Matthew 17:24-27

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 offense to them, go to the sea 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.” Matthew 17:24-27

On more than one occasion, my mom told me that money doesn’t grow on trees. On slightly fewer occasions, I would argue with her and say, “Yes it does. Money is made of paper and paper comes from trees.” Evidently she didn’t know the difference because she never came back with “Actually money is made from cotton fiber rather than wood fiber so no, money does NOT grow on trees.”

Her point, of course, was that money was scarce and hard to come by. And it didn’t really stretch. It was what it was. Finding herself short on money meant deciding which Peter to rob to pay Paul, which fiddler would wait to be paid later. Paying taxes was the least of her worries because the government saw fit to get those before she ever saw a dime of her paycheck.

I know it is quite common to complain about government wastefulness and inefficiency, to complain about all the taxes we pay, to complain about how progressively regressive our tax codes have gotten over the years. What we don’t know is how incredibly brutal the taxation system was in Jesus’ day.

The temple tax was a voluntary annual payment made by all adult Jewish males. It represented about two days of wages. But it came on top of all of the taxes that the Roman government demanded – backed up by the force of the Roman army. And Rome taxed absolutely everything. Tax policy was used to effectively reduce people to slavery, to steal land, and to consolidate wealth into the hands of the few.

Money has always been about power. But notice that Jesus doesn’t play power politics with money. He sees that his taxes are paid. He wants to win hearts and minds, not buy them. He doesn’t seek to overthrow an unjust government structure – he knows full well that its own greed and hubris will eventually self destruct. It always does.

Now I suppose some wise guy pastor will use this story in a stewardship sermon. He will point out that Jesus – who called his disciples to become fishers of people – gets the money he needs out of the mouth of the fish that they catch. But that’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you give us all we need, including the gifts and the opportunities to earn the money that sustains our lives. Guide us in using our money well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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