Who’s the better detective – Sherlock Holmes or the tax accountant? Answer: The tax accountant – he makes more deductions.
Maybe not; at least not according to this unusual Gospel passage.
It begins with Jesus predicting his crucifixion, then moves abruptly to the question the collectors of the Temple tax asked of Peter: “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?” Peter answered “Sure, he does.” How else could he have answered? During Jesus’ day, all male Israelites paid this tax, about two days’ wages, annually to support the expenses of the Temple.
Jesus, however, is claiming a deduction, even insisting he’s fully exempt from this tax. The New American Bible clumsily clouds Jesus’ explanation by its use of the words foreigners and subjects. The literal Greek word for foreigners is “others.” And subjects actually mean “sons.”
Jesus’ point is that while a king collects taxes from others, including strangers and foreigners, no king taxes his own son, his family. They are exempt. The king in the Gospel story is God and Jesus is his son. As such, Jesus is exempt from paying a tax for his father’s house, the Temple.
But although Jesus doesn’t have to pay the tax, he pays it anyway. Giving Peter a strange order, he tells him to go fishing. Look into the mouth of the first fish he catches and he will find a coin, worth twice the annual Temple tax. Here, as elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, the fish symbolizes God’s surprising extravagant provision. God supplies enough to pay the tax for both Jesus and Peter.
Where is the Good News in this peculiar story? Just this: God treated Peter, this sinner, as his son and paid his tax. Likewise, your taxes and mine have been paid for. Jesus didn’t have to, but he paid the “tax” anyway – and in the most extravagant way, with his life. He redeemed us at the cross. And at our baptism, we became sons and daughters of the king. We became heirs to the kingdom. Sinners we may be, but strangers we are not. We are part of God’s royal family.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.