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Taxing Taxation

Jesus's stance on the Jewish Temple Tax.

Written by David Steltz on .

Notes

Introduction & Passage

‌Good morning! Today we get to return to our study in Matthew, picking back up in chapter 17, verse 24.

‌In this passage, Jesus addresses a practical issue of taxes, but in doing so, reveals important truths about his identity, his relationship with earthly authorities, and his role as the ultimate authority in the lives of believers.

Matthew 17:24–27 CSB
24 When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” 25 “Yes,” he said. When he went into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect tariffs or taxes? From their sons or from strangers?” 26 “From strangers,” he said. “Then the sons are free,” Jesus told him. 27 “But, so we won’t offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth, you’ll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for me and you.”

Alright, first let’s look at the context and what exactly is happening here, then we’ll talk about what it means, and finally what the implications are for us.

‌Background & Context

‌It has been a while since we last left Matthew, so I want to quickly review where we are in the book.

Narrative Context

‌We’re in the third and final major movement of Matthew and nearing the culmination of his Jesus’s ministry on Earth. Jesus has begun to increasingly speak about eventually going to Jerusalem and alluding to his death and resurrection.

In verses 22-23 he says it flat-out for the second time, that he will be killed, and even adds the detail that he will be betrayed into the hands of men and verse 23 says his disciples were deeply distressed, filled with grief. And that’s understandable! That’s a disturbing thing to hear! Even though he says that on the third day he will be raised up…even if as his disciple I believed that in that moment, I still wouldn’t want to see him betrayed, mocked, humiliated, and tortured to death first!

That said, they are not yet in Jerusalem, and Jesus will be doing some more teaching and traveling with his followers. In fact, they’re quite a long way off from Jerusalem to the north, at the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. 

They’re in Capernaum, which was a small little fishing village, right on the shore. The village population was about 1,500 people, which for context is less than half the population of Carthage.

At this point in the narrative, we’re coming to a close of Jesus’s ministry in the region of Galilee. And before he leaves to travel to Jerusalem, we’ll see the fourth major section of teaching that he leaves them with, and this story leads up to that.

Temple Tax

Now, what happens in this story is some tax collectors come up to Peter and ask him a question.

These are not the same type of tax collectors as the author of this book Matthew, though. Matthew, before following Jesus, collected tax on behalf of the Roman empire, which imposed burdensome taxes upon the regions they ruled. In a few chapters, Jesus will address the topic of paying taxes to the Roman government, but in this case it’s a different type of tax altogether.

Depending on your translation, you may have “Temple Tax” or “Two-Drachma Tax.” Two-Drachma is simply the Greek version of the term, and both are used in reference a yearly contribution the Jews were to bring to the Temple. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term, or currency is referred to as a “half-shekel” which translates to two Greek drachma. A whole shekel would be 4 drachma.

The temple tax, or half-shekel, or two-drachma tax, was a Jewish tax, instituted in the time of Moses, and was collected from every male over the age of twenty. The money went directly to the upkeep of the temple, to keep things running smoothly and meet the needs of the priests who were dedicated to working in the temple.

Of course, you can imagine how over time those priests would come to abuse the proceeds of that tax and become corrupted; Jesus will have plenty to say about the corruption of the temple later on. Still, he doesn’t hesitate to contribute as a faithful Jew.

And this tax would have been more palatable than those imposed by Rome because it was designated long before the Roman empire, all the way back in Exodus, and it went to the Jewish Temple, theoretically to support the work of the Jewish priests and maintain Jewish facilities, not to pay the salaries of Roman officials or build Roman infrastructure.

And besides, it was not a burdensome tax…it would have been equivalent to 3 days wages for the average citizen, and it only had to be paid once a year!

That said, it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to come up with on the spot, let alone for two people! So when they find a whole shekel, or a 4-drachma coin, in a FISH, that’s not like finding a quarter, it would be like one of us finding $500 in a fish’s mouth! Pretty unlikely!

And yet that’s what happens! The tax collectors ask Peter, the spokesman of the group, “Doesn’t Jesus pay the temple tax?” He says “yes!” Simple conversation.

Then he goes inside and talks to Jesus, and Jesus essentially tells him “You know what, Simon, it’s not actually necessary, God doesn’t actually require us to pay that tax, but we don’t want to cause trouble so find $500 in a fish and that’ll cover both of us.

Meaning & Message

So, that’s what happened but what does it mean? It’s a little bizarre, isn’t it? Why did Matthew choose to include this little story, this detail?

