“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus said to him [Peter]. “But so that we may not offend them [the collectors of the temple-tax], go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch, open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Matthew 17:27
What’s this! Finding a coin in a fish’s mouth! What a very odd story. What’s going on?
A little background...
In Jesus’ day most Jewish men had to pay an annual tax for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem. The sum wasn’t massive, but it was an imposition that many people resented.
Peter, it seems, has been approached in the street by the local collectors in Capernaum: “Your teacher does pay the temple-tax, doesn’t he?” they ask. Peter assures them he does. So that’s fine. But this triggers a conversation between Jesus and Peter when he gets home about whether they really are obliged to do so.
In essence, what Jesus seems to say is: “Of course, it’s absurd and wrong that we, the very children of the God who owns the temple, should have to pay this tax. The temple has become a focal point of corruption, not really the house of God at all. But this isn’t the time to make a fuss. So - I tell you what, Peter - why don’t you go down to the lake and catch a fish. Just open its mouth, and you’ll find a coin which will be enough for you and me for the year...”
The essential point Jesus is making is clear: there are times to “make an issue” of something, and times not to - times to kick up a fuss, and times to swallow your resentment and do what is asked of you.
We know very well from other parts of the Gospels that Jesus was perfectly prepared to make a fuss when the time was right - after all, it won’t be long before he deliberately provokes a near-riot in the temple (see Matthew 21: 12-17).
But... not here, in Capernaum! Not now, with some minor, small-town officials! That would just cause a distraction from what really mattered: his coming death and resurrection.
This suggests a principle for us today. There are times and circumstances when it is right and good to make an issue of something. But not at the drop of a hat! The history of the church is littered with tragic examples of Christians kicking up a fuss when it was damaging and unnecessary - and then turning a blind eye when they shouldn’t have.
We need to pray for spiritual discernment: “Lord, give me the gift of restraint when it’s best to say nothing, and the gift of courage when it’s time to speak up. And the wisdom, please, to know the difference!”
I think that’s how to understand what’s going on in this episode.
But of course as we read it we probably find that a big question hangs in the air: Did Jesus seriously expect Peter to do as he suggested?
That may seem a strange - perhaps even a shocking - question to ask. Of course Jesus meant these words seriously! - why else would he speak them?
But wait a minute. There are several things which suggest it’s not quite as simple as that.
First, we notice that Matthew doesn’t tell us that Peter actually did as he was told: “So Peter went off to lake and threw his line in, and sure enough...” or something like that. Always elsewhere, when Jesus works a miracle, that miracle is actually described. So why not here? Why is the story left hanging?
Second, if it did happen as Jesus seems to say, wouldn’t that be rather like a magic trick rather than a real miracle? Wouldn’t Jesus in effect be yielding to the temptation which, according to Matthew 4:3-4, he had resisted in the wilderness?
Third, throughout the Gospels when Jesus works a miracle it always has a deep, spiritual significance - it isn’t done to solve a relatively trivial practical problem. God doesn’t do miracles to make things easy for us - doing things for us we can quite easily do for ourselves.
I don’t know. But I must admit (and don’t worry, I fully believe in the miracles of the Bible!) that I am inclined to think that Peter, reading between the lines, got the message: “Look, Peter, there’s no problem here that can’t be solved with a bit of fishing...”. Which is what he then went off and did.
Remember, Jesus quite liked to say puzzling and sometimes quite provocative things. Did he seriously mean to refer to a woman in great distress as a “dog” (Mark 7:27)? Did he - the Prince of Peace! - seriously mean his disciples to arm themselves with swords (Luke 22:36)?
So, regarding the coin in the fish’s mouth, the question is not “Could Jesus have done this?” Yes, of course. The question is “Would he have done this?”
As I said, Matthew doesn’t tell us: he leaves the story hanging. I think that will do for me too! How about you?
Lord God, thank you that your word is true, varied, strong - and sometimes demanding. Please help me, with the guidance of your Spirit, always to understand it aright. Amen.