A Meditation on Matthew 17 : 24-28

Kevin J Youngblood

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma 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.7 Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (Matt 17:24-27)

What a curious vignette we find in Matt 17:24-27. The incident is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel and, unlike any other miracle story related by Matthew, gives no indication as to whether or not the miracle actually occurred. The amount Jesus tells Peter to extract from the fish is only enough to pay for himself and Peter. What about the other 11 apostles? Furthermore, the story interrupts what would otherwise be a logical and typical progression from a passion prediction to a discussion of what constitutes true greatness in the Kingdom of God. One cannot help but want to ask Matthew, “Why this story? And why place it here?”

The passage is notorious for stumping interpreters who try to make sense of it. For example, one has suggested that Jesus’ instructions regarding catching a fish and extracting a shekel from its mouth is just a colorful way of telling Peter to sell his most recent catch and use that money to pay the tax. Another has suggested that since Jesus has already dubbed Peter a “fisher of men” that he is actually telling Peter to go out and convert a rich person to serve as their patron and pay the tax on their behalf. For obvious reasons, neither of these explanations is compelling.

More interesting to me is the fact that Jesus does not wish to cause offense over this issue. Elsewhere, of course, Jesus has no problem rocking religious boats of all sizes and shapes, but never unnecessarily. Jesus is no shock jock creating a sensation merely for the effect. Perhaps to remind us of this fact, Matthew includes a story demonstrating that one who takes up the cross, as Jesus did, avoids offense whenever possible for the sake of the Gospel and causes offense only whenever necessary for the sake of the Gospel. This is a key element of discernment in anyone considered great in God’s kingdom. If this is Matthew’s emphasis, then its placement between the immediately preceding passion prediction and immediately following discussion of greatness in the kingdom makes sense.

But that still leaves the issue of how to understand Jesus’ bizarre fishing instructions to Peter. At least for the time being, here is what I think Jesus is getting at. First, I don’t think Jesus means for Peter to take him seriously and actually extract a shekel from a fish’s mouth. What would be the point? Numerous folktales relate the fortuitous discovery of something valuable in a caught fish in both Greco-Roman and Jewish lore. Jesus is likely playing on this tradition to further underscore the point he just made to Peter. Jesus and those associated with him stand in a special relationship to YHWH, the king who reigns from the temple are, therefore, technically exempt from this temple tax. Nonetheless, it serves no purpose at this point in Jesus’ ministry to exert this privilege, though Jesus does want at least his closest disciples to know that they have this privilege. But that leaves the question as to how to pay the tax. As itinerant preachers Jesus and his disciples are dependent on charity. Jesus’ attitude is that God will provide as he always does and in the most unexpected ways. Then, with a touch of irony, to underscore his faith in the Father, Jesus says to Peter, “If God wanted to, he could provide enough tax for the both of us in the next fish you catch. Surely, he will provide sufficient funds to cover the tax for all of those who have chosen to give up everything and follow me.”

The point then I think is this. Disciples of Jesus are called to live in this world in a state of radical dependence on God and radical devotion to God’s agenda even when that agenda causes offense. Offense, however, is to be avoided whenever possible even at the expense of exercising certain privileges disciples of Christ might have so as not to complicate unnecessarily acceptance of the Gospel. Doubtless forgoing the exercise of these privileges may at times be costly, but God can be counted on to provide often in most unexpected ways.


Forgive me for those times when I insisted on exercising privileges at the expense of the Gospel thus causing unnecessary offense to the world. Forgive me also for those times I avoided necessary offenses for the sake of my own convenience and comfort also at the expense of the Gospel, thus causing offense to you. Jesus, thank you for your example of discernment and your precise profile of greatness in the kingdom that imparts such wisdom to those who linger over your sometimes baffling words. Holy Spirit, work in me the discernment to know when offense is necessary and when it is not as well as the trust in the Father to know that he will more than compensate whatever loss I incur by foregoing privileges for the sake of the Gospel.