Matthew 17:24-27 – Paying the Temple Tax

24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’

25 ‘Yes, he does,’ he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes – from their own children or from others?’

26 ‘From others,’ Peter answered.

‘Then the children are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. 27 ‘But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’


Thank you for inviting me to bring God's word to you this morning. I must admit that when I looked at the passage that had been assigned to me, my initial thoughts were, "What do I make of this?" But the more I looked at the passage and thought about it, the more I realised just how relevant it was to Matthew's first readers and therefore also to ourselves.

So let's start with a bit of background.

What was the Temple Tax

After Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey on what we call Palm Sunday, he had entered the Temple and driven out all those who had turned the court of the Gentiles into a market place. The following day the temple authorities asked Jesus what authority he had to do such things. When they got nowhere with their straight question, they sent 'spies' to try and catch him out with trick questions. They asked Jesus, "Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (Luke 20:22). You know how Jesus answered. Having asked them to supply him with a denarius, the coin in which taxes were paid, Jesus gets them to observe the image and inscription on it and says, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Jesus says its right to pay taxes to the governing authority.

But here the question is about the Temple tax. What was that? You will find the origin of this tax in the Book of Exodus (Exodus 30:12-16), where all of the Israelites were required to pay a tax of half a shekel as an atonement offering. This money was to be used for the service of the tent of meeting. The tent of meeting, or tabernacle, was later replaced by the temple in the time of King Solomon. This tax, a kind of poll tax', continued as a means of paying for the temple and its services.

The question asked of Peter

Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Capernaum. It is evidently the time of year at which the temple tax was being collected in all the major towns of Galilee. We read in Matthew 17:24 that "the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’" The way the question is asked assumes that the answer will be, "yes". The question is probable a polite way of asking for the money.

However, the question also assumes that not everyone did pay the tax. Priests, for instance, considered themselves exempt and some other religious groups argued that it was a once in a lifetime tax and that the annual tax was not mandated by the Old Testament Law. Peter was therefore being asked a genuine question, and his response is immediate, "Yes, he does." It seems likely that Jesus had been in the habit of paying the tax as part of his obedience to the law of God.

Jesus strange conversation with Peter

Peter returns to the house – probably his own house in Capernaum. Before he has time to tell Jesus of his conversation with the tax collectors, Jesus asks him a question: "What do you think, Simon? … From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes – from their own children or from others?" Peter immediately answers, "From others", and Jesus draws the conclusion, "Then the children are exempt."

What is this all about?

Matthew's Gospel has been called the Gospel of the Kingdom. The preaching and parables of Jesus have been about the kingdom of God and his miracles have been signs that the kingdom of God is breaking into this world. Jesus is the King, the promised Messiah through whom God will establish his kingdom.

But in the verses immediately before this section about the Temple tax, Matthew tells us that Jesus has spoken of his coming death and resurrection. This is the means by which he will establish his kingdom. He and his disciples are about to leave Galilee for Jerusalem where there will be the final showdown between Jesus and the temple authorities. It is there that Jesus will declare, "Destroy this temple and I will build it again in three days." Jesus is declaring that the temple in Jerusalem with all its sacrifices, priests and officials is about to be swept away. He is the reality to which the temple pointed. He is the place of God's dwelling with men and women – he is Immanuel, God with us. He is the one in whom the final perfect sacrifice for sin will be made, through which our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God.

Had Peter understood all of this he might have thought that the disciples, as children of the kingdom, no longer had any need to support the temple and its services. Christ the King has come to set them free from all this.

But Jesus continues, "But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." Jesus is acknowledging that they have no duty to prop up the old system of temple worship. It would be quite legitimate for them to refuse to pay this tax. But the time has not yet arrived for a showdown between Jesus and the temple authorities – though that time it is rapidly approaching. So for now, to avoid any offence, they will pay what is being asked of them.

The strange details of how the money is found to pay the tax emphasise that it is God himself who provides them with the means to pay, and the whole story emphasises Jesus' supernatural knowledge.

It seems a very strange story to find in the pages of the Gospel, but I want to focus for a moment now on Matthew's original readers.

Matthew's readers

Each of our Gospel accounts was written with a particular audience in mind. Matthew writes primarily for Jewish Christians. He is keen to show how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament; he includes over sixty explicit quotations from the Old Testament, more than twice as many as any other gospel; Jesus came to fulfil the law rather than to destroy it, just as he came to fulfil the many prophecies of the Old Testament. For Matthew, the Gospel is Jewish in origin but is good news for the whole world. The cross marks the turning point in that it is the climax of Jewish rejection of the Messiah just as the resurrection marks the commencement of God's mission to the nations.

