As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.’ And they were greatly distressed.
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, ‘Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?’ He said, ‘Yes, he does.’ And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?’ When Peter said, ‘From others’, Jesus said to him, ‘Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.’
The incident recounted in today’s reading would have been easily understood by those who witnessed the situation being described while, for us, it may seem a little confusing. The temple tax was an annual levy on every male who was aged twenty or older. It was the equivalent of two days’ wages and it was used to create a fund dedicated to the upkeep of the temple.
At first glance the question asked by the ‘collectors of the temple tax’ seems straightforward. All adult males were required to pay the temple tax; do Jesus and his disciples meet their obligation in this respect? Peter offers reassurance that they do pay the tax. At this point the matter seems to be closed.
However, when Peter returns home Jesus himself raises the issue with this question: From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? He then goes on to question the motivations and fairness of those who have the power to impose levies upon others. He asks whether human authorities are ‘fair’ in the way they administer the financial affairs over which they have control.
We live in a world where the paying of taxes is a matter of routine. The level of taxes to be paid by each individual is set by our elected representatives and, for most, it is then deducted directly from our salaries while, for others, it is a matter of negotiation through complicated administrative procedures. However we handle these matters, we are all very aware of the obligation to pay our taxes.
The taxes raised by governments are used to create a healthier and more supportive society than would otherwise be the case. Of course, not everyone will agree with the differing priorities set by different governments. But, no matter what our personal opinions in these matters may be, we do expect fairness and transparency. We do not expect to find that the burden of taxation is reduced for those who have some sort of personal relationship with the legislators. This seems to be what Jesus is hinting at when he asks whether they levy their taxes: From their children or from others?
Jesus is not telling us that we should avoid our obligations to support the society in which we live. Instead he is making a profound theological point. Jesus sends Peter to gather the money to pay the temple tax from the miraculous bounty of God’s creation. However, in this action Jesus is implying that he is not talking about earthly children as being the ones who are favoured, but those who are the children of God, those whose faith is strong and who live the life of true discipleship.
We are called to play our part in supporting the societies in which we live. That support should be offered willingly and cheerfully. That support should be seen in the way we share our time, our talents, and our worldly wealth. The open and joyous way in which we share those things should reflect our understanding that they are not our possessions but gifts we have been given to share … gifts from God.
Let us pray that we might never hoard that which is the manifestation of God’s gracious love to us, but rather that we might always be generous in the way we join in the mission of sharing God’s bounty with all.