Commentary on Matthew 17:22-27
For the second time Jesus warns his disciples about what is to come: his suffering, death and resurrection. Once again the word ‘delivered’ or ‘handed over’ (Greek paradidomi, paradidwmi) is used. It is a kind of refrain running right through the Gospel and applied to John the Baptist, to Jesus, to the disciples and the giving of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.
We are told that the disciples are overwhelmed with grief over what Jesus says. Whether that is purely out of sorrow for Jesus or whether it represents their disillusionment, is hard to say. This was not the kind of end they were expecting to the coming of the Messiah.
The second part of today’s reading is a peculiar scene, only to be found in Matthew. The collectors of the Temple tax want to know whether Jesus pays it or not. Peter assures them that he does.
But on entering the house (there is that anonymous ‘house’ again, which seems to symbolise the Church or the Christian community) Jesus asks Peter (though, interestingly, he calls him by his old name ‘Simon’): “Do kings collect tax from their sons, that is, their subjects, or from foreigners?” “From others,” replies Peter. And, in fact, the Romans did collect tax from their colonised peoples and not from their own citizens.
In that case, Jesus says, the sons, that is, he and his disciples, should be exempt from paying the Temple tax. After all, the Temple is God’s house and Jesus is his Son and his disciples are his brothers, sons of the same Father. They should therefore be exempt.
But to avoid giving scandal and misunderstanding, Peter is told to catch a fish in whose mouth he will find a shekel, enough to pay for both of them. A half shekel was levied each year on all Jewish males of 20 years or older. It was for the upkeep of the Temple. A half shekel at this time was roughly equivalent to two days’ wages.
This passage seems to reflect a dilemma of the early Church. A double dilemma. Should Christians who are Jews continue to pay the Temple tax? Should Christians in general have to pay tax to a pagan government, especially one whose emperor claims to be a deity?
The first dilemma solved itself in time, especially with the destruction of the Temple (which had already taken place when Matthew was written). The second dilemma took longer. The problem seems to have been solved by the principle laid down elsewhere by Jesus: Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God.
We too have to discern what is legitimately required of us by our governments and make our contribution to the needs of our society while at the same time not compromising on issues where universal principles of truth and justice are at stake. Civil disobedience is sometimes not only a right but also a responsibility.