Of Fish and Taxes: Matthew 17

In Summary:
Matthew 17 opens with the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It ends with a fishing story. Sandwiched between those two is a healing of a demon-possessed young man. It’s a fairly typical “week in the life” segment for Jesus and His disciples.

Matthew opens with giving a specific time reference. The opening event, The Transfiguration, begins six days after the statements in Matthew 16:28. Without poking at too many great scholars, it is worth noting that the narrative has Jesus leading Peter, James, and John up the mountain after six days. Whether or not the whole event took place in just one day is debatable. It may have been too much of a mountain.

While up on the mountain, Jesus is “transfigured” or changed in front of the three who are with Him. The general consensus is that He appears as His glory truly is. (See, for example, Revelation 1:13-16.) Along with Him are Moses and Elijah.

They come down the mountain and encounter a man with a demon-possessed son. The disciples, at least the remaining nine, could do nothing for him. Jesus drives out the demon and departs. They move on through Galilee and into Capernaum. On the way, Jesus declares very clearly that He will die. And then, when they get there, Simon makes a mistake in answering a question about Jesus…and we get a fish with a coin.

In Focus: (I’ve touched on this event before, in Mark and in Luke. Click on over to read those thoughts.)

Since I have links to the Transfiguration (and in the Luke one, deal a bit with the demon-possession,) let us turn our focus onto the fish. After all, who doesn’t love a good fish story? I do see Jonah leaving the room in the back there, but everyone else is with me, right? Good.

Peter is asked whether or not Jesus pays the “two-drachma.” This was a tax that originated in Exodus 30:13. It was required in Exodus of all those who God delivered from slavery. Jesus has, apparently, gone on ahead and Peter answers for Him. For the record, answering for Jesus without checking with Him is not the best approach…Jesus then corrects Peter when they are gathered in the home. (Possibly Peter’s house, Matthew 8.) He asks whether or not human kings charge their children taxes.

He then sends Peter out to handle the tax anyway. Even though they are agreed that Jesus does not owe this tax, He wants to prevent the stumbling of the people around Him. So, God arranges that a fish with a shekel in its mouth will be interested in Peter’s fishing hook. The money is then used to pay the tax. It was enough for Peter and Jesus’ tax because four drachma make one shekel.

In Practice:

Seem odd to you? Unfortunately, we cannot make the application of this passage that we pay the IRS only whatever shows up in the fish we catch. We can find a couple of things:

1. The half-shekel/two-drachma was a tax based in paying for redemption. Jesus did not owe it because He is the Redeemer. Peter, you, and I, do not owe it because we are the redeemed. No amount of shekels will cover our sin or redeem our lives. Only Jesus does so. Stop trying to earn salvation. Even the offerings you bring are powered by God—after all, you didn’t make yourself, did you?

2. Offending others, causing them to stumble, is not something to be done lightly. Jesus has no qualms about setting people right, but in this case He seeks to keep peace and address the problem later. That has implications for us, too…

3. It’s worth restating: our gifts to God are like Peter’s ability to pay this tax. We have nothing that is not given to us in the first place. God accepts what we bring out of love, not out of obligation.

In Nerdiness:

Synoptic problem: Luke 8 refers to 8 days. Matthew 17 to 6 days. Is someone wrong? Or does Luke include a bit more travel? Does Matthew’s more Jewish viewpoint lead to excluding Sabbaths? They likely didn’t travel much on the Sabbath…

Harmonization/textual criticism: some of the earlier manuscripts of Matthew do not have Matthew 17:21, but the verse shows up in the Mark 9:29 parallel. Did a scribe copy it in? Does it matter, since if Mark is inspired (I believe he is,) then he’s right about what happened. If Matthew left out a detail, that is not the same as Matthew claiming a different version. I may not have told you I stopped at 2 red lights coming home. I may just say “I drove home.” That’s not a lie. I just also stopped at two lights…

Old Testament in the New Testament: Exodus 30 would seem to leave the half-shekel tax as an Exodus event. Apparently, it became a repeated event and was collected typically in drachma. One drachma is an average worker’s daily pay.

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