24 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?” 25 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?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 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.” 
Last week we began looking at some of Jesus’ parables of grace, examples of God’s one-way love for the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead. We heard Jesus’ first spoken grace parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to go off in search of one lost sheep – a completely upside-down action contrary to the rules of successful sheep ranching. We learned that Jesus seeks the lost and only the lost; he raises the dead and only the dead. But we skipped over a passage at the end of Matthew 17 that is also a parable – not a standard spoken story parable, but an acted-out grace parable in the same way that cursing a fig tree is an acted judgment parable. Like his spoken parables, his acted parables also contain a generous helping of the mysterious and the upside down. So, it’s easy to miss what Jesus is communicating about the kingdom he is establishing.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus exorcises demons, he gives sight to the blind, he makes the lame walk, he heals lepers, he restores hearing to the deaf, he raises the dead, and he proclaims good news to the poor. Not only that, but he teaches as one having authority in himself, and not as the scribes and Pharisees who like to quote multiple opinions on any particular theological topic. In short, he appears as the kind of wonder-working rabbi to whom the common people with messianic expectations flock enthusiastically.
But Jesus also does things the religious authorities of the day consider very unmessianic. He breaks the sabbath traditions, he associates with tax collectors and prostitutes, and, in general, he is openly lax about the law-abiding expectations that the Jewish establishment held for any proper Messiah. Even before Jesus presents his general kingdom parables, the Pharisees and followers of King Harrod are plotting to kill him (Matt. 12; Mk. 3; Lk. 6).
In Matthew16 and 17, we have a series of events that place Jesus’ grace parables in context. Jesus, in Matt. 16, asks his disciples who people say he is. They answer, John the Baptist – or Elijah, or one of the prophets. In other words, they tell Jesus that he is being taken for someone who is part of the old, plausible, non-paradoxical order of things. Jesus then asks them who they say he is, and Peter answers, the Christ. But Jesus rebukes them (Mark 8:30), telling them not to talk to anyone about him. Presumably, he doesn’t want them announcing the right-handed messiah has arrived to exercise the kind of direct, head-on power everyone expected out of a proper, earthly, right-handed Messiah.
Jesus follows up Peter’s confession and his “mum’s the word” command with the announcement of his death in Jerusalem. Peter, in turn (proving Jesus was right not to trust his disciples’ understanding of messiahship), rebukes Jesus. According to Matthew, Peter simply cannot stand hearing such “defeatist” talk from someone he’s just proclaimed as the Messiah. Finally, Jesus once again rebukes Peter (“Get behind me, Satan…“), telling him he’s out of step with God’s way of doing the messianic business at hand. The scene continues to stress the upside down messiahship Jesus is exercising in all of its off-putting strangeness.
Then comes the transfiguration (Matt. 17; Mk. 9; Lk. 9). Two old-order figures, Moses and Elijah, come to speak with Jesus. Peter suggests an old-order solution to worship, namely building little tabernacles, or booths. In response, God the Father drops the glory-cloud on them all and tells Peter to shut up and listen to Jesus. Luke mentions the prophets are there to talk about Jesus’ impending exodus (Lk. 9:31) and Mark writes Jesus told his disciples to say nothing about what they witnessed UNTIL HE HAD BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD (Mk. 9:9). Again, this upside-down Messiah is increasingly centering the context of his kingship around death and resurrection. And again, his right-thinking disciples miss the point.
We know they miss the point because when Jesus, James, John, and Peter rejoin the rest of the disciples, an argument breaks out. Jesus has just spoken of the greatest display of God’s indirect, mysterious power in the universe. The disciples are arguing about which one of them holds the most direct, head-on worldly power in what they expect to be the new, direct head-on powerful political kingdom of Israel. The disciples are jockeying for worldly-fleshly power; Jesus is more and more preoccupied with teaching that Messiah’s work will be accomplished not by “winning,” but by “losing.”
