t think this passage is a green light for anyone to cut their pledge if they disagree with how the church is using their money. It’s actually the opposite.
Think about Matthew’s context. Early Christians quit their jobs, gave all their worldly possessions to the church, and spent their life promoting the gospel. Their tithe was 100% of their lives. Matthew is emphasizing this, and letting the Jewish-Christians know that temple taxes are not for them, but that their new lives are completely washed by their identification as children of God.
Maybe a good summary then is: Put your money where your mouth is. Get your lives in line with God.
I am still waiting to hear a preacher be bold and use this passage for a stewardship campaign. Then I would know we are living by faith.