And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received the half-shekel came to Peter, and said, “Doth not your teacher pay the half-shekel?”
He saith, “Yea.”
And when he came into the house, Jesus spake first to him, saying, “What thinkest thou, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? From their sons, or from strangers?”
And when he said, “From strangers,” Jesus said unto him, “Therefore the sons are free. But, lest we cause them to stumble, go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a shekel: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matthew 17:24-27).
Jesus is often described as a radical and a revolutionary, someone who seeks to actively disrupt the system. And, in many ways, Jesus is radical and revolutionary. He is living and preaching the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom, and that proclamation is radically opposed to the aims and actions of the world. He is constantly at odds with the religious authorities, partly regarding their teachings, and partly regarding their hypocrisy.
But Jesus is not radical for the sake of being radical; He is not revolutionary just to stir things up. There are times when Jesus, despite having an opportunity to further challenge aspects of the system, instead demurs. One such incident is recorded in Matthew 17:24-27.
The Jewish collector of the half-shekel Temple tax was in Capernaum. The tax was commanded in Exodus 30:11-16 to provide for sacrifices for atonement. The collector asked Peter if Jesus paid the tax; the tax, and Peter indicated that yes, He did.
Jesus then takes an opportunity to teach Peter. He asks if kings receive toll or tribute from their children or from strangers. The answer is easy enough: from strangers. Kings are not in habit of taxing themselves or their family members, but they receive money from taxes levied on his subjects, tribute from conquered nations, and/or tolls from transportation of commerce. The king’s family, however, remains free from taxation.
The implication is evident: since Jesus is the Son of God, which Peter recently confessed (Matthew 16:16), He is not under compulsion to pay the tax. He would be in the right to refuse payment and to declare why. Yet He does not want to cause offense; He provides, through money to be found in a fish, the shekel to pay the tax for both Peter and Himself.
That Jesus handled the situation through miraculous means is noteworthy; did He not have a shekel on Him, or could He not have found one in another way? We cannot be sure; it is possible that He was just out of money at that particular moment and that was a convenient way of handling the circumstance. Yet that seems rather unlikely; Jesus could have come up with the money in much easier ways. Perhaps since Jesus, as a Son, has no need to pay the tax, and no need for atonement anyway, that He has no need to expend the effort to obtain the money for the tax; Peter, who is liable, should at least do some work in his own profession (fishing) to pay the tax.
But this should not distract us from the thrust of the story. Does Jesus have confidence in the Temple system? Absolutely not; He will soon go to Jerusalem, will ritually cleanse the Temple, and then set forth the prophecy of its condemnation (Matthew 21:12-16, 24:1-36). The chief priests will use the Temple money first to pay Jesus’ betrayer, and then to pay off the soldiers in an attempt to deny His resurrection (Matthew 26:14-16, 28:11-15). Even its ability to atone has been bankrupted; the curtain between the holy place and the most holy place will tear when Jesus dies (Matthew 27:51).
But does that challenge really concern the Jewish men who collects the Temple tax? Jesus does as He does to not cause them to stumble (Matthew 17:27). Regardless of the state of the Temple system and those making the sacrifices, the tax is lawful under the Law of Moses, and this is not an issue where Jesus believes it is worth it to challenge for His right or to make a stink regarding the system. Therefore, even though He does not need any sacrifice made for His atonement, and even though He is free as God’s Son from the tax, He pays it anyway. It does not hurt, and making it an issue causes more difficulty than it is worth. Furthermore, the explanation is more for Peter’s benefit than anyone else’s– Peter blithely assumed that Jesus paid the tax, but Jesus wanted to make sure that Peter understood that it was not because He was somehow responsible to pay the tax, but in order to not cause offense.
This lesson is important for us as well. There are times when insisting on liberties and rights is simply not worth it; to cause any fuss may make people stumble in ways that are unnecessary (cf. Romans 14:1-23). The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a stumbling-block for many people because of its essential truths and what it takes in order to conform to the image of Jesus; we should not add any more stumbling-blocks. Like Jesus, we must think about the ultimate goal for ourselves and those with whom we interact in life. Is our stand really honoring Jesus or is it just to assert our own rights? Is this really going to help someone become better acquainted with the path of Jesus or not?
Jesus, even though His message and work were radical and often revolutionary, always had the goal in mind. He wanted people to change their hearts and minds and return back to God (cf. Matthew 4:17). Many times that demanded strong stands and strong words; other times it demanded to go along with some things so as to not cause unnecessary offense. He was not radical for the sake of being radical, nor revolutionary just to keep the pot stirred. And so it should be with ourselves: we should not insist on things just because we can, but only when it is necessary for the advancement of God’s purposes. Let us seek to glorify God in all we do, learning when to take the stand and when to not provide a cause for stumbling!
Ethan R. Longhenry