Straight from the Fish’s Mouth
Have you ever heard the saying, “Money doesn't grow on trees”? It's a phrase that might have echoed through your childhood, a reminder that wealth doesn't just magically appear. But what if I told you there's a biblical account where money does materialize and not in the way you might expect? Nestled within the Gospel of Matthew is a distinctive miracle—one often overlooked due to its brevity. Yet, within these few verses (Matthew 17:24-27), we uncover profound insights that resonate with the core of our Christian journey.
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the tax?" He said, "Yes." And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, "What do you think, Simon? 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. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” [Mat 17:24-27 ESV]
This miracle, unique to the Gospel of Matthew, has Jesus make money appear in the mouth of a fish in order to pay the temple tax. Perhaps this story held special interest to Matthew as a former tax collector, but this tax wasn’t part of the Roman taxes that the Jews so passionately hated. Instead, this tax was a religious tax, with a history dating back to the days of Moses, aimed at supporting the operation of the Temple in Jerusalem. This miracle certainly stands alone, as the only time we see Jesus make money appear. Most of Christ’s miracles are healings of one kind or another, feeding multitudes, or other benevolent acts. But making money appear is not a miracle that we see repeated. He didn’t use miracles to enrich himself; rather, Jesus had a different purpose — to convey important spiritual lessons.
The first lesson Jesus teaches us is his authority as the Son of God. After Peter is interrogated by the tax collectors, he returns to the house where Jesus is staying. Before Peter can say a word, Jesus asks Peter if the kings of earth take taxes from their sons or from others. Peter's response, “from others,” reveals that government corruption and nepotism existed in the first century, much like today. Jesus replied, “then the sons are free,” implying that he, as the Son of God, is under no obligation to pay the temple tax. Jesus’s sonship was well understood by Peter, because one chapter earlier in Matthew 16:16, he makes the “great confession” that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. As the Son of God, that meant that He has authority over the Law of Moses, a fact often lost on the Pharisees. They routinely accused Jesus of violating the Sabbath law, but as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus knew exactly when the law was violated and when it was honored. As the Son of God, He should know - it was His law.
The second lesson we can learn is about exercising wisdom in controversial matters. Even though Jesus, as the Son of God, was under no obligation to pay the temple tax, He did it anyway in order not to “give offense.” Jesus
was not one to shy away from controversy, when it was called for, as we see in His dealings with the Pharisees, calling them “sons of their father the devil,” and a “brood of vipers.” But in the case of paying the temple tax, He purposefully avoided causing a scandal, because in this case, a scandal was completely unnecessary. Jesus was under no obligation to pay the tax, but paying it anyway wasn’t a sin. If he refused to pay the tax, he would’ve given his opponents an opportunity to distract from God’s message. So he denied himself this liberty to be more effective in his mission to save the lost. Much like those in Corinth, who would sacrifice their right to eat meats offered to idols for their brethren’s conscious sake, Jesus would sacrifice his own right for the sake of saving others. We as Christians should avoid unnecessary controversy in order to be the most effective ambassadors for Christ in the world.
Finally, this miracle teaches us about our relationship with God, and how Jesus reconciled us to Him. Jesus asked Peter to go back to his old occupation for one more catch, and when Peter caught the fish, he found in its mouth a shekel — enough money to pay the temple tax of both Jesus and Peter. Why did Jesus pay the price for Peter too? Perhaps Jesus is teaching that all of his disciples share sonship with him (Gal 3:26). Perhaps, this payment is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t owe the price himself, but he paid the price for others.
Just like Mama said, money doesn’t grow on trees. But Jesus used His power to make money appear miraculously, in order to serve His purpose. In the miraculous provision of a shekel in a fish's mouth, we find more than a mere solution to a tax dilemma. We uncover valuable lessons on authority, wisdom, and sacrificial love.
- Dan Harbin