Jesus tells them that anyone who wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. He then stands a little child in in front of them and puts his arms around him, saying, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me.” In our 21st-century Western culture, we think children are cute and innocent. Children are the future. In Jesus’ culture and time, childhood was always seen as a less-than-human state that was to be beaten out of kids as early as possible. Children contributed nothing to the family economy. They were cost centers, not profit centers – weak, and just as likely to die as to live. Jesus, “is setting up not a winsome specimen of all that is simple and charming but rather one of life’s losers. He is telling his disciples that if they follow him in his mysterious messiahship, they will – like him – have to become something no one has any real use or respect for. He is exalting not the plausible greatness that is the only thing the world understands but the implausible greatness that he himself intends to pursue.” He is proclaiming that God works not in the great and wise and powerful of the world, but in the weak and foolish. As Paul stated in 1 Cor. 1:25, “for the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Jesus’ emphasis, far from worldly ideas of pride and control, is on life’s little deaths – the parade of unsuccess’s that include lastness, lostness, leastness, littleness, and deadness (especially death itself). Messiah will do his work not at the top of the heap as everyone expects, but in the very depths of the human condition. He commands his disciples to actively pursue this bottom-of-the-rung status by cutting off scandalizing hands and feet and gouging out the scandalizing eyes that crave worldly greatness, human praise and notice, and (above all) crave total control of the circumstances. They are to become what he is becoming: despised and rejected. Those who trust into Christ’s saving life and death are united to him not only in his heavenly glory, but also in his worldly humiliation. Only at that losing extremity can anything be done about saving the world. This is our context for all the grace parables.
Matthew 17 begins with the transfiguration (1-13), proceeds to the healing of a boy with a demon (14-21), then on to Jesus’ second prediction of his death (22-23), and finally to this acted parable of the coin found in the fish’s mouth (24-27). All these events take place in Galilee where Jesus has been since he began telling the general kingdom parables in chapter 13. Matthew notes that Jesus and the disciples are in Capernaum where Peter encounters the temple tax collectors. All good Jewish men were required to pay the didrachma, the annual two-drachma temple payment equivalent to about two days wages. It was based on Moses’ instructions (Exodus 30:11–16). The tax was fixed as a half shekel (two drachma equaled a half shekel), and it was required of every Jewish male over nineteen years of age.
Nothing in Exodus says that the tax was to be paid annually. Yearly payment became the tradition over time. As far as the law itself was concerned, it was imposed only one time—when a man became twenty years of age—and beyond that it was voluntary. Even more, rabbis were exempt, as were the priests who served in Jerusalem. The Sadducees generally disapproved of the tax, and the men of the Qumran community paid it only once in their lifetimes. In Jesus’ day there was no half shekel coin, so it was common for two men to go together and pay the tax with a single shekel coin, which is what Jesus told Peter he would find in the fish’s mouth (v. 27).
The collectors ask Peter, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” Peter, desiring to market Jesus to a wider audience answers, “Of course he does.” After all, to be successful, Jesus needs to come off as a respectable, beloved, right-handed messiah to as much of Israel as possible. When Peter comes into the house where they’re staying, Jesus (who doesn’t seem to have been present during Peter’s marketing campaign) asks Peter a question before Peter can begin bragging about his new advertising scheme. “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?”
“Sons” is an idiom meaning not the literal children of the kings, but the citizens of their dominions – much as the “sons of Israel” or “children of Israel” most often means simply “the people of Israel” or “the Israelites.” But the literal translation of “sons” conveys a more accurate sense of the freedom and religious liberty that is the point of the parable. The citizens/sons/children of Messiah’s kingdom are free. Specifically, they’re free from the human traditions of the old order.
Having told Peter that “the children are therefore free” – that is, having established by the spoken part of his parable that neither he himself nor his brethren in the new order of his sonship are under any obligation to the old order represented by the authorities and their temple tax – he proceeds to the acted part of the parable. “27 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.” 
When Jesus taught Peter that “the sons are therefore free” he meant that since kings do not collect taxes from their sons, no more would God the Father require a tax to support the temple from his Son, Jesus. At the most basic level the words are a statement about Jesus’ unique deity. As the only begotten Son of God Jesus is exempt from temple taxes. He also meant that as citizens of Messiah’s kingdom, his followers are not required to support the old order traditions. Jesus himself, the new and true Temple has come to be the meeting place between men and God. What lies at the heart of his kingship is not worldly winning but death. His death and resurrection kills off the old political, religious, and ethical messianic expectations and frees Jesus to be rather whimsical in acting out that point to Peter.
Jesus had always acted apart from the religious traditions that grew up around and often obscured God’s law. From the start, he broke traditions about the Sabbath; he associated with the kinds of people Scribes and Pharisees considered unfit to even live around the temple, much less enter into it. He exists beyond all right-handed programs of salvation precisely because he has come to “lose” and not “win.” The coin in the fish’s mouth is Jesus’ nod to the joyous freedom found in God’s one-way love apart from all the moral traditions that obscured God’s holy law.
Jesus declared his freedom (and ours) from the tradition of the temple tax on the basis of sonship. Several passages in the Gospels show Messiah distancing himself from the traditions of the temple. He declines Satan’s invitation (Matt. 4:5-6) to jump off a pinnacle of the temple and be miraculously caught by angels. When his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8), he justifies them by saying that someone greater than the temple (namely, himself) is here. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he goes into the temple (Matt. 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 2) and casts out the money-changers, claiming the temple has become a den of thieves. He is acting out judgment on the temple system – another acted parable.
During the cleansing of the temple in John, Jesus says (2:19) “destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” John says that Jesus meant the temple of his body; but nearly everyone took him to mean the temple itself (Matt. 26:61; 27:40; Mark 14:58; 15:29). Finally, at his death the veil of the temple was torn in two – signifying the end of the old religion of the temple by virtue of its fulfilment in the new mystery of Jesus’ atoning death (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45).
One last reference to the temple holds a link to the word “sons” or “children” as it appears in the episode of the coin in the fish’s mouth. As a result of the healings Jesus did immediately after the cleansing of the temple, the high priests and the scribes became angry. They were upset, Matthew says (21:15), when they saw:
the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. 16 “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?” 
On a number of occasions, Jesus holds up a child as an example of the “littleness” in which the mystery of his death and resurrection works. Again, he himself is referred to four times in the Book of Acts (3:13, 26; 4:27, 30) as God’s holy “son” or “child“. Not only that, but this description occurs in connection with references to his crucifixion, making it suggestive, once again, of lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and death.
The thrust of this acted-out parable at the end of Matthew 17 is the end of religious tradition created by the “adults” and the beginning of joyful, whimsical freedom for the “children.” The children are free. That is such a liberating truth Jesus allows himself the frivolity of this rather odd miracle in which Peter the fisherman is given the tax out of the mouth of a fish.
“The entire human race is profoundly and desperately religious. From the dim beginnings of our history right up to the present day, there is not a man, woman, or child of us who has ever been immune to the temptation to think that the relationship between God and humanity can be repaired from our side, by our efforts. Whether those efforts involve creedal correctness, cultic performances, or ethical achievements – or whether they amount to little more than crassly superstitious behavior – we are all, at some deep level, committed to them. If we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by [display] of our doctrinal orthodoxy, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Ruler of the Universe kindhearted, softheaded, or both.”
But as St. Author of Hebrews taught us, such behavior is worthless. Spilling the blood of bulls and goats can never take away sin. We have not a single card in our hand – intellectual, moral, or spiritual, that can beat God. Human religion, though it correctly insists that something needs to be done about our relationship with God, is still unqualified bad news. It traps us in a game we will always and everywhere lose. That’s why the Good News of the imputed righteous life and sacrificial death of the risen and ascended Messiah Jesus is joyful, giddy, whimsical “coin-in-a-fish’s-mouth” Good News! Peter didn’t have to earn his temple tax any more than he needed to shill for a worldly messiah. Jesus simply provided the payment in an unexpectedly joyful way. How sad that the church so often acts like Peter did, believing it’s in the business of marketing religious appearance rather than the Good News.
What a disservice to a world mired in the muck of appearance and performance to harp on cult and conduct and tradition as the touchstones of salvation. Of course, Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God is going to pay the temple tax. He’s all about temple taxes and keeping up appearances. Nothing radical about our teacher. No, sir. “What a perversion of the truth that sets us free (John 8:32) when it takes the news that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8), and turns it into a proclamation of God as just one more insufferable bookkeeper.”
The tax collectors wanted to make sure this Jesus was a first-century version of the Santa Clause immortalized in that horrible jingle, Santa Clause is Coming to Town. That song sums up the only kind of messianic behavior the human race, in its self-destructive foolishness is willing to accept. “He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out who’s naughty, or nice” – and so on into the dark night of all the tests this naughty world can never pass. For our money, the coin in the fish’s mouth clearly teaches Messiah is not, thank God, Santa Claus.
He will come to his people’s sins with no lists to check, no tests to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle. He will wipe away the handwriting that was against us and nail it to his cross (Col. 2:14). He will save, not some elite group of good little boys and girls with religious money in their piggy banks, but all the stone-broke, worthless, deadbeat, overextended children in his book of life whom he, as the Son of man – the holy Child of God, the Ultimate Son will set free in the liberation of his death.
He tacks a “Gone Fishing” sign over the sweatshop of works salvation, and for all the debts of all his people who ever lived, he provides exact change for free. How nice it would be if we could only remember to keep ourselves in on the joke.
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