by Doug Ward

In the United States, springtime is "tax season." Tax forms must be filed, and income taxes paid, by April 15.


In a sense, springtime was also tax season in the days of Jesus of Nazareth. During the late Second Temple period, adult male Jews were expected to pay half a shekel (or two drachmas) each year in support of the sacrifices at the Temple. For people who did not live in Jerusalem, collection of this Temple tax began on Adar 15, a month before Passover.


The scriptural basis for the Temple tax is found in Exod 30:11-16; 38:21-31. During the time of the construction of Israel's tabernacle in the wilderness, each adult male contributed half a shekel. This collection financed the service of the tabernacle and also provided a count of the adult male population. Counting the people normally could be dangerous, because a census potentially could cause the Israelites to become proud of their numbers and turn their hearts away from God. However, the donations that accompanied this census expressed gratitude to God and reminded Israel of its true source of strength, thus protecting the nation from the plagues that might otherwise result from a census (Exod 30:12; 2 Sam 24).


Six hundred years later, Exodus 30 was invoked by King Joash of Judah to raise funds for the repair of Solomon's Temple (2 Chron 24:4-16). Then after the Babylonian exile, an annual tax of one-third shekel was instituted to fund the activities of the rebuilt Temple (Neh 10:32-33). The amount later was raised to one-half shekel.


A Question for Peter and Jesus

Not everyone in first-century Israel agreed that a permanent annual tax was a legitimate application of Exodus 30. For example, one Dead Sea Scrolls fragment (4Q159) says that each man should be required to pay the half shekel only once in a lifetime. A drachma or denarius was about a day's wage for a laborer (see Matt 20:2), so a two-drachma tax was a nontrivial sum, especially for people who already paid tithes and faced a heavy tax burden imposed by Rome.


The controversial nature of the Temple tax may help explain an incident recorded in the Gospel of Matthew the tax collector. Once when Jesus and his disciples were coming to Capernaum, Peter was asked by local collectors of the tax, "Does your teacher not pay the tax?" Peter answered, "Yes, he does" (Matt 17:24-25).


Later Jesus discussed the Temple tax with Peter by means of a short parable:


" `What do think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From sons or from others?' And when he said, `From others,' Jesus said to him, `Then the sons are free.' " (vv. 25-26).


In this parable the "kings of the earth" are parents as well as rulers. When they levy taxes upon their subjects, their own children are exempt from these requirements.


As in later rabbinic parables, the kings in Jesus' parable represent God, who is "king over all the earth" (Exod 15:18) and also father of the nation of Israel, his "firstborn son" (Exod 4:22-23). Just as the kings of the earth do not tax their own children, so God would not tax his people.1 Jesus was saying, then, that the two-drachma payment should not be a requirement.


Why did Jesus oppose the tax? It was designed for a seemingly worthwhile purpose-to give the whole nation an opportunity to show solidarity with the Temple and participate in its worship-and those who could easily afford the tax paid it enthusiastically. For the poor, on the other hand, it added to an already excessive tax burden. The high priestly families of that era, supported by the Temple tax, grew wealthy, and their conspicuous wealth was a painful reminder of the tax. So was the presence of the Temple moneychangers, who converted other money into the silver shekel coins with which the tax had to be paid.  All of this affected the way people viewed God, since the tax was understood to be divinely imposed.


All in all, then, the Temple tax fundamentally misrepresented God, portraying him as a despotic ruler rather than a loving Father. As New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham observes, "By making the Temple worship a pretext for financial exaction in God's name, the tax distorted the whole character of the worship of God for which the Temple existed."2 No wonder Jesus judged the Temple tax to be illegitimate and overturned the tables of the moneychangers (Matt 21:12-13).


Paying the Tax

Even though Jesus argued that the tax should not be mandatory, he directed Peter to make a payment for them so as not to offend the local collectors (v. 27). Those who collected the tax at Capernaum were not part of a corrupt Temple establishment; rather, they may well have been motivated by a love for the Temple and its worship. His failing to pay the tax might have given them the mistaken impression that he opposed the Temple itself.


To obtain a shekel for the payment, Peter was to go fishing at the Sea of Galilee. The first fish Peter caught, Jesus said, would have a silver shekel in its mouth. Here Jesus was not showing off his prowess as a miracle worker. Instead, he was reinforcing the point of his parable. While the tax portrayed God as a harsh ruler, the miracle sent the message that God is a loving father who provides for the needs of his people.3


Jesus' consideration for the collectors of the tax also sends another important message. Although Jesus is the divine Messiah (Matt 16:16) and God's beloved Son (Matt 17:5), he is also a servant who humbly laid down his life for us all (17:22-23). He calls his disciples to follow his example of humility (18:3-4).


1Interpreting the "sons" in the parable to be the people of Israel is consistent with the way the imagery of "children" is used elsewhere in Matthew-e.g., Matt 15:26; 8:12.


2"The Coin in the Fish's Mouth," pp. 219-252 in Gospel Perspectives, Volume 6: The Miracles of Jesus, David Wenham and Craig Blomberg, editors, JSOT Press, Sheffield, England, 1986.


3See "The Coin in the Fish's Mouth", p. 224.

Issue 30


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