The Sovereignty of God

The first thing that jumps out to me is that it points to the sovereignty of God, and Jesus’s claim to that sovereignty. His statement that “the sons are free” rings of his statement that he is greater than the temple.

He’s saying that, as king of the universe, his authority surpasses that of any other human institution, including the Jewish authorities. His authority is God’s authority, the king of kings and lord of lords. And by his authority, his children, his people have been declared free.

We’ll talk more about that in a moment, but first, realize that right after he says “the sons are free,” he says to pay the tax anyway!

The Role of Governments & Institutions

This speaks to the role of human governments and institutions. Corrupt as they are, they are both necessary and ordained by God as a function of civilized society.

Remember, this particular tax was actually commanded by God as part of the civil order of Jewish society. It was part of how the temple was supposed to function.

In the garden of Eden, there was no need for a temple building, and no need for government. The only authority that mattered was God’s authority, and humans were given authority to rule the earth on his behalf.

But when the humans took for themselves that which wasn’t theirs to take, they became corrupted, and no longer lived in perfect harmony with each other or with God.

One day we will return to that harmony, but in the meantime no human is without sin, without corrupted desires and motives, and therefore no human institution or government is without flaws.

And yet, as much as I’m willing to bet anyone anywhere in the world would have some complaint about their government, the one thing worse than government is having no government at all. Anarchy is not the answer, and we saw that even in the book of Judges. When everyone did what was right in their own eyes, chaos and corruption just multiplied, so God appointed authorities…judges, and eventually kings, to keep them accountable to each other and provide leadership and unity.

Because of sin, humans need some way to keep each other accountable, and need some hierarchy of authority to be organized and effective in our role as stewards of the earth. And yet, every authority on earth, even those with the best of intentions, is inherently and inevitably imperfect. And every government and institution is inherently and inevitably imperfect.

So, there’s a tension there, it’s a tension that humans have always dealt with, it’s the tension Jesus was addressing in this passage, and it has implications for us who still are dealing with that tension today.

Implications & Application

Christian Freedom

‌Before paying the tax, Jesus made a profound statement. He asked Peter “Do kings collect taxes from their own sons, or from strangers?”

Of course kings don’t tax their own sons, that would be ridiculous! Though, in our society that would be considered corruption, that’s not the way it was back then. This was essentially a rhetorical question to illustrate the point that the sons of the king are free.

While Jesus gladly paid the temple tax, he did it not out of obligation to God but out of respect for those around them. The implication of this is that the temple taxes were, for his followers, NOT a theological imperative. That for those in a different cultural context where the temple tax was not enforced, it would not be necessary.

The implications of this go further though, because if the temple taxes were not a requirement to follow Jesus, than neither would be the other sacrifices and offerings to the temple. This is setting a precedent for how his followers would later have to deal with issues of Jewish rituals and the clashing of traditions in the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Jesus movement.

Jesus has declared us who trust in him to be sons of the king, his brothers and sisters, fellow heirs to the kingdom of God. This sets us free from slavery to legalism; from rituals and rules and burdensome expectations. 

The apostle Paul would later write about this quite a bit. In his letter to the Galatians he says:

Galatians 5:1 CSB
1 For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm, then, and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.

‌Most importantly, Jesus sets us free from the worst master of all; he sets us free from slavery to sin. Again, Paul later preached this in Jerusalem to his fellow Jews:

‌Acts 13:38–39 CSB
38 Therefore, let it be known to you, brothers and sisters, that through this man forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you. 39 Everyone who believes is justified through him from everything that you could not be justified from through the law of Moses.

‌And also wrote to the Romans:

‌Romans 8:1–2 CSB
1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, 2 because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.

‌Of course, our freedom is not something we should take lightly or exploit. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

‌1 Corinthians 6:12 CSB
12 “Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be mastered by anything.

‌And in Galatians:

‌Galatians 5:13–14 CSB
13 For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself.

‌If there’s ever a question as to whether or not you are abusing your freedom as a son or daughter of the king, simply ask yourself: “Am I using my freedom to love my neighbor, or to indulge my own desires?”

Respect and Obey Government

Furthermore, though we are free in God’s eyes, we are still to submit ourselves to human authorities, whoever those may be:

Romans 13:4–6 CSB
4 For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. 5 Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. 6 And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks.

