Matthew 17:24-27 (English Standard Version)
24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?”
25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?”
26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.
27 “However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”
It wouldn’t be long before Jesus would be arrested and killed, and He had much to teach Simon Peter about how God provides for him. In the verses above, we seem to catch a hint of Jesus’ later lesson about “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:15-22), but this particular lesson is not for the Pharisees, it is for Peter–and for all disciples of Christ.
What is the “half-shekel tax” the collectors are asking for? In Exodus, God mandated “atonement money” that was paid during the census. (Exodus 30:11-16) It was the same amount for every adult, no matter how poor or how rich, and it was paid as a ransom to the Lord, to keep away any plague when the Israelites were numbered.
But why would God send a plague during a census? When we read the Old Testament accounts, we see that God constantly tells the leaders NOT to count their people. In God’s eyes, a census is nothing more than pride and a turning away from the Lord. If we trust in the Lord, then it does not matter how many people are under one’s rule or leadership, nor does it matter how many live in one place. If all are subject to God, then God will protect, provide, and lead those people, no matter how few or how many. But if someone counts the people without God’s command or consent, then that person is leaning on his or her own understanding. They are turning from God’s providence to their own system of providing for and protecting themselves. The atonement money is a ransom, a signal to God that the temple census is not about the size of an army or dividing the grain or showing the might of Israel’s rulers, it is about making sure that everyone sees they are equal in God’s eyes. Since everyone paid the same tax, every soul was equally valued by the Lord.
But Jesus asks Peter about the taxes levied by kings to show how the atonement money has become simply a “temple tax”–something a lot like a civil tax. Peter wisely sees that worldly rulers don’t tax themselves or their families, and yet here is a Jew asking fellow Jews for money. Even more ironic is that they are asking a temple tax from the Son of God! If there is anyone who ought to be ελευθεροι (“eleutheroi”)–free, exempt–it would be Jesus! The Son of God paying atonement money? Absurd!
However, even though Jesus need never atone for any sins, He agrees to pay the tax. And even though Peter’s sins are also going to be atoned for at the Crucifixion, Jesus says he ought to pay the tax. Jesus is teaching (and Peter learned) that it is important not to offend worldly rulers, but to live godly lives and set a good example right in the midst of ungodly kingdoms. (1 Peter 2:11-17)
Of course, our Savior doesn’t simply say, “Pay the man.” No, the Lord shows us that we are so valuable to Him that He Himself will pay the tax through His own providence. He will render unto the temple something that only God could provide, not something wrung from the empty pockets of itinerant preachers.
From stormy seas to loaves and fishes, from healing the sick to feeding and sheltering us as we share the gospel, God WILL provide. God will provide whatever we need to keep us from offending the rulers of this world. It may not be much, but it will be enough. God will even provide the means of our salvation from sin and death. In God’s eyes, we are all valuable, and we are worth far more to Him than a half-shekel coin.
As I am writing this, it is a glorious, sunny winter day, and on such a day, it is easy to feel like God will always provide. Spring is coming soon, and as we approach Resurrection Sunday, I cannot help but reflect on God’s amazing providence. We may find it hard to pay our bills or our taxes, and we will struggle with all sorts of troubles. But if we love Christ and accept His atoning death on the Cross, then there is one worry we need never have.
And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together.
We can be sure that Peter caught that fish and found that coin to pay the tax. And we can be equally sure that we have found a far more precious treasure than that: our salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord. The price has been paid by the Son of God Himself. God did indeed provide.
Lord of hosts, Father of us all, we thank You for Your unending providence. Despite all the worldly troubles we face, we know that if we turn to You, You will hear us even before we speak, that You will give us the faith and hope we need to get through another day. Yours is the power and the glory and the majesty, and we have nothing that is not graciously provided by You. Thank You for providing not only for our physical needs but also for our salvation. Amen.