Do you ever read a story in your Bible and think “I know this means something…I just have no idea what it is.” For years that’s how I saw the ending of Matthew 17. It’s a very short and memorable story; in the end Jesus does a miracle by having a fish deliver His taxes!
Really it’s probably not that difficult a passage, but even though I had read it many times and even memorized it at one point, I couldn’t track with it. But now I’m amazed to see another tiny picture of the Gospel tucked away somewhere between the Transfiguration and “Who’s the Greatest?”
It begins with a tax collector approaching Peter to ask whether Jesus pays his taxes. Peter says “yes” and walks away.
As my friend Stephanie likes to quip, “Good story.”
It seems as though nothing has happened. But then Peter goes into the house where Jesus is, and Jesus—who missed the conversation—brings it up right away by asking a question about taxes in general. And this is where, as a minor with nothing to file, I would get lost.
Jesus asks whether the kings of the earth collect taxes from their sons or from strangers. But that’s not trivia. Taxes are a sign of authority, and whether or not you are taxed and how much you pay reveals your relationship to those in authority.
Peter rightly says that kings don’t tax their own children; that wouldn’t make any sense. Kings tax strangers, people of no relation. And so Jesus fills in the blank and says, “Then the sons are exempt.”
And this is where the scene pivots. Up until now it seems like they have been talking about Roman taxes or tax law in general. But here we see Jesus is talking about something else entirely. The sons are exempt, but—and here’s the twist—I’ll pay it anyway.
Did you catch that! I love subtlety in art and language, and this is a prime example. Jesus just said (without saying) that He is the Son of the King. He is royalty. This is His kingdom! Suddenly we’re not talking about taxes anymore but about who Jesus is.
But Jesus says more than that. He just revealed in chapter 16 that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and earlier in chapter 17 we get a glimpse of His glory. But now notice that Jesus is including Peter. “So that we do not offend them . . . give it to them for you and Me.” Peter isn’t the son of God, but he’s going to be treated like a child of the King.
And what’s more, look at exactly what the perk is here: Jesus is paying taxes He doesn’t owe. And He’s paying Peter’s taxes, too. What a beautiful picture of what Jesus will do on the cross, paying a debt He doesn’t owe and paying it on behalf of His disciples. Peter, not a child of the King, gets treated like royalty because Jesus, the actual Son of God, pays his debt for him.
Now that a new year is upon us, tax season has come with it. The wrong thing to do would be to claim you don’t owe any taxes because you’re a child of the King. (And it doesn’t count as evangelism either.) If it’s good for Jesus and Peter not to offend the tax collectors, we should probably follow suit.
But as you do your paperwork—whenever you get around to it—remember this brief exchange. Remember that this world belongs to Christ. Remember that He provides for your needs. And remember that He has paid the debt to allow you entry into the royal family. The sons are exempt.