Paul said this to Christians living in the Roman Empire under a godless government that levied heavy taxes. Yet Paul summoned Christians to honor, respect, submit, and pay taxes to the government
—Matthew, Volumes 1 & 2 Chapter 64: The Calling of a Christian Citizen (Matthew 17:24–27)

 The one exception, the one scenario in which it is ok to disobey authorities, is when they blatantly tell you to go against God’s commands. Again, God’s authority is above all others; the chain of command always stops at him.

‌An obvious and extreme example would be if you were living under a totalitarian, Nazi regime where you are told to hand over your Jewish neighbors to the authorities to be killed. Would it be wrong to go against that and shelter them in your home instead? Of course not!

Thankfully, that reality is in the past, but a very real concern for many people still today is living under a government that forbids or strongly discourages worshipping Jesus as a community, or sharing God’s word. In those cases, it’s not wrong to continue doing those things secretly, because they are essential components of following Jesus.

We should be grateful for the political freedom we do enjoy in the United States. While nobody would say our government is perfect, we have the luxury of actually being invited to participate in a democracy, and though this may not always be the case, right now I’d have a hard time coming up with any justification for rebellion against our laws. Again, not that our laws are all good, but there’s nothing preventing us from worshipping together, from sharing the gospel, or coercing us into sin.

Avoid Offending People When Possible.

‌Christians ought to have a reputation for being law-abiding citizens, but beyond that, not just doing the bare minimum to stay out of jail, but to be peacemakers, not troublemakers or rabble-rousers.

Romans 12:16–19 CSB
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.

‌I do want to emphasize caveat of “When possible, as far as it depends on you” is KEY in this passage! While we should avoid being offensive, if we get too caught up in trying to please EVERYONE, we will exhaust ourselves in vain. 

Furthermore, our motives in getting along with others should be coming from our love and respect for them as fellow humans, rather than out of pride or wanting to be popular and well-liked! There’s a difference between getting along with others for their sake versus being a people-pleaser because you care too much about others thinking highly of you.

‌Trust in God’s Provision

‌This passage also contains a message of hope and trust in God's provision. When Jesus tells Peter to go and catch a fish and pay the tax with the money he finds in its mouth, he is demonstrating that God will provide for our needs in even the most practical and mundane aspects of our lives. This is a powerful reminder to trust in God's provision and to have faith that he will take care of us, no matter what challenges we may face.

One of the “names” that has been used to refer to God is “Jehovah Jirah.” This is a mutation of the original Hebrew “Yahweh Yireh” which means “God Provides” and is core to God’s identity throughout Hebrew scripture.

This name is first used, NOT actually to refer to God, but to refer to a place. We find it in Genesis 22, where Abraham is following God’s command to offer up his only remaining son, Isaac, as a sacrifice:

Genesis 22:7–14 LSB
7 Then Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” 8 And Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. 9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood and bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 And He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the boy, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.” 13 Then Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there was a ram after it had been caught in the thicket by its horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. 14 And Abraham called the name of that place Yahweh Will Provide, as it is said this day, “In the mount of Yahweh it will be provided.”

So, he named that place, where God provided a ram for sacrifice, “Yahweh Yireh,” “Yahweh Provides.” And all throughout the rest of the story of the Bible, we can see a pattern of Yahweh, a good Father, providing for his children. From providing children to the barren to providing water and food in the desert, to providing victory in battle against all odds. Whenever Israel trusted in God to provide for them, rather than trying to take for themselves (going back to that original sin!), he was faithful to provide.

‌Fast forward to Matthew, and Jesus has positioned himself as being that same provider. We’ve seen it several times before, from the beginning of when he started to call his disciples to follow him, with that massive catch of fish in their nets! We saw it twice with multiplying the loaves and fish! So, it shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise when Jesus also provides for this tax in an unexpected way.

‌But Jesus is also positioning himself not only as providing for physical needs like food and money, he’s been hinting, less and less subtly, that he IS the ultimate provision, he himself is being provided to humanity as THE end-all, be-all provision! And he provides “bread and water,” that is sustenance for life, that unlike physical sustenance, is everlasting. There is an unending, infinite supply.

‌John 4:14 CSB
14 But whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never get thirsty again. In fact, the water I will give him will become a well of water springing up in him for eternal life.”

 John 6:35 CSB
35 “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again.

 John 7:38 CSB
38 The one who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, will have streams of living water flow from deep within him.”

‌Then, of course, this concept culminates in Jesus not only supplying sustenance, but becoming that which we most desperately need. Becoming the sacrificial lamb which takes away the sins of the world, by shedding his blood for the covering of our sins.

