The key that unlocks understanding the passage is identifying what the “two-drachma tax” was. It wasn’t a Roman tax collector who came knocking. Nor was it a Jewish tax collector working for Rome. Instead it was a temple tax collector providing opportunity to support financially the cost of running the temple at Jerusalem with a half shekel offering. A practice instituted by God through Moses back in Exodus for servicing the tent of meeting (Ex. 30:11-16). Understanding what tax we’re talking about opens the door to the claim Jesus was making.
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for Me and for yourself.”
(Matthew 17:24-26 ESV)
So many things worth chewing on here.
First, there’s Jesus’ demonstration of deity — His omniscience. He knows the conversation Peter’s had with the tax collector. He knows the rash promise Peter made about paying. So, before Peter can talk to Jesus about how to deliver on the promise he had made, “Jesus spoke to him first.” In addition, Jesus knows there’s a fish with a coin in its belly — a shekel, enough for taxes for two. So, He sends Peter to go fishing, also knowing that the first fish Peter hooks is gonna be that money fish.
Then, there’s Jesus’ claim to deity. Kings of the earth collect taxes from others in order to underwrite the needs of their household — they don’t collect taxes from their own family. The sons are free. Thus, taxes for the Father’s house were never intended to be paid by the Son. So Jesus is, in effect, asserting again, “I am the Son of God.”
But here’s what I’m noodling on this morning, Jesus’ decision not to give offense.
He didn’t have to pay the tax for the house of God, it was His house. While it wasn’t a great sum of money (and apparently the Lord of Creation had access to aquatic ATM’s at will), He could have held there was a principle at stake — the sons are free. Yet, for Jesus, this was not a battle worth fighting. This was not a potential teachable moment which needed to be seized, nor a divine object lesson that needed to be pressed. Go fishing Peter, says Jesus, and pay the tax.
The wisdom of deity. Refusing to give offense where offense isn’t needed. Going with the flow when it best serves the long game of making the kingdom known. That’s what I’m chewing on.
Oh, there would come a time when Jesus would give offense concerning His Father’s house. A time when we would clean house. Then He would assert His authority as the Son. But when it came to four drachmas, when it came to a shekel, when it came to a coin in the belly of a fish, “take that and give it to them for Me and yourself.”
How I need such wisdom. To know when letting it go and avoiding offense is actually the wiser strategy for the long game. To not be so quick to make every matter a matter of principle that needs to be defended. To be more like Jesus.
By His grace. For His glory.