From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. (Matthew 17:26)
– context with emphasis on the word “son” –
While Jesus and his disciples where traveling, religious leaders came to him demanding that he show them some kind of sign from heaven. But Jesus told them that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah. Then he left and asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
Jesus then began to explain to his disciples that he was the Messiah and that he would soon suffer at the hand of those religious leaders and would die, but that he would raise from the dead on the third day. After several days, Jesus took Peter, james and john up to a high mountain. Just the 4 of them. At the top of the mountain Jesus suddenly changed. His clothes began to glow like light and his face shown like the sun. And Elijah and Moses appeared and began a conversing with Jesus. Then peter got excited and said, Lord this is so cool. Why don’t i build 3 tents up here. One for you and one for elijah and one for… and before he finished speaking a bright cloud overshadowed them and loud voice came from within the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” After that the disciples were horrified. But jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they looked up jesus was standing alone.
As they continued to travel, Jesus explained to them once again. “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.”
In the next town, the collectors of the temple tax went up to Peter and asked, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” Peter answered with a quick, “Yes!” But then went immediately to talk to Jesus. Now Jesus was sitting in the house, and when peter came in, Jesus began speaking to Peter first. “What do you think, Peter? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” Peter responded, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.” But… so we don’t scandalize them, go to sea and cast a hook. The first fish you catch, look in his mouth and you will find a shekel. Give that to them, one for me and one for yourself.”
THE TEMPLE TAX
In this scene Jesus does more than just tell a parable – he acts it out with a really weird kind of a miracle. I say it is weird because it seems more like a magic trick. Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Jesus pulls enough money out of a fish’s mouth to pay for both his and Peter’s taxes. But before we look at the miracle, or the acted part of this parable, we first need to understand the spoken part. The parable is surrounded around taxes. Or more specifically the temple tax. All Jews were taxed by the temple once a year (an annual tax). The cost of that tax was 2 drachmas (didrachma) which would have been equivalent of 2 days’ pay. The authorities asked Peter if Jesus pays that tax. Peter quickly says yes, which seem to sound like, “Well of course he does.” But Peter has his doubts so he rushes to the house to ask Jesus about it. But Jesus, as if he already knew what was going on, speaks first and asked the question, “Who pays taxes to kings, their sons or foreigners?” Peter’s answer is, “The foreigners.”
Jesus is asking, “who pays taxes to kings. The kings sons, or the children, or the citizens of the king, or others, that is strangers or foreigners. Different translations use any one of those words. ‘Citizens,’ of course, is the thrust of the meaning. So for instance, in Jesus days, “From whom does Herod extract taxes, from the citizens of Rome or from the foreigners, i.e. the Jews?” And, again, Peters answer is, “From the foreigners”
Now for us Americans we probably miss the point of this conversation entirely. Because we, the citizens, pay state tax, sales tax, personal property tax, housing tax, income tax, social security and toll taxes. Our answer to this question would be very different. When Jesus asks, “Who pays the taxes, the citizens or the foreigners, we would all say, with out hesitation, the citizens of course. But that was not Peter’s answer and Peter had the right answer. So its important for us to understand that in Jesus’ day the foreigners paid tribute to the king not the citizens. And that is important because Jesus’ punchline is this, “Therefore the sons are free.” So, if foreigners are the ones who are taxed, then you see Peter, the citizens (or the sons) are free from taxes.”
Jesus is essentially telling Peter that the sons and daughters of the kingdom are free. Now, before you start getting ideas about breaking the law and refusing to pay your taxes this year, let me make sure we understand what Jesus is talking about. The Romans were taking taxes from the Jews to support the Roman empire and the Jewish religious leaders were taking taxes from the Jews to support their Temple. Jesus says listen, the citizens of Rome are free from taxes, therefore the children of God are free from Temple taxes. In other words, the citizens of the kingdom of God are free! Free from the temple and it taxes.
This little parable marks the beginning of Jesus’ parables of grace where Jesus will teach us that in his kingdom, in the kingdom of God, the citizens, or the sons and daughters, are free from religion. And, we enter into that kingdom by grace, and by grace alone. Not through religion, not through a religious system of paying taxes and following a check list of do and don’ts.
