Gospel Fishing – The Coin in the Fish

Gospel Fishing – The Coin in the Fish

Gospel Fishing – The Coin in the Fish.

“When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ Peter said, ‘Yes, He does.’ And then Peter went into the house. But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take taxes or tributes? From their children or from their subjects?’ When Peter said, ‘From the subjects,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free! However, so that we do not give offense 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 large silver coin, a full shekel. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.” (Matthew 17:24-27).

This miracle is unusual. It stands on its own in many ways. It doesn’t involve healing, or powerful preaching, or divine teaching, or expelling demons. It doesn’t benefit others, except for Jesus Himself and Peter. However, it does involve nature, so perhaps we could pair it with walking on water or calming the storm. Let’s look at this puzzling miracle one step at a time.

(1.) Jesus had just greatly distressed His disciple with His prediction of His betrayal, death, and resurrection. They couldn’t imagine anything worse than losing Jesus and seeing Him in pain. What kind of life would they have in his absence? Where would they go, what would they do without Him? Their heads must have been swimming with sorrow, fear, anxiety. They must have at least had a slight little doubt, thinking, Wait a minute! The Messiah is supposed to be a victorious king! This doesn’t make sense! The Messiah is killed?

(2.) This occurred during the last six months of Jesus’ ministry. They reached their home base in Capernaum, where Jesus was known, accepted, and comfortable. This incident is only recorded by Mattthew. No doubt Matthew, the ex-tax collector, is intrigued by this miracle involving taxes and money.

(3.) While settling in at home, the temple tax collector visits and asks Peter if Jesus paid the temple tax. Maybe they wanted to find fault with Jesus and add to their list of accusations. Maybe it was a fear of losing out on a lot of money, since Jesus and all his followers were quite a large group at this point. So Peter said, ‘Yes, He pays the tax.’ Peter, as usual gave an answer before checking with Jesus on the matter. Perhaps Peter wanted to make sure Jesus was considered a Jew in good standing. Peter no doubt wanted to preserve Jesus’ honor as a devout Jew.

(4.) The temple tax was instituted by Moses (Exodus 30) for every Jewish male over the age of twenty. It was intended to pay for the maintenance costs of the Temple and for the salaries of the priests. This was an annual obligation of every male Jew in Israel. The tax was a half-shekel, equivalent to two days’ wages. Interestingly, Jesus made sure that the fish had a full shekel in its mouth, enough to pay the tax for both Jesus and Peter.

(5.) Jesus decided to turn this into a teachable moment for Peter. Peter had recently uttered a profound confession of faith, declaring Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God“(Matt. 16:16). Perhaps Jesus wanted to build on that faith through this miracle. This entire episode could have been primarily for Peter’s sake.

(6.) Jesus asks Peter a question… Who does a king tax? Himself? His family? Or his subjects?’ Peter answered that the king taxes his subjects. And Jesus agreed with him. One interpretation of this short dialogue is that since God is this Father, and He is His Son, and He is in the family of the king of the universe, He doesn’t have to pay any tax on the temple. After all, the king does not tax his own children. So, Jesus is saying, I am not obligated to pay. But I will anyway.

(7.) Another interpretation of that brief conversation between Jesus and Peter is that Jesus is declaring Himself to be king, and since a king doesn’t tax himself, He doesn’t owe any tax. And since a king doesn’t tax his own children, His disciples don’t owe any taxes either. Jesus, in this view, is saying that those who follow Jesus are considered his children, members of the king’s family.

(8.) Jesus graciously decided to submit to the temple tax. He didn’t want to offend the temple authorities unnecessarily. He knew they wouldn’t understand His reasoning for refusing to pay the tax, and He didn’t want to put any kind of stumbling block in their way. Jesus is saying, too, that this is not the right time to cause dissension between Himself and the authorities. So why upset them needlessly, and at the wrong time? Let’s just pay the tax and keep the peace.

(9.) So Jesus put Peter to work in this miracle. It is assumed that Jesus actually had the money to pay the tax in their common purse, since it really wasn’t all that large an amount. But Jesus wanted Peter to take some ownership of this miracle, He wanted Peter to feel like he was participating in the whole event. Peter was directed to go to the Sea of Galilee and throw out a line with a hook. No bait was mentioned, just a line. And the first fish you catch, Peter, will have the shekel needed to pay the tax inside its mouth. Then give the shekel to this temple tax collector, and this situation is resolved.

(10.) This short anecdote is left open-ended by Matthew. We assume that Peter did as Jesus instructed and it all worked according to plan… a safe assumption.

(11.) The word “pay” is used three times in this little miracle story. It is the same word that Jesus used on the Cross when He declared in His dying breath, “It is finished!” The word for finished means paid in full.

(12.) Only God, the Lord of Creation, could have accomplished this miracle. Only He could have directed a random fish to bite at a shekel piece that fell out of the cloak of a careless fisherman, using the fish’s instinct to snap at anything shiny or reflecting light in the water. Only God could have had that same fish swim directly to Peter’s hook in the Sea. Only God could have arranged that the coin caught by the fish was exactly the amount needed to pay for Peter and Jesus’ tax. After this miracle, Peter must have thought, Well, I think I’ve seen everything now! Wait till I tell the rest of the men about this one!