Christ our Lord was in Capernaum, the city that hosted Him during much of His earthly ministry, residing in one of the houses along with His disciples. St. Peter, however, was outside this house when certain tax collectors came and asked him whether our Lord paid something called the “temple tax.” Peter responded, “Yes,” and entered the house where our Lord was staying, but before he could say anything, our Lord, Who knows all things, anticipated him and asked, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” (Mt 17:25). In other words, would a king demand taxes from his own sons and daughters, or would he collect them from his other subjects, the strangers? Peter responded that the king would collect taxes from strangers, not from his own children. Our Lord Jesus Christ agreed with him and said, “Then the sons are free,” or to put it in another way, the children of the king have no need to pay him taxes, because they are his children. But before you think this means we don’t have to pay taxes, listen to our Lord’s words and the beautiful miracle He performed. He said to Peter,
Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you (Mt 17:27).
There are many beautiful lessons in this Gospel passage, but I propose we focus on only three aspects.
First, let us understand the tax that was requested of our Lord and its significance. The Gospel calls this simply the “temple tax” and does not indicate what this tax was for, but most likely, it was a half-shekel tax that every Jew paid annually for the maintenance of the Temple at Jerusalem. We find the basis for this text in Exodus 30:13, which states, “And this is what they shall give, as many as pass the survey, half a didrachm which is according to the didrachm of the sanctuary…but the half of the didrachm is the offering to the Lord” and Nehemiah 10:32, which states, “And we will impose ordinances upon ourselves, to levy on ourselves the third part of a didrachm yearly for the service of the house of our God…”
The Jews took the obligation of this tax quite seriously. The ancient Roman Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100) recorded that even when the Jews were captives and slaves in Babylon, they organized a system to collect this temple tax, because it was so important to them. Philo of Alexandria, another first century Jewish figure, described the importance of paying this tax when he wrote,
The donors bring their contributions cheerfully and gladly, expecting that payment will give them release from slavery or healing of diseases and the enjoyment of liberty fully secured and also complete preservation from danger (Special Laws 1:77).
As we can see, therefore, the ancient Jews took this obligation quite seriously and understood they would receive all of these blessings from paying the temple tax.
This discussion of the temple tax of course reminds us of the importance of a similar practice in the Holy Scripture, a practice we know as tithing, or the offering unto God of 10% of whatever we receive from Him. We find the practice of tithing as early as Genesis 14 when Abraham offered a tithe to Melchizedek and also throughout the Law of Moses. In fact, towards the end of the Old Testament, we read in Book of Malachi 3 that to fail to offer the tithe was to rob God.
In the Church today, we continue to offer a tithe of all that we receive, recognizing that God is the source of all we have, and by giving back to Him the first ten percent of all we receive, we give thanks to Him and show that we trust Him to provide for all our needs rather than greedily holding on to whatever He gave us. Our father among the saints, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, put it beautifully when he wrote,
We are bound, therefore, to offer to God the first-fruits of His creation, as Moses also says, “Thou shalt not appear in the presence of the Lord thy God empty;” so that man, being accounted as grateful, by those things in which he has shown his gratitude, may receive that honour which flows from Him (Against Heresies 4:18:1).
Being diligent in offering our tithes is important, dear brethren. I say this, not because God or His Church need anything from you, but on the contrary, because you are the ones in need of the blessing of offering to God at least ten percent of all He gives you.
Second, let us speak about Christ’s freedom, or more specifically, our Lord’s words, “Then the sons are free.”
As we just heard, the tax collectors challenged Peter as to whether our Lord Jesus Christ would pay this temple tax. Now, let’s try to follow the logic here: if this tax was paid for the sake of the temple, then Who was the ultimate recipient of this tax? Clearly, God is the ultimate recipient. But Who is our Lord Jesus Christ? He is God in the flesh, the Only-Begotten Son of God Who took flesh from the Holy Virgin Mary and became like us in all things except for sin. If Christ, therefore, is God in the flesh, should He pay this tax that was ultimately given to God?
This is a very interesting question, indeed, and it touches upon the important question that every believer must answer: “Who is Christ?” Just one chapter before tonight’s Gospel passage, our Lord asked His disciples this question, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” Notice that He did not ask them, “What do people say about me” or “How are they responding to My miracles?” Instead, He asked, “Who do men say that I am? Who am I to them?” That’s the important question.
And here, in tonight’s Gospel passage, our Lord helps us to answer the question in two ways. First of all, there is the dialogue with St. Peter in which our Lord makes it clear that the kings of the earth do not collect taxes from their own sons. “The sons are free,” He says. What does that mean? It means that, if the children of the kings of the earth do not pay taxes, then certainly Christ, the Son of God, has no need to pay the Temple tax, which is ultimately offered to God. What our Lord says, therefore, confirms His Divine Sonship and helps answer the question in the previous chapter, “Who do men say that I am?” Second, we notice that our Lord tells Peter, “Nevertheless, we will pay the temple tax so as not to offend them.” He performs a magnificent miracle in which He tells Peter to go to sea, cast in his fishing hook, catch a single fish, and then open its mouth to find one coin that can pay the tax for both Christ and Peter. So, our Lord paid the temple tax after all, but do you notice the way in which He paid it? He did not pay it from His own money, but rather, He paid it in a manner that costs Him nothing. As Origen of Alexandria reminds us, “But this coin was not in the house of Jesus, but it was in the sea, and in the mouth of a fish of the sea.” He continues,
But since Jesus, who was “the image of the invisible God”…on this account He takes from its own place, the sea, the image of Cæsar, that He may give it to the kings of the earth for Himself and His disciple…for He paid the debt, not having taken it up, nor having possessed it, nor having acquired it, nor at any time having made it His own possession, so that the image of Cæsar might never be along with the image of the invisible God.
So our Lord paid the temple tax in this miraculous way that shows that He, as God in the flesh, is above the temple tax and not subject to any king of the earth.
Third and finally, let us speak about our freedom.
Tonight’s Gospel passage offers a beautiful picture of the salvation of mankind. Consider, for example, the image of our Lord Jesus Christ paying this tax, this debt that He did not owe. He paid the debt, not only for Himself, but also for Peter. This, of course, is an icon of our salvation, which Christ achieved by paying the debt of sin that mankind brought upon itself in the Fall. As our patron and intercessor, St. Gregory the Theologian, wrote in his nineteenth oration,
It was, after all, for our sakes that He became man and assumed the form of a servant and for our transgressions that He was led off to die. This is the way the Savior brought salvation even though as the God Who created the entire universe at a word He could have done so also by the mere expression of His will. What he did give us was greater and more compelling: he embraced human feelings and the human condition.1
St. Gregory is reminding us that God, in His unlimited power and authority, could have saved us by a mere word, but what He did to save us was actually greater. He embraced the human condition by assuming the form of a servant and saving us in a far more intimate way.
- Gregory Nazianzus, Select Orations, ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Martha Vinson, vol. 107, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 103–104. ↩