In fact, it seems very clear that Jesus is so “over” the religious system that this whole scene has the feel of mockery and humor. Jesus is making fun of the religious system and he mocks them by saying, “But, in order not to scandalize them, lets go fishing!” In other words, “You know, we don’t want them getting their undies in a bunch so I’ll tell you what, we should just pay their silly tax. I got their tax. It is right now in the mouth of some fish. So, go fishing and don’t worry because the first fish you catch will have, in its mouth along with your hook, a shekel,” which, BTW, is the equivalent of 4 drachmas, or 4 days’ pay, or 2 temple taxes. Jesus goes on, “Toss that shekel to them for both yours and my stinkin’ temple tax.”
So, with out pulling in other contexts, I want you to see that in this little parable Jesus is putting an end to religion. He is, to barrow a line from Capon, closing up the religion shop once and for all and, in jest, locking the door and hanging a “gone fishing” sign.
THE SONS ARE FREE
But I want to bring in some other contexts just to drive home that point. If we back up we might notice the play on words spanning several chapters. Most authors use this technique in literature. They will use a word over here, then use that same word over here, then use it again in a different way, over there. The author will do that on purpose in order to draw the reader’s attention. It highlights the scene and give clues to what is really going on perhaps at a deeper level. The TV series LOST did this kind of thing all the time. Playing with words is an ancient literary technique and Matthew or the Holy Spirit has one for us in this story.
Remember Jesus’ question? “From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” I mentioned before that there are different ways to interpret the word ‘sons.’ Some use the word ‘children’ others use the word ‘citizens.’ Those are ok words but ‘sons’ is the best – and here is why – because the word that is being played with in the overall context is the word ‘sons.’ Without the actual word ‘sons’ you and I would not be able to see it, or catch the pun, or, more importantly, get the punchline of Jesus’ little joke when he says, “Then the sons are free.” That is why most translations still use the word sons even though it isn’t a very inclusive word.
So let me explain. Over and over and over again we see the word ‘son’ or ‘sons’ in the the story. It is very intentional. For instance:
Peter – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
1st prediction of death – Jesus refers to self: “Son of man.”
In the transfiguration – “This is my beloved Son.”
In the question about the coming of Elijah – “Son of man”
2nd prediction of his death – “Son of man”
This parable – “do the sons pay taxes?”
The punch line – “Then the sons are free.”
So here is what you and I, the readers, are supposed to see. Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of Man. He is the promised Messiah and the messianic King. That is the conversation Jesus has with his disciples both on the way up the mount of transfiguration (who do you say that I am) and the way back down (the one who comes after Elijah). And… both before and after the mount experience, he tells them, “Before I establish my kingdom I will suffer, die and on the third day raise from the dead.”
So… when we get to this parable and the punch line of Jesus joke he is saying that, all who die with Christ and are raised to new life with him through his death and resurrection are the sons of the Kingdom. And… the sons are free from this old religion. There is a new king in town and he doesn’t tax his children.
This is unbelievable good news. Not bad news. The bad news is, you need to pay taxes. You need to follow these arbitrary rules of an old order. The good news, is this: “The sons are free!”
“The whole passage is a proclamation of the end of religion. To me, the episode says that whatever it was that religion was trying to do will not be accomplished by religious acts at all but in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That perception seems to have been so liberating to Jesus that he allowed himself the frivolity of this very odd miracle indeed. But beyond that, it is also (or at least it should be) radically liberating to everyone.” Capon
People every where need to hear this good news. The Gospel is good news, and it is good news about freedom. It says that Jesus as paid our debt, it is paid in-full, and now that the debt has been payed, we are free! Free from religion, free from check lists, free from arbitrary taxes. We are children of the king, and therefore above all of that silliness. You, if you have died to self and been raised with Christ, are children of God. You are sons and daughters of his kingdom. Listen to the promises given to his children.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17)
So in conclusion, in this opening parable of the parables of grace, Jesus with a touch of mockery and by the use of an elaborate kind of a pun, gives us this wonderful assurance that we are indeed sons — and — sons are free from religious slavery. Robert Capon wraps it up like this:
“Jesus tacks a “Gone Fishing” sign over the sweatshop of religion, and for all the debts of all sinners who ever lived, he provides exact change for free. How nice it would be if the church could only remember to keep itself in on the joke.” Capon