A Fragile Stone: pg. 81-83
"Back To Fishing"
September 18th, 2019
When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the double-drachma tax approached Peter and said, "Doesn't your Teacher pay the double-drachma tax?"
"Yes," he said.
When he went into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, "What do you think, Simon? Who do earthly kings collect tariffs or taxes from? From their sons or from strangers?"
"From strangers," he said.
"Then the sons are free," Jesus told him. "But, so we won't offend them, go to the sea, cast in a fishhook, and take the first fish that you catch. When you open its mouth you'll find a coin. Take it and give it to them for Me and you."
Simon's familiar hometown, Capernaum, seemed to have changed as he and Jesus made their way back to his house, their base of operations in Galilee. Peter was still trying to cope with what Jesus had just revealed to them - that he was soon to die. Jesus' promise of resurrection might have provided a measure of comfort to Peter, if only he or any of the others had been able to grasp it. The last few days had been a roller-coaster ride for them all. First there was the intensity of his confession, then the dazzling transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop. How is a pious Jewish man supposed to recover after seeing Moses and Elijah?
As they made their way down the narrow alley, past the synagogue to his home, Peter remembered the last time they were here together. He remembered the excited crowd pressing into the courtyard just to catch a glimpse of Jesus. He remembered as well those fanatics who tore a hole in the roof to lower their paralyzed friend down through. His wife still rolled her eyes whenever that section of the roof leaked.
But now the crowds were gone. What's more, the excitement was missing too. They were, all of them, bone tired from their long journey. They were emotionally exhausted as well from dealing with all that Jesus had said about what awaited him in Jerusalem in the weeks to come. As far as we know, it was to be their last time in Capernaum together.
It seems natural that Matthew, the ex-tax collector, would be the only Gospel writer to record this story. These were not the same sort of tax collectors as he had been. Matthew had treacherously represented the hated Romans and extorted taxes from his own people. These were men from the synagogue, and this tax was a Jewish one. It was based on Exodus 30:15: "When this offering is given to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves, the rich must not give more, and the poor must not give less. Use this money for the care of the Tabernacle."
As far as Peter could remember, Jesus had never been asked to pay this tax before. This was, after all, a voluntary tax, which is why it was open to question in the first place. It was the commonly accepted custom of the day that religious teachers were exempted from this particular tax. This was not a Roman tax. If it were, would there be any question about paying it or not? After A.D. 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem, the Romans appropriated this tax to support the new Roman temple to Jupiter Capitalinus.
The very fact that the temple tax collectors had come to ask at all was still another indication that much had changed in Capernaum - that Jesus' reputation was beginning to erode. It must have seemed too great an emotional leap for the tired fisherman to return from his mountaintop vision to the drudgery of taxes.
Their question is grammatically constructed to expect an affirmative answer: "He does pay the tax, doesn't he?" At the heart of the issue may be Jesus' loyalty to the temple. Will he allow himself to be further seen as being somehow anti-temple? After all, his first public action was to tear up the temple market, the Bazaar of Annas. It was still an open question.
Peter automatically, as if conditioned by a lifetime of submitting to synagogue authority, answers, "Yes, of course he does." As soon as the words left his lips he feels that it was the wrong answer.