Last week’s post examined Jesus’ response to paying taxes to the civil authorities. Today’s post considers the issue of payment of the temple tax and how Jesus’ decision to pay the tax prevented conflict. The temple tax collectors approached Peter in Capernaum about Jesus’ payment of temple tax. Jesus sent Peter to the sea to collect sufficient money from the mouth of the first fish Peter caught (cf. Matthew 17:24-27).
In the time of Jesus, the temple tax was an annual fee of half a shekel paid by every male Jew above twenty years of age. The purpose of the tax was for the maintenance and services of the temple in Jerusalem. God introduced this tax through Moses (Ex 30:13-14). Although every male Jew was expected to pay the tax annually, priests were exempted from paying because of their special status and service at the temple. As the tax was obligatory, the temple authorities were also empowered to seize the property of a man who failed to pay.
The story appears only in the gospel of Matthew. Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, lived in Nazareth, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem. After having fled to Egypt to escape the attack by Herod, Joseph returned with his family to Nazareth, where Jesus lived till the beginning of his ministry (Matt 2:23). However, Jesus relocated to Capernaum after the Nazarenes attempted to throw him off the cliff (Luke 4:16-31; Matt 4:13).
Why did the collectors approach Peter?
There are no stated reasons why the temple tax collectors chose to approach Peter. However, one can identify possible reasons. First, Peter lived in Capernaum, though he was from Bethsaida in Galilee (John 1:44). Therefore, Peter was probably a long-time resident of the town and was well-known to the collectors. Second, Jesus, as a new resident in the town, probably lodged at Peter’s house; hence, the collectors preferred to approach Peter. One recalls, too, that Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law at Peter’s house in Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 29-31). Third, as Jesus inspired awe among people, they may have preferred to go to Peter, presuming that he would know the mind of Christ. One recalls when the temple police, whom the chief priests and Pharisees sent, could not arrest Jesus because they had never heard anyone speak like him (John 7:45-48).
The Response of Jesus
The collectors asked Peter: “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” This question was tricky because the main intention was not to collect the fee but to know if Jesus paid the temple tax. A positive response would have meant that Jesus was an ordinary Jew and not the Messiah he claimed to be. The Messiah was to be a special one who would have been exempted from paying the temple tax. If Peter had answered negatively, it would have meant that Jesus was not supportive of the temple service. If Jesus were denounced for not observing the Jewish laws and customs, his disciples, too, would have been denounced.
Immediately Peter entered his house, Jesus asked him: ”From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”
There are probable reasons that led to Jesus’ decision.
First, irrespective of his teachings and miracles, many of the Jews never considered Jesus as the Messiah nor the Son of God because he was a Nazarene and learnt carpentry instead of training to be a rabbi (Matt 13:55-56, Mark 6:3, Luke 4:22, John 7:41-42,52). Second, Jesus tried many times to convince the Jews about his messianic identity with relative success (John 6:48-69; 8:19-59; 10:24-40). Third, Peter was directly involved because the collectors approached him. Even if Jesus was exempt as the Son of God, this exemption did not extend to Peter. Peter would have had to pay as well.
Therefore, if the teachings of Christ were already an offence to many, defaulting on payment would have aggravated it because the action of Jesus would have been considered sabotage to the temple and, ultimately, the Jewish nation. More so, as most of the Jewish leaders did not support Jesus because they considered him a threat to their authority, they wouldn’t have exempted him, even as a recognised rabbi.
Lessons from Jesus
(a) Consider the subordinate parties:
Apart from the two major conflicting parties, there are often subordinate parties who are affected by the actions of the two major parties. Peter was the subordinate party because he was a disciple of Jesus, and it is unsurprising that when the collectors approached him, they questioned him about Jesus’ payment rather than his. Although Peter was a disciple of Jesus, he was not the Son of God; hence, he was obliged to pay. Even if Jesus had successfully argued his position on not paying, he could not have defended Peter. Therefore, by paying for Peter, Jesus showed that he considered those who could be affected negatively by a conflict. Jesus purposefully placed sufficient money in a fish’s mouth so that Peter, in carrying out his fishing profession, would raise the money to pay for their tax.
(b) Conflict prevention remains the best option:
Jesus paid the temple tax primarily to avoid offending the Jewish religious leaders or, to put it differently, to prevent conflict. Preventing a conflict is always easier than resolving or managing one. Of course, if Jesus had not paid the temple tax, he would not have contravened the law. However, if he had done so, the Jews would have seen him as sabotaging the temple and, ultimately, the Jewish nation. As some persons believed that Jesus was the Messiah or at least had a special divine privilege, there may have been some opposition to arresting Jesus for not paying the temple tax. The ensuing conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities and the possible conflict between the temple authorities and those who believe that Jesus ought to have been exempted would have impacted negatively on the ministry of Jesus and altered the divine plan for his death.
(c) Don’t play into the hands of the ignorant: When one is ignorant about a fact, the individual tends to act in a way that demonstrates that ignorance. As many of the Jews, irrespective of the teachings and miracles of Jesus, did not consider Jesus as the Messiah, their actions towards Jesus often demonstrated this. Attempting to enlighten the ignorant would have been the best way to deal with this; however, when the ignorant are not only unaware of their ignorance but are belligerent to those attempting to educate them, this option is risky. This is what happened between Jesus and the Jews.
(d) Letting go of our ego:
Letting go of our ego entails that we do not always insist on who we are or what we know or possess for the sake of peace. However, since our ego is tied to our identity, letting go of it is one of the most difficult things to do. Jesus let go of his ego when he chose to become human like us (Phil 2:6-8). He demonstrated this again by paying the temple tax.
May God continue to help us.🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.