Make It So
And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee. (Mat 17:24-27)
Now what's that all about? This little scene between Peter, the collectors and Jesus is only recorded in Matthew. It's a short little passage and puzzling at first. It seems to be a question about taxation and do they, should they pay it. I browsed a variety of commentaries and they all say that this has to do with the half-shekel or "Temple Tax." Maybe, but then again, maybe not.
Whatever the nature of the tax, Peter has stated publicly that Jesus pays it. Then he goes inside and before he can say anything, Jesus gives Peter a little lecture. The symbolism in this miniature parable is interesting in and of itself, but how you interpret it depends on what tax you think they are talking about. What is implied by Jesus is that Peter said something wrong, or at the very least, with little understanding of what he was saying. Think about it this way. Jesus is right there in Capernaum with Peter, although it isn't clear if Jesus has already gone on to the house and Peter comes later, or they are both still on their way when the question is raised. Either way, Peter could have replied with something like, "Let me go ask about that." Instead, Peter answers for Jesus. You see, the question was not whether Peter paid the tax, but rather it was a question about Jesus. Peter is speaking things about Jesus.
In the previous chapter of Matthew, Peter is the one that declares Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus responds by making a declaration about the power and authority he will give to his disciples:
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mat 16:13-19)
Ok. Get the picture now? Jesus has stated that whatever Peter will "bind on earth" will be "bound in the heavens." In other words, Jesus is going to back up the words of Peter with power over the heavens and earth. Whatever Peter and the other disciples will speak in the name of Jesus, Jesus will make it so. (Matt 17:20, John 14:13, etc.) So, what you have in Matthew 17 is Peter popping off his mouth, being presumptuous, saying things without thinking, after Jesus has said that what Peter says is going to be how it is. Good grief.
Peter is the one who has declared Jesus as the Messiah and it is Peter who will stand on the day of Pentecost and preach the first sermon on the Gospel of Jesus. Now, if Peter's words cannot be taken seriously, how is the Gospel going to be believed? I think that's the point here. Here is a quote from the Pulpit Commentary:
Further offence would supervene if he did not confirm Peter's engagement and execute the promise which the foremost disciple had virtually made in his name; since it might thus appear that he and his followers were not of one mind in this important matter.
When Jesus states a thing, that thing will be done. Unlike man, the word spoken by Jesus is the same as the word spoken by God and God does not lie. Whatever God says He will do, He will do and the same is true of the words spoken by Jesus. Having said that Peter will speak the truth about Jesus, Jesus is going to make sure that what Peter says is true, even if Peter messes it up. The important lesson for Peter, one that he would make over and over again, is to guard what he says about Jesus and only say those things that are confirmed and absolutely true. The whole Kingdom of Christ is going to be built on the rock of the testimony of the disciples. If they cannot be believed, then there will be no conversions to belief in Jesus. It's as simple as that. Peter spoke, and Jesus said, make it so.
There is an understanding we can apply from this. When we stand to speak things about Jesus we must sure that what we say is from Him, not our own presumptions and assumptions and personal desires. He is with us to the end of the earth, and thus we have Holy Spirit to guide us in what we speak. Before we speak about Jesus, we must pray, meditate, study scripture and be certain of our words. Don't be like Peter, always making presumptuous statements without thinking. Those who constantly claim to speak the truth about Jesus without understanding what they are saying, create discord, dissonance, and confusion. Their false witness makes it harder for the true witness to be heard.
But, don't think God can't work around our mistakes. Just as Jesus made good on the words Peter spoke, He can make our words work to His purposes, even if we stumble around and maybe get a few things wrong. But notice that Jesus made Peter go catch a fish to pay the tax. Jesus did not just miraculously create some money any more than he told Peter to go back and contradict himself. Peter made the statement so Peter has to do the work needed to reconcile the situation. That's important to remember, too. If you are truly led to speak to someone in the name of Jesus, you better be prepared for whatever you say to come to pass. It may very well come to pass by YOU having to do the work to make it so.
The "Temple Tax"
The KJV uses the word "tribute" to describe that tax that was asked about. The literal word being translated is "didrachma" and refers to a specific coin that was used to pay the tax. The didrachma was equivalent to the half-shekel, and this has led most scholars to conclude that the tax in question is the voluntary offering instituted under Exodous 30:12-13.
When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: (a shekel is twenty gerahs an half shekel shall be the offering of the LORD. (Exo 30:12-13)
At the time of Jesus, this half-shekel offering was used to maintain the Temple and is referred to as the "Temple Tax" in many modern translations. Other translations simply transliterate didrachma into "double-drachma" or "half-shekel".
However, the text itself does not specifically call it the "Temple Tax" and so it is an inference by the commentators. It's difficult to know from the text alone exactly what tax was being collected. The problem with the idea that it was the Temple Tax is that it doesn't seem consistent with what Jesus says in verse 25-26. Jesus' question to Peter refers to a toll or customs duty. Even today a visitor to a foreign country might be required to purchase a visa that the citizens of that country would not be required to obtain. Thus, the "native sons" are free to come and go as they please, while those who are "strangers" are under a burden. The question put to Peter, then, was on the order of does Jesus need to pay the customs official for entry into the territory. Peter himself was a native of Capernaum and thus it makes sense that the officials did not ask Peter to pay the tax, only if Jesus needed to pay it. But, Jesus had already taken up residence in Capernaum as stated in Matthew 4:13. Thus, neither Jesus nor Peter owed the toll. The only reason for making Peter pay it was to "not give offence." In other words, "you declared it to be so Peter, now you have to stick by what you said."
If we consider the tax to be the Temple Tax, interpreting Jesus' statements is difficult. The Temple Tax was not a tax levied against foreigners by a monarch and thus Jesus' words are irrelevant to the collection of the tax. You really have to struggle to reconcile the two. However, if this is a toll of some kind, then what Jesus said makes sense. It also leads to an interesting interpretation of the mini-parable Jesus puts to Peter. We who are the adopted sons of God are truly free and not required to pay a price to travel into the Kingdom of God. We do not pay the price for entry because we have been adopted into God's family.