Matthew is probably writing in a setting in which there was tension between Jewish Christians and other groups of Jews who, in Matthew’s view, have been misled by their leaders into becoming opponents of Christianity – tension between churches and synagogues. We can imagine such tensions in the towns and villages of Judea where Jewish families, brothers and sisters, cousins or friends, are divided over who Jesus is. Some are Christians, believing that Jesus is the Messiah who has brought to fulfilment all of the Old Testament laws. There is no longer any need to observe the Sabbath or go up to the Temple to worship. Others reject these claims and continue to observe the Jewish law and customs. One can see how easily there could be conflict between the two. In recounting this story of Jesus, Peter and the Temple tax, Matthew is encouraging his Christian readers not to be so keen to exercise their freedom from the law that they cause offence to their Jewish brothers and sisters. Love and concern for others must trump the use of one’s legitimate freedom.

A very real issue in the New Testament Era

This was a very real issue in the first century. Let me remind you of a couple of instances we read of in the Book of Acts.

After the martyrdom of Stephen, Christians fled from persecution in Judea spreading the gospel wherever they went. Initially they spoke of the Messiah only to Jews, but in the city of Antioch they spoke to Gentiles, many of whom became Christians. Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to find out what was going on and when he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad (Acts 11:23). He fetched Paul to help him teach this young church in which Jewish and Gentile Christians worshipped together and ate together.

I want to take up the story at Acts 15 where we read:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2)

In Jerusalem the leaders of the church met together to consider this question. Among them were Christian believers who were from the party of the Pharisees who stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). There could have been a big bust up between these folk and Paul who, you remember, had also been a Pharisee. But the apostles in Jerusalem came to a decision and sent Paul and Barnabas back to the church at Antioch with a letter saying,

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. (Acts 15:24-29)

The crisis was averted. But it's quite evident from Paul's letters that he does not treat the instruction in this letter as if they are law. Paul wants Christians to abstain from sexual immorality but he shows no interest in requiring Gentiles to observe the Jewish food laws. The overall concern of this ruling is not to lay down laws for the gentile churches but to attempt to avoid unnecessary offence.

And, by way of contrast, this is Paul's concern when he has Timothy circumcised. We read in Acts 16:1-3:

Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek. The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

Paul is going to use Timothy in helping him to preach to Jews and to Gentiles. Timothy did not need to be circumcised – Paul will later be writing to these same churches urging gentiles not to be circumcised. But Paul is ready to do all that he can to avoid causing unnecessary offence to those to whom he wishes to minister.

Again this is Paul's argument when writing to a church made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Romans 14 where he says:

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

“As surely as I live,” says the Lord,

“Every knee will bow before me;

  every tongue will acknowledge God.”

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.

Paul's language here is very strong, and we need to pay attention to it. What Paul is saying is that love for others trumps the assertion of our own rights and freedoms. We should be careful not to do or say things unnecessarily which may cause offence to others, particularly to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

And this applies not only to relationships between Christians. Paul says that in his work as an evangelist for he says when he writes to the Corinthians:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19-22)

Paul goes out of his way, in speech and behaviour, to avoid giving unnecessary offence to others because he longs to win them to Christ.

How does this apply to us?

You may think that I have travelled a long way from Jesus' teaching about paying temple tax, but I have wanted us to see just how vital and broad is this principle of not causing unnecessary offence to others. It is an issue of Christian discipleship; it is how we are called to live as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. We are to win others to Christ through loving concern rather than through argument and conflict.

We need to be careful not to cause unnecessary offence to others, to our Christian brothers and sisters and to those who do not yet share our faith.  This demands a genuine compassionate concern for others, a tender love like we see in the Lord Jesus Christ. It demands humility rather than a sense of superiority. It demands that we seek to understand rather than judge. It demands that we put the concerns of the other person before a concern for ourselves. It demands we live close to Christ so that his life may shine through our lives. It demands a life of prayer.

And let me add, just as we should be careful not to cause offence, so also we should be slow to take offence at what others may say to us or do to us, or fail to do for us. We should forgive as Christ has forgiven us. We should live a life of love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, and love keeps no record of wrongs.

What will this mean for you this week in your interactions with the various people you meet and have dealings with?


Peter Misselbrook

Marshfield, 17/4/2024, 10.30