We looked last week at how this was foreshadowed by the Passover, and the other “appointed times” the Jews were to observe throughout the year, and how Jesus declared himself to be the true meaning of Passover at the last supper. He is the ultimate provision, and the bread and wine are symbols of his body and blood.

Just as God provided a ram for Abraham, to take the place of Isaac, he then provided himself, in the form of a human, to take the place of every other human who will place their faith in him.

This moment in Matthew 17, with the coin in the fish, it may seem like an odd detail, but it’s building on that pattern that will culminate in his death and resurrection.

Speaking of it being an odd detail though, I’m sure the disciples thought that Jesus’s instructions were pretty strange! I mean, this wasn’t something that was a normal occurrence then any more than it is now! But they did it, no questions asked! In the same way, we must be obedient to God and follow his commands, even when they may seem strange or difficult to us. Often God provides in unexpected ways when we obey him in faith.

George Müller

Anybody here every heard of a guy named George Müller? 

George Müller was a man who famously had incredible faith in God’s provision.

He was a Christian Evangelist who lived during the 1800’s and is known for running the Ashley Down Orphanage in Bristol, England.

He cared for 10,024 orphans during his lifetime, and provided educational opportunities for the orphans to the point that he was even accused by some of raising the poor above their natural station in British life. He established 117 schools which offered Christian education to more than 120,000 children.

He was not a wealthy man, and yet did all of this without every asking for any donations or charitable contributions.

That is, he never asked for it directly, but he did ask God every day to provide for his needs and the needs of the orphanage. And God certainly did provide.

Probably the most famous story of such provision comes from an account from one of the orphans who was in his care, Abigail Townsend Luffe. In his book George Müller, Delighted in God, Roger Steer recounts this story:

Early one morning Abigail was playing in Muller's garden on Ashley Down when he took her by the hand. 'Come, see what our Father will do.' He led her into a long dining-room.  The plates and cups or bowls were on the table. There was nothing on the table but empty dishes. There was no food in the larder, and no money to supply the need.  The children were standing waiting for breakfast. 'Children, you know we must be in time for school,' said Muller. Then lifting his hand he prayed, 'Dear Father, we thank Thee for what Thou art going to give us to eat.' According to the account, a knock was then heard at the door. The baker stood there. 'Mr Muller, I couldn't sleep last night. Somehow I felt you didn't have bread for breakfast, and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So I got up at two o'clock and baked some fresh bread, and have brought it.' Muller thanked the baker and praised God for His care. 'Children,' he said, 'we not only have bread, but the rare treat of fresh bread.' Almost immediately there came a second knock at the door. This time it was the milkman who announced that his milk cart had broken down outside the orphanage, and that he would like to give the children his cans of fresh milk, so that he could empty his wagon and repair it.

This one particular story has become widely known, but it is just one of countless stories like it around the world. It’s consistent with how God is presented throughout scripture, as well as how Jesus describes God the Father.

Remember how back in Matthew Chapter 10, Jesus spoke to his disciples about how the Father cares for his children:

Matthew 10:28–31 CSB
28 Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. 30 But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

‌This is offered as comfort and assurance, even during difficult or painful circumstances. Jesus never promised that life would be comfortable or without difficulty! But that the Father does see us, know us, care for us, and love us, and that he HAS, through Christ, provided eternal hope, security, and sustenance.

‌Conclusion

‌So, what can we take away from this passage? At its core, this passage is about Jesus' identity as the Son of God and his authority over all earthly rulers and governments. When Jesus asks Peter from whom the kings of the earth take toll or tax, he is making the point that kings and rulers have the authority to collect taxes from their subjects, but they do not have the authority to tax the children of God. In other words, Jesus is saying that he is above earthly rulers and governments, and that he is the ultimate authority in our lives.

But there is also a practical aspect to this passage. Jesus doesn't want to cause any offense to the tax collectors, so he tells Peter to go and catch a fish, and when he opens its mouth he will find a shekel, which is the exact amount needed to pay the tax. This is a reminder that we, as believers, should always be respectful and obedient to earthly authorities, even when we may not agree with them. We should do our best to follow the laws and pay our taxes, even if we don't agree with the government's policies.

And finally, it encourages us to trust in God's provision, knowing that he will provide for our needs. That he does see, and care, and provide, in even the most practical and mundane aspects of our lives. But it’s also a reminder that the eternal, spiritual sustenance he provides is of far greater significance, and for that we ought to be humbly, soberly, joyfully grateful.

Communion

We’re now going to take a few minutes to reflect on that through the elements of communion, and Mike is going to come and lead us through that.


Taxing Taxation