Recently I was talking to a group of young adult Catholics and mentioned a gospel passage that they said they had never heard. It is the Gospel of the temple tax and how Jesus told Peter to go catch a fish and, in its mouth, will be a coin that will pay the temple tax for Jesus and Peter. In a certain sense, it is one of the more charming Gospel passages and kind of “cool.” It shows Jesus’ sovereignty over creation and the rather interesting twist of finding money in the mouth of a certain fish from a large school of likely millions of fish. In the Holy Land today, when you have a meal near the Sea of Galilee, many of the restaurants serve “Peter’s Fish” that is served with a coin in its mouth.
The Bible-study students before me, mostly in their early thirties, were perplexed that they had never heard of this passage. It is from Matthew 17:22-27. Let’s take a look at this lesser-known story and ponder it.
First of all, it is likely a confusing passage to anyone who hears it proclaimed in the United States because the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), used for the lectionary in this country, makes what I would argue is an inaccurate translation of the Greek text. Here is the passage in question (the crucial section is presented in italics):
“When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, ‘What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?’ When he said, ‘From foreigners,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the subjects are exempt.’ But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you’” (Matthew 17:24-27).
The NABRE translation makes little sense; kings do in fact collect taxes from their “subjects.” Their subjects are not exempt from taxes, tolls, or censuses.
In contrast, the Greek text is clear and does make sense. It speaks not of subjects and foreigners, but of sons and strangers. The Greek text is straightforward:
“… from their sons or from the strangers?
The Greek word huion
means sons or descendants (by birth or possibly by adoption); it refers to people sharing the same nature as their father. The Greek text is referring to people who are of the family or household of a king.
These sons (or members of the king’s family) are distinguished from allotrion, those who belong to another’s family and are thus subjects of the king, or foreigners living in the land.
In light of this, I find the NABRE’s translation of huion as “subjects” to be odd. I consulted about two dozen other English translations of this passage and not one of them renders the word as “subjects.” They all translate it as either “sons” or “children.”
With the translation of “sons,” the meaning of the passage becomes clear. Jesus is pointing out to Peter that kings do not tax their own children and therefore He, as God’s Son, is exempt from the temple tax. However, to avoid giving scandal or stirring up controversy, Jesus instructs Peter to pay the tax (and tells him how to obtain the money to do so).
The particular tax in question is the annual levy to pay for the upkeep of the temple. It amounted to two drachmas and was paid with the didrachma, a two-drachma silver coin. This represented about half a day’s wages for a typical laborer and was paid by all male Jews aged 20 and older, both at home and abroad. However, certain Jewish officials (especially the higher-ranking priests), were exempt.
Secondly, it really is a charming Gospel! Jesus tells Peter to pull out the first fish he sees, and that in its mouth he will find the money necessary to pay the tax. What a wonderful story! It is a quiet miracle, one which affirms Peter’s faith in Jesus’ divinity and Sonship without confronting others who were not yet ready to hear or believe this. The Father does exempt Jesus from the tax, but He supplies the money to pay it anyway. Hence the tax officials are spared a conflict because they are not yet ready to render an act of faith in Jesus’ divinity and status as the Son of God who is exempt from this tax.
Thus, He is merciful and prepares us for belief. Having granted the gift of faith, He sends confirmations to strengthen our faith little by little. He draws us in gently and clearly.
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