It seems that the temple tax collectors challenged Peter about whether Jesus and his followers paid the tax. All Judean males were required to pay a tax beginning at age 20 to support the temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 30:11-16). Peter claims that Jesus does pay the tax, but Jesus seems to be a bit ambiguous. He asks Peter, “On whom do secular rulers levy taxes and tolls? Do they levy them on their own people or on aliens?” Peter says, “On aