Session #113 Unshekeled
Scripture Matthew 17:24-27
Summary Is Matthew 17:24-27 merely about the supernatural provision of tax money? At first glance, it may appear to be so. However, there is so much more when the background of the half-shekel tax is examined. In this teaching about kingdom freedom and kingdom giving, Henson will touch on tax, tradition, trap … and tithe.
When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax [didrachmon] came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money (stater); take that and give it to them for Me and you.” Matthew 17:24–27
We encounter a certain tax situation in Matthew 17:24-27 but more than just giving back our dues, Jesus used the opportunity to teach what freedom means to us and how we should live when unshekeled.
In Exodus 30:11-16, at the end of the Maccabean Period, there was an introduction of temple tax, two-drachma, for the Tabernacle built in the wilderness. When the Temple replaced the Tabernacle, the collection of this tax continued. This was the tax that Peter was being questioned about.
Historically, this tax was collected and used for the Temple in Jerusalem until it was destroyed in 70 A.D. Then the Roman Emperor decreed that the tax continued to be collected from every Jew to maintain the pagan temple to Jupiter.
Understanding Currency Terms
A shekel is a Jewish weight measurement of precious metals for gold, silver, or copper. Bekah is half-shekel which is approximately 160 barley grains ≈ 8.5-9.6grams ≈ S$9-10. Gerah is 1/20 shekel which is about 16 barley grains.
Drachma is the temple tax which is two-drachma. One drachma is the average salary of a common worker. Two-drachma is half-shekel and is a Greek silver coin as well.
Rome operated a mint in Tyre that produced silver half-shekels of high quality, 94% pure silver that are used to pay Temple Tax. In Matthew 17:27, “a piece of money” is a four-drachma coin or a shekel. When Jews from all over came to Jerusalem or the Temple, they needed the shekel. Moneychangers at the temple profiteered from such foreign exchanges.
Precursor of the Temple Tax: Moses & Tabernacle (Exodus 30:11-16)
Ransom money in Exodus 30:12 is “a ransom for himself to the Lord”. Ransom (kopher) is compensation, satisfaction, or substitution.
Atonement money in Exodus 30:15-16 is “to make atonement for yourselves”. Atonement (kaphar) is a covering with the root word (kapar) to smear with pitch (covering); make amends, pardon, release, appease, forgive, i.e., remove the guilt from wrongdoing for any length of time.
As the people of Israel are wandering through the desert on their way to the Promised Land, Moses is commanded by God to take a census. As part of that census of the people, a tax is instituted. It is a payment made by all males of military age between 20 and 50. Each half-shekel was rendered so that “they will not suffer defeat in battle” (Exodus 30:12).
Ransom and Atonement
Money paid by one who is guilty of taking human life in circumstances that do not constitute murder (ie., compensation for wrongful death). A soldier is a potential taker of life, though not a deliberate murderer. Hence he requires “a ransom for his life”. The money atones, pardons, covers the taking of lives in battle. The rich were not to give more, nor the poor less, to indicate that the souls of the rich and poor are equally precious and that God is no respecter of persons.
There was no impending war in Exodus but it implies all are to be ready as soldiers of the Lord’s army.
How will Ransom/Atonement Money be used? (Exodus 30:16; 38:25)
The money was used to maintain the Tabernacle and later we read in Exodus 38:25-26 that the foundations of the Tabernacle were built using money from the ransom.
The construction of the Tabernacle is a symbol and system of ransom and atonement. The freewill offerings were more than enough; and so much that Moses told them it was enough (Exodus 36:2-7).
Half-Shekel Collection Becomes the Temple Tax (then a Roman Tax)
Since the end of the Maccabean period (165-63BC), during intertestamental times, all adult Jewish males throughout the world paid an annual two-drachma tax, loosely based on Exodus 30:11-16. This is for support and upkeep of the Jerusalem Temple.
Before the war of 66–70AD, funds raised were so enormous that temple aristocracy had to find what to do with the extra resources. Eventually, they constructed a massive golden vine with clusters of grapes, set against a gold wall.
After 70AD, so zealous were the Jews in fulfilling this obligation that they received criticism from at least one Roman provincial governor, citing that the Jews were sending too much money out of the country, over to Jerusalem. Thus, this Roman governor seized the funds for Roman purposes, the collections were given to the Temple of Jupiter.
What about Jesus and His Disciples? (Matthew 17:24)
There was one exception that had been made in paying the two-drachma. The priests and rabbis were exempted. The collectors were probably wondering if Jesus would pay the tax given His many confrontations with the religious leaders and system.
Was he considered a rabbi? Did He, would He, pay the tax? Collectors dared not confront Jesus, so they checked with Peter. In Matthew 17:25 he said, “Yes.” And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated and asked him from whom do the kings of the earth collect tax (Matthew 17:26)?
Unshekeled: Free! (Matthew 17:25-26)
Who do kings take customs or taxes from? Conquerors subjected conquered peoples, not their subjects, to taxation. Romans exempted a small minority of Roman citizens, urban Greeks, and some other higher-class residents of Egypt. Nero “freed” Greece, that is, exempted them from taxation. Persian officials reportedly allowed Judeans “freedom” from tribute. Most significantly, dependents (sons) of a king were naturally exempt from taxes.
Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.” Matthew 17:26 God is King; Jesus is Son of God, everything belongs to Him. The Son is not liable for any tax or any financial obligation.
Did Jesus intend a double meaning? Free from tax. Free from guilt and sin. Ransom would be fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 20:28). Jesus is the payment, sacrifice, satisfaction, and substitute.
Atonement will be fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus does not just “cover” sins. He will take away sin. No longer a need to pay for “atonement”. Jesus paid for us all.
The Temple is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is greater than the Temple. The Temple system will end as the curtain was torn in Matthew 27:51. Jesus prophesied that the Temple will be destroyed (Matthew 24:1-2). Ransom and Atonement are found in Jesus; not in a religious system.
Faith in Jesus makes us the children of God and “Then the sons are free.” (John 1:12). Free from sin. Free from the curse of the law. Free from taxes. Sons, not just Jesus but Peter and all who believe.
Don’t let Freedom Trap or Stumble Others (Matthew 17:27)
Offend is from the Greek skandalon meaning to trap or stumbling block. Do not let your freedom be a stumbling block. Give up your rights so as not to stumble others.
Did Jesus not offend many Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes? We need to discern the difference between those who set rules and those who carry out rules. Jesus had no issue opposing or offending religious leaders who were supposed to know but did not want to know. These were the very ones putting stumbling blocks before the people without any intention of observing the requirements themselves (hypocrites).
When addressing sin, idolatry, false and wrong teachings, Jesus was not afraid to offend at all.
But when it came to the people, His approach was different because they needed to be reached with the good news of the kingdom. Contributing money was not a sin or salvation issue. Although He was free from such obligations, He was willing to go along with the practice.
In Matthew’s Time (Temple Tax had become Roman Tax)
Taxes remained an issue, including the two-drachma tax. After 70AD, the Romans required all Jewish people (including Jewish Christians maintaining allegiance to their Jewish heritage) to pay that tax to the Roman government. Jewish Christians (free) vs Jewish non-Christians (required).
Do not stumble Jewish non-Christians. For the sake of maintaining public identification with their Jewish heritage, Jewish Christians should join non-Christian Jews in continuing to pay tax.
Jesus’ point here is similar to Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians. Paul most likely paid the Temple or Roman tax as well.
In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, regarding food offered to Idols, Paul says it is free to eat but he chooses not to eat so as not to stumble others; in 1 Corinthians 9:3-23, regarding financial support or wages, Paul is free to request support from the church but he does not demand anything or tithes. Paul presents the gospel without charge. He works alongside them.
Other Applications or Examples
Must the day of service be Sunday? We are free to worship any day but do not abuse the freedom or burden the people with personal convictions.
Kingdom Giving … (Kingdom Tax)
For the kingdom to advance, it requires funds. What about the church building and staff? What about kingdom assignments and needs?
Church building or organization as temple or house? This is not an accurate picture. We do not have a physical temple today but people are the temple.
Temple maintenance is people maintenance. Giving should be done to meet the needs of others, and there should be no lack amongst God’s people (cf Acts 2:44-45). There should be an overflow to bless society with kingdom influence and impact.
The kingdom principle concerning finances is that kingdom giving is voluntary; not compulsory (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Giving must not be by coercion (tax), but by voluntary generosity. Tithe, is it not a form of kingdom tax? The Spirit of the Tithe or Law is stewardship of God’s resources motivated by love. The tithe is an indication of worship of God, an expression of honoring the Lord. It indicates our faith and trust in God for provision. Tithe in Spirit is to look out for others, to be a blessing which can be over and above 10% if needed.
Hearts aligned with the King will always know how to give to the people, needs, and assignments of the kingdom.
Did Jesus Mean for Peter to Go fish for Tax? (Matthew 17:27)
Is it about faith? If you believe, anything is possible. Jesus just preached and taught in Matthew 17:14-23. The moral of Jesus causing him to find money in a fish would not be lost on him. After all, Jesus is God.
Is it about the provision? Does God supply needs for all financial obligations? Masters are to provide for His disciples.
Is it about God’s sovereignty? Someone loses a coin, fish eats coin, Peter catches fish, pays tax for two persons.
Notice that only Jesus’ instruction is recorded; not Peter’s response. It is not Matthew’s main focus as more critically, if and when the money is in hand (miraculously or otherwise), what would you do with it? You who have been set free, unshekeled. What would you do with your freedom?
We can be shackled by tradition or use Scripture to justify any practice. Always seek to discern and understand God’s heart in the law. Freedom in Christ frees us to live out the Spirit of the Law the way God intended.
Do not stumble others with our freedom but use our freedom to build bridges with others and to point them to Jesus. Kingdom giving is to be voluntary, with love and generosity. God provides enough (not necessarily equally) for His kingdom. There is a great opportunity for us to learn how to share and help one another.
Unshackled: Kingdom Freedom