In this chapter of Matthew, we have a fish who is put to the service of Peter and Jesus. To remind us of the various parts of the text, Matt 17, NIV:
24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”
25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that we may not cause offense, 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.”
The first question in the passage is phrased in such a way as to imply the ‘correct’ answer. ‘Don’t you’ is always the presumption that you have done or will do something that is unpleasant. They may well have said ‘Everyone pays the Temple Tax; where is your and his payment?’ And Peter may as well have said ‘I’ll run and get it.’
Jesus demonstrates his awareness of all we are up to in speaking first. He doesn’t give Simon Peter the chance to ask about the Tax, but instead approaches him. Jesus approaches Simon – the old self who still needs instruction in the ways of Christ. I have always loved the image of butterflies as the new creation – and I think that there is much to be said about the times that Simon-Peter spends with Christ being like the time spent in the chrysalis. There is a time of change where we are no longer the old caterpillar, yet we are not yet the butterfly either. Sometimes Peter was ready to leave the old behind and other times he wasn’t. Jesus addresses him as Simon here and instructs him, without rebuke. I think that is telling as well, that there is no rebuke in Jesus’s words. We don’t learn or know everything immediately, it takes time.
So, Jesus instructs and puts things in the kingdom perspective. The king does not require taxes be paid by his own children; they are exempt. But Jesus does not ruffle feathers and talk about the hidden kingdom, of which we are co-heirs with him. Instead Jesus recognizes the limited understanding of the world around us and says to pay the tax.
It is here the fish enters the picture. Jesus instructs Peter to fish and take money from the mouth of the fish to pay the tax. I’m not sure why the tax money doesn’t come from the purse that Judas keeps. It brings to mind Mark 12:13-17, that we are to give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Give to God that which is God’s; his provision of all that is around us will also provide for the tribute to him and his work, the temple. Jesus sends Peter to work fishing in order to pay the tribute. No, Peter doesn’t sell the fish to pay the tax, the fish yields the coins in its mouth.
Jesus subjects himself to the rules of the land, as should we. He doesn’t make it a complicated mess to pay the tax worth two-days’ labor each. Peter would have to fish for four days then go and sell the fish to then pay the tax. Jesus asks Peter to do what he knows, go and fish. In that, Peter found what was needed. There is little that is simple in this story, but the response is pretty basic – go and do what you know so that you can fulfill obligations.
God provided the exact amount needed for the two men to pay the taxes. Peter did not have to put in the four days to get enough for the taxes, God provided in the time that was available. Based on the question that opened this passage, I would think the accountants at the temple would be expecting the tax payment at any moment.
God provided, but Peter worked for the coins. When we don’t know how or what to do, we cannot stay in a holding pattern, but rather go out and do what we know, as a minimum. Peter obeyed, he fished and came back with what was needed for the day. Paralysis and persistence are probably always at war within us in time of need. God does his part and we do ours.
I’m not sure I can summarize the lessons from this big fish story. There are many things that I’ve had to write about here. Jesus knows what we are up to, even when he isn’t there; we grow in time; He instructs; God provides, we work; he responds in time; fulfill obligations. What say you tell me what strikes you most? Leave a comment if you will.