Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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A Fish Tale

     When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life. And the disciples were filled with grief.
     After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?
     Yes, he does, he replied.
     When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. What do you think, Simon? he asked. From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?
     From others, Peter answered.
     Then the sons are exempt, Jesus said to him. But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.
—Matthew 17:22-27, NIV

Have you ever had an odd memory from your distant past surface at an unexpected moment and shed light on everything that’s going on? Well, that’s what must have happened to Peter. Today Matthew retells one of Peter’s recollections. It was an incident that must have seemed unremarkable at the time, but later events shed new light on its meaning.

One day the Temple tax was due. The men came to collect it and asked Peter if Jesus paid the tax, and Peter said yes. (This was a fair question; the tax was not enforceable by law, some sects paid it and others did not.) When Peter went into the house to get the money, Jesus posed him an odd question, Do the kings of this earth collect customs duties from their sons or from strangers? We might rephrase in modern terms: Do nations charge import duties on domestic goods or on foreign goods?

The answer must have seemed as obvious as the question seemed off the wall. I’m sure Peter didn’t understand what Jesus’ point was in asking it, but he answered it anyway. Of course, import duties are charged against foreign goods, not domestic ones; in the same way, the earthly kings of Peter’s day didn’t collect taxes from their own sons, but from strangers. So Peter said so.

Okay, then the king’s sons are exempt, Jesus concluded. This seemed to be very obvious, but what did it have to do with the Temple tax and the men who stood at the door to collect it? Then Jesus continued by saying, But so we don’t offend them, go put a line into the lake. The first fish you catch will have a coin in it. Use that to pay the tax for both of us. And it happened that way.

So here we are, several years later. The disciples went through incredible trauma as they watched as Jesus was betrayed, arrested, and tried. They were stunned by the verdict. When Jesus was crucified, they were all terrified of the authorities and hid out at Mary’s house—all except John his best friend, Mary his mother, and some of the other women who had no fear of prosecution. There were days of uncertainty while they tried to pick up the pieces, during which, one by one, the disciples claimed that they had seen Jesus, that He had risen from the grave and was alive once more! Those who did not have this experience thought the others were crazy until they also saw their risen Lord. No sooner were they all caught up in the excitement of it all that Jesus ascended into heaven and left them with the task of spreading his message.

So I guess Peter can be excused for not realizing what this incident had meant. After all, he like all the other disciples had really been through the wringer, and that bit with the fish was a major distraction from what was really going on.

Jesus had said, The sons are exempt… but so we don’t give offense. Obviously, Jesus meant that as God’s Son, He is exempt from His own Father’s tax, but He paid it anyway to avoid offending the men at the door.

How plain it all is now in retrospect! The disciples learned the true identity of Jesus Christ the hard way, through the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. It took all those pyrotechnics to get them to recognize and thoroughly recognize what Jesus had told them in plain words beforehand.

How dull-headed they had been! If only they had had ears to hear and eyes to see what was plainly before them, the emotional roller-coaster ride would have been less terrifying and much more reassuring.

I don’t think that Peter ever came up with an explanation of how the first fish he caught came to have the coin in it that was needed to pay the Temple tax. I don’t think that we will ever come up with intellectually comfortable ways of dealing with all the mysteries of the Bible, either. In fact, there are a number of odd and nonsensical things that have happened in my own life that I haven’t figured out; it appears that the universe is still greater than our understanding.

So if you ask me how the coin got into the fish, or how Genesis can be reconciled with scientific cosmology, or how Jesus walked on water, or how he could be betrayed by a friend and executed so horribly, or even how the coincidence occurred that saved my life on 12 March 1967, I have to tell you that I really don’t know the answer to those questions, although I have a number of very edifying theories. I can’t figure out the entire universe, and I don’t think there is a requirement that I do so before I embrace Jesus’ message.

If I own a calculator whose answers I trust, I don’t have to memorize log tables, because when the need arises, I can just use the calculator. I can’t personally vouch for the answer that glows on the calculator, but I trust my calculator and I use the answer. Of course, if I am curious about logarithms, I can learn about them at my leisure, but there is no longer any requirement or urgency. In the same way, if I know, love, trust, and obey the Son of the God who created all the universe, I don’t have to know all the answers. If I am curious, I can ponder and research and study at my leisure, but there is no longer any requirement or urgency, because the meaning of my life and the fate of my soul depends on Him, and not on my own understanding.

I am not as smart as Stephen Hawkings, Carl Sagan, Karl Barth, Bertrand Russell, Marilyn vos Savant, or many other people I could name. Even if I possessed all the knowledge that they possess, I’m not sure I could process it all and make it all come out in one tidy package. Fortunately, I don’t have to be that smart, because I know Jesus, and I trust Him for the bottom line. I am free to investigate and learn and play, because no matter how distressing my current state of knowledge might be, I have the comfort of the final answer from One whose knowledge is perfect and complete.

So Peter must have said, I could kick myself! I thought that incident was about fish, when all along Jesus was telling me the truth. If I had listened, if I had paid attention to the important part, I could have kept a level head in all that mess. I could have saved myself a lot of unnecessary grief!

Don’t let an odd fish distract you from the Way, the Truth, and the Life.