Simon, what is your opinion? Who pays duties or taxes to the kings of this world? The citizens of the country or the foreigners?
Well, then that means that the citizens don’t have to pay. But we don’t want to offend these people. So go to the lake and drop in a line. Pull up the first fish you hook, and in its mouth you will find a coin worth enough for my Temple tax and yours. Take it and pay them our taxes.
Here’s the whole story:
When Jesus and his disciples came to Capernaum, the collectors of the Temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Does your teacher pay the Temple tax?” “Of course,” Peter answered.
When Peter went into the house, Jesus spoke up first, “Simon, what is your opinion? Who pays duties or taxes to the kings of this world? The citizens of the country or the foreigners?” “The foreigners,” answered Peter.
“Well, then,” replied Jesus, “that means that the citizens don’t have to pay. But we don’t want to offend these people. So go to the lake and drop in a line. Pull up the first fish you hook, and in its mouth you will find a coin worth enough for my Temple tax and yours. Take it and pay them our taxes.” (Matthew 17:24-26).
So here we have another miracle of provision. And again, the money needed doesn’t just fall out the sky. Jesus makes Peter go out and catch a fish. He tells Peter that if he does a little thing, trusting in God, then God will provide the temple tax. Although the chapter ends and it doesn’t say for sure that Peter actually found that fish with a coin, but I assume it is. I assume there was a miracle.
There is, however, another little interesting thing in this scripture that is relevant today. The Jews of Jesus day kept the temple running through two fundraising activities.
First, there was tithing. Everyone gave one-tenth of everything that they produced to God, and God in turn gave the entire tithe to the Levites. The Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel and it was their job to perform of all the religious duties like maintaining the worship space, performing the sacrifices, etc. They were not allowed to own land or have other jobs so God turned over all of the tithes to them so they could have something to live on. This is the command that God gave to Moses:
The Lord said, “I have given to the Levites every tithe that the people of Israel present to me. This is in payment for their service in taking care of the Tent of my presence. The other Israelites must no longer approach the Tent and in this way bring on themselves the penalty of death. From now on only the Levites will take care of the Tent and bear the full responsibility for it. This is a permanent rule that applies also to your descendants. The Levites shall have no permanent property in Israel, because I have given to them as their possession the tithe which the Israelites present to me as a special contribution. That is why I told them that they would have no permanent property in Israel.” (Numbers 18:21-24).
The tithes were usually not money. They were commonly food or other commodities because most people were subsistence farmers, not merchants. But it took a certain amount of money to keep things going so there was also a temple tax of half a shekel that was required of everyone. It was a flat tax, unrelated to income. It is this temple tax that is described in today’s scripture.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. (Exodus 30:11-13).
So the temple and all of its activities were maintained by two sources of income – tithes to support the Levites and a tax to support the temple. This is how all of the religious activities of Israel were financed – a tithe that was based on wealth and a flat tax that applied to everyone.
Both of these sources of funding were “spiritualized.” In other words, they were treated like sacrifices. The people always paid the money because they thought these bribes would keep God in a good mood and ensure their survival. Although they were “given to God”, these funds served a very practical purpose. They were not given to the poor or cast into the sea. Tithes served as salary for the staff (the Levites) and the temple tax served as their building fund.
Now back to the interesting thing that Jesus says in this scripture. He says, “Well, then,” replied Jesus, “that means that the citizens don’t have to pay. But we don’t want to offend these people.”
Jesus isn’t crazy about the whole temple and the sacrificial system. He says repeatedly that God doesn’t want sacrifices. (Days 18 and 25). God wants people to get along with each other and live in harmony. So, Jesus sort of dismisses the temple tax here by saying that “the citizens don’t have to pay.” He says that the Jews shouldn’t have to pay for the temple if they don’t want to. But he agrees to pay the tax just to keep the people in charge happy. He has to choose his battles, and he chooses to let this one go. But not before taking a pot shot at an important social convention. Not before saying that people shouldn’t have to pay a temple tax.
In most churches today the finances are spiritualized. Offerings collected each Sunday are given to “God” and then church administrators decide what to do with the money. They are usually allocated to pay for staff, operating expenses, missions, and other things. Churches usually recommend that their membership should tithe, but most church members do not. In the old days people were motivated by fear, guilt, or peer pressure, but none of these things work anymore.
Many Jewish synagogues, on the other hand, use a system more like the temple tax. They pay for their seats. Just yesterday I was in Chicago and I saw a sign at one of the synagogues – “New member rate – $100 per seat.” I don’t know how it works after the introductory rate expires. I supposed it’s based on income but I don’t know. I do know, however, that it’s not spiritualized. It’s treated as a practical matter.
One problem with tithing is that it makes the richer people seem more important than the poorer ones. The temple tax system is more egalitarian and discourages the rich from having a more influence. Both systems place a greater burden on the poor, who have less disposable income.
My church is struggling with maintaining a balance between these two paradigms – tithes and temple tax. Previously they used the spiritualized approach where people were directed to pray about how much to give, but this apparently isn’t working because we have a deficit going. This year the pastor sent out a letter stating the amount that is needed by each family to keep the church going. It works out to $50 per week per family. It’s just the facts. People can give more or less, but if everyone gives less we will not have a church. We’ve yet to see how this reality check will be received. Hopefully it will work. It’s a great church.
Well, nothing profound here today, just a little chatter. Finances. No matter how much you try to spiritualize it, there are economic realities associated with maintaining a church and its ministries. But I always say that if a church is really doing the work of God, he will provide for it and keep it going. He will either send some benefactors or miraculously reduce the expenses. At our old church in Chicago, we were in grave financial trouble when someone called and said God told him to send us $10,000. Every year. That got us over the hump. I believe that God can and will provide. He will send a rich guy. Or a wealthy fish. One way or another he will get it done.
What does this scripture say to you?