Jesus and Taxes
Scriptures: Matthew 17:24-27; Exodus 30:11-16
As I said the in eNews this week, I have never before preached on this scripture passage. It is a weird story, which probably explains why no other gospel reports it, only Matthew. But apparently Matthew thought it was important, so we need to figure out why. And that’s what I want to do in this sermon. This morning’s sermon will be mostly a Bible study, a complicated Bible study. We will get to the point at the end, but to get there we need to do some work.
Okay, first notice that this story is not about a Roman tax but a temple tax. [Slide 1] Matthew 17:24: “… the collectors of the temple tax [Greek: didrachma] came to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the temple tax [didrachma]?” The temple tax was a Jewish tax assessed for the upkeep of the temple. Its origins go back to our first scripture reading in Exodus 30. [Slide 2] After the people of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt, the Lord says to Moses, [Click 1]
When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, at registration all of them shall give a ransom of their lives to the Lord (v. 12).
Basically God is telling Moses, “When you count of the Israelites to see how many escaped from the plagues in Egypt—when you count all those people, each of them shall make an offering to the Lord which symbolizes the ransom they owe God for saving them.”
[Click 2] This is what each one who is registered shall give: half a shekel [didrachma] according to the shekel of the sanctuary, … half a shekel [didrachma] as an offering to the Lord (v. 13).
As you can see the same Greek word is used in both scriptures. That’s how we know Matthew 17 is talking about the same offering described in Exodus 30. It is not something owed to the IRS; it is something owed to God. The Lord continues,
[Slide 3] The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you bring this offering to the Lord to make atonement for your lives. You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the Lord it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives (vs. 15-16).
This is the “temple tax” which Jesus and his disciples are asked to pay at the beginning of our second scripture reading. It represents the ransom we owe to God for saving us and setting us free.
Now let’s look at Jesus’ response in Matthew 17. [Slide 4] Jesus says to Peter,
[Click 1] “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free” (v. 25).
Here it sounds like Jesus is talking about a Roman tax, a tax that one might owe to the civil authority. But remember, the issue is the temple tax—the money the Israelites were supposed to pay God as a ransom for their freedom. So what does Jesus mean when he says, “Then the children are free”?
He is talking about the children of God for whom he will pay the ransom on the cross. Later in Matthew 20 Jesus says to the disciples,
[Click 2] “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
On the cross Jesus will pay the ransom for our freedom. That’s why Peter and the disciples, as children of God, should be free of the temple tax. Because of Jesus, we are no longer saved by our offerings. You don’t have to pay God for your freedom from sin and death; Jesus has paid the ransom for you, which is to say that Jesus has replaced the temple tax with himself.
But then Jesus says, [Slide 5]
“However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me” (v. 27).
So what is going on here? Jesus has just told Peter, “You don’t have to give an offering to pay for your freedom. I have already paid for it. You are children of my kingdom, and the children should not be assessed taxes; the children are free.”
But now Jesus says to Peter, “Let’s pay the tax anyway; give the offering anyway.” Why? So as not to create an offense or stumbling block to others. In other words, Jesus says, “Let’s give the offering anyway. Let’s do it to show our support for the community. Let’s give it to help God be worshiped and the poor to be cared for. Let’s give it so that people will know my followers care about this world and its people.”
And here we are getting to the point. [Slide 6: Blank] The temple tax is like our offering. It is not what we give to the IRS; it is what we give to God.
The truth is you don’t have to give anything to be God’s children. You already are. Jesus has ransomed you. Jesus has paid the price. You could not afford it anyway. You don’t have enough money to put in the offering plate to buy your forgiveness or to ransom your soul. Only Jesus can do that.
So why give? To do good in the lives of others. To help God be worshiped and the poor cared for. To show the world that Jesus’ followers care about this world and the people in it.
Ah, but what about the business of the coin in the mouth of the fish? This is too weird to be anything but symbolic. So what does it symbolize? Peter, remember, is a fisherman. So why does Jesus send him fishing in order to get money to pay their temple tax? Because that is how Peter earns his living. So the coin in the mouth of the fish is a way for Jesus to say to Peter, “Do your job, and I will help you have enough to give for an offering to God.” That’s what the odd little ending symbolizes: Do your job, use your skills and abilities, and God will give you enough for an offering to God.
In this case it was barely enough. That coin Peter found in the mouth of the fish is called a “stater.” It is worth exactly a shekel, meaning it is exactly the amount needed for two half-shekel offerings—one for Peter and one for Jesus.
This is not some prosperity teaching. This is not a promise that God will make you rich. This is a promise that if we diligently try to serve God in whatever ways we can, God will give us enough so that we can be a blessing to others.
We have seen this over and over at Southminster. Every year when we adopt our budget, we commit to give 15% to mission outside ourselves through our Witness in Action commission. Sometimes we do that not knowing where that money will come from. Every year I have been here we have adopted a deficit budget, which meant we did not know where all the money would come from, and yet we promised to give 15% of our income to needs and people and ministries outside our church. And somehow God supplied us. Every year. It’s like we find a gold coin in the hatch of an airplane, or something. Somehow God supplies us.
That’s the good news in this scripture. We don’t give to earn our place in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to pay a tax to be part of God’s family. Jesus has already paid it for us. We give to share God’s kingdom and God’s family with others.