My goal in this PODCAST? Simple: To keep you out of jail.
Yes, this story in Matthew 17 is THAT positively practical.
It’s interesting to me that of the four Gospel writers (for reasons that we’ll get into in the podcast), only Matthew records this particular story about (of all things) an obscure Old Testament reference to an otherwise obtuse Moses-mandated responsibility, one that Jesus had apparently overlooked or outright rejected.
It’s not surprising to me that Matthew records this. But given the significance of the story, and its practical implications for our lives today, it is very surprising to me that none of the other Gospel writers makes any reference to this curious little episode.
An ever-so-brief snapshot into the life/heart of Jesus.
There’s quite a lot going on here. So we’ll now pick it apart and see what it all meant to Jesus back then, and what it means to us today.
Let’s begin by reading Matthew 17:22-24
22 After they gathered again in Galilee, Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. 23 He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
24 On their arrival in Capernaum, the collectors of the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”
Now, remember, just shortly before this, while they were in Caesarea Philippi, we read that Jesus told these things to his apostles:
From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. (Matthew 16:21)
Correspondingly, we read this in Luke 9:22,
“The Son of Man must suffer many terrible things,” he said. “He will be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He will be killed, but on the third day he will be raised from the dead.”
We see that Jesus is trying to leave no doubt in his follower’s minds that He is going to suffer, die and rise from the dead. Even so, as we will read when we get to His crucifixion, all this preparation seemed to be for naught. They were still filled with fear and struck completely off guard.
Which brings us back to Matthew 17.
Now, there are two parts to this story. The first part is included in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, and the second is only told in Matthew’s Gospel.
Leaving that region, they traveled through Galilee. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there, 31 for he wanted to spend more time with his disciples and teach them. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” 32 They didn’t understand what he was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant. (Mark 9:30-32)
They didn’t understand because 1) it didn’t fit with what they had just witnessed and 2) they were in willful denial and could not process such a terrible “end” to Jesus’ story. What had they just witnessed? Jesus simply uttered a word, cast out a demon from a man’s son, and stunned the crowd that was gathered. Jesus’ power over the demonic world was astonished!
Think about it… if Jesus could single-handedly take on and defeat the powers of hell and send a demon away screaming, how could any power on earth be victorious over Jesus?
This is why Jesus was extremely intentional in telling his disciples:
While everyone was marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples,44 “Listen to me and remember what I say. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies.” 45 But they didn’t know what he meant. Its significance was hidden from them, so they couldn’t understand it, and they were afraid to ask him about it. (Luke 9:43-45)
How could this be?
How could He allow this to happen to Him?
But who was it that handed Jesus over to His executioners? Judas? The Jewish people? Pilate? The Jewish religious leaders? The Gentiles? God the Father? There is Scripture to support each of these.
Jesus didn’t stand a chance, did He?
In fact, according to Isaiah, we are all responsible for His death.
But John 10:17-18 tells us who ultimately did it:
“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. 18 No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded.”
Jesus, Himself, delivered Himself over to His enemies and went to the cross willingly.
So, immediately upon Jesus showing His heavenly compassion to a father and His demon-possessed son, while the whole crowd was awe-struck, He delivered that incredibly heavy reality check to His disciples.
Talk about an emotional roller coaster!
Then, after being filled with grief, just as Jesus stepped foot in Capernaum, we see the second part of the story, told by Matthew, the former tax collector:
On their arrival in Capernaum, the collectors of the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”
Why did they pounce on them like this? Well, it’s what tax collectors do. Sure as dogs bark and birds fly, this is what their developed nature does. Especially these particular ones who were employed by the Jerusalem Temple, in particular the High Priest, Caiaphas (distinct from the tax collectors who worked for and collected for the Roman government). Now, the Temple tax was nothing new. It went as far back as Moses’ day:
Each person who is counted must give a small piece of silver as a sacred offering to the Lord. (This payment is half a shekel, based on the sanctuary shekel, which equals twenty gerahs.) 14 All who have reached their twentieth birthday must give this sacred offering to the Lord. (Exodus 30:13-14)
The second reason they pounced on Jesus was to try to publicly attack and discredit Jesus’ integrity. They wanted to make it publicly known that Jesus was breaking the law of the Torah!
What comes next, is simply CLASSIC!
“Yes, he does,” Peter replied. Then he went into the house. (Matthew 17:25)
Can’t you just see it? Peter spinning around, simultaneously saying “Yes!” and darting into the house.
And, like any great rabbi, Jesus saw this as a perfect teaching moment.
But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him, “What do you think, Peter? Do kings tax their own children or the people they have conquered?”
26 “They tax the people they have conquered,” Peter replied.
“Well, then,” Jesus said, “the citizens are free!
Now, keep in mind that the Temple is God’s house. God resided there behind the great curtain. Jesus is God’s Son. Therefore, from His heavenly point of view, is Jesus accountable for paying the tax for the upkeep of His own house?
He had the perfectly plausible reason not to pay the tax.
But there was another compelling argument for His exemption of the tax, which many people actually claim today.
Let’s start with this: Who ran the temple? The High Priest. Who was the High Priest at the time? Caiaphas.
Now, for those of you who are not familiar with Caiaphas, he was the fifth High Priest to hold that office in the course of four years – an office fraught with politics, skullduggery, intrigue, and even assassination. Yet, within this context, he held the job for 18 years. He was a political animal. There was a reason there was a prison installed beneath his house – nobody messed with Caiaphas. His was not a spiritual position at all. When he was High Priest, it was entirely about political power and money. It’s thoroughly documented by both Scripture and secular records that he saw Jesus as a problem that needed to be eliminated.
And his salary was paid for by the Temple tax.
If that’s not a decent enough reason for Jesus to not pay the tax, I don’t know what is.
In fact, I know people today who use this very reasoning to rationalize their own non-payment of federal income taxes. They claim their heavenly citizenship over their American citizenship. They don’t agree with what their tax dollars go toward, claiming these line items are in opposition to God’s Word.
But that’s not what Jesus said.
27 However, we don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.” (Matthew 17:27)
He paid His taxes. He stayed out of jail. At least on that day.
And, for good measure, when it came to governmental taxes, Jesus had this to say:
…show me the coin used for the tax.” When they handed him a Roman coin,20 he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
22 His reply amazed them, and they went away. (Matthew 22:19-22)
What was so amazing about this? It was that Jesus said to pay your taxes to the very machine that would eventually put Him on the cross.
Like I said, Jesus, being the perfect rabbi, used that moment as a teachable moment. And, it appears as though His disciples (at least one of them) took the moment to heart, as Peter, in later years, wrote this:
For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state,14 or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.
15 It is God’s will that your honorable lives should silence those ignorant people who make foolish accusations against you. (1 Peter 2:13-15)
Or, as Paul simply put it in Romans 13:6,
Pay your taxes.