The Temple Tax

Tuesday, June 19, 2012 — Week of Proper 6, Year Two

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 971)

Psalms 78:1-39 (morning) // 78:40-72 (evening)

Numbers 11:1-23

Romans 1:16-25

Matthew 17:22-27

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

I’m thinking out loud here. It may not make any sense when I’m finished.

The scene is in Capernaum, Peter’s hometown and the headquarters for Jesus’ ministry. By now Jesus is known as a rabbi with some following. Someone approaches Peter to ask about his rabbi’s opinion on a topic of rabbinical debate — the Temple tax. The tradition called for the payment of a half-shekel (didrachma) tax by all registered adults age twenty and above for the upkeep of the Temple. From the perspective of Exodus 30:11f it seems to be a one-time donation at one’s original registration. But from the context of Nehemiah 10:32f it sounds more like an annual tax. Rabbis had various interpretations to defend their views on whether this obligation was annual or singular. So the question posed to Peter might have been, “Which interpretation does your rabbi teach?”

But there is another interpretation of the question that might have been inserted by Matthew. After 70 CE, Rome imposed a two-drachma tax on Jews for the upkeep of the temple to Jupiter. Many Jews found that tax to be humiliating and blasphemous. So to Matthew the question might have been, “Does your teacher pay the tax to Jupiter’s temple or does he promote rebellion?” Peter’s response, “Yes, he does (pay the tax)” works better in this context. Matthew offers documentation for political cover that Jesus, who was executed as an enemy of Rome, was not a rebel or a threat to the empire’s order. He paid the Roman tax. The Christian movement is not a threat and is not disloyal to Caesar. No cause to persecute us.

The conversation that follows between Peter and Jesus has some depth of color. “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” Easy answer — from others.

Here I am poised to go on a rant. For the past thirty years the wealthy and powerful in this country have consistently manipulated the tax system to their advantage, further concentrating wealth and power in fewer hands. In our state of Arkansas, it takes a 3/4th majority to pass a progressive tax like the income tax, but only a simple majority to pass a regressive sales tax. Therefore we end up in the ironic situation where the lowest 20% and the next lowest 20% and the middle 20% all pay about twice the percentage of their income in taxes as the top 1%.

During the first decade of the 21st century, politicians more aligned with the interests of the wealthy than the poor inherited a budget surplus and created a massive federal deficit by not funding two wars, by not funding a needed Medicare drug benefit and passing the expensive version favored by the drug industry rather than by consumers, by creating large tax cuts predominately benefiting the wealthy, and by failing to regulate financial speculation by the super-wealthy. It all devolved to bust the economic system and create a massive deficit. Now, those who are largely responsible for the deficit seem to want to lower it by cutting programs that benefit the poor and vulnerable. “From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?” [end of rant]

“Then the children are free,” said Jesus. What does that mean?

This story follows closely upon the heels of the Transfiguration, where we have heard the voice from heaven proclaim, “This is my Son…” Elsewhere Jesus identifies himself in union with his disciples, especially in John. The children of God, the King of kings, are free. There is a higher law, a higher identity, a higher obligation.

Yet for the sake of community peace, Jesus says: “However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook.” Fishing is Peter’s business. It is his work and his source of income. Jesus sends him to pay the taxes (whether Jewish or Roman) through his working income. Yet God provides the miraculous catch for Peter the fisherman. In the mouth of the first fish will be a stater, the equivalent of two didrachmas, the temple tax for two persons (either Jerusalem or Jupiter’s temple).

So, for the sake of community, for the sake of the common good, Jesus pays the taxes without making a statement of judgment about them other than asserting the child of God’s ultimate freedom from such things. Jesus doesn’t weigh in on the rabbinical debate about the minimalist once-in-a-lifetime or the more demanding annual Temple tax. Matthew doesn’t form an interpretation for a tax revolt against the hated toll for the temple of Jupiter. Jesus simply asserts the children’s freedom under God, and he then acts for the sake of community peace.

As a free child of God I am particularly pleased to pay taxes when they support the common good and when they go to the cause of creating a healthy and vibrant community. I want the finest educational opportunities to be available to all, adequate security, modes of public transportation available for all including those who may not afford a car, infrastructure for creativity in business and other human pursuits, parks and museums that welcome everyone, shelter, security in old age, and universal access to health care. These seem like the building blocks of a healthy and just society. It takes a temple tax to support a temple.

I am not so pleased to pay taxes for foolish wars and for the promotion of prejudicial or elitist policies. But there is no way to parse out the taxes. So, in order not to give offense, I go fishing every day — I go to work — and God provides. But I do wish that God would provide more for the poor and a more generous spirit among the wealthy and powerful, for the sake of community and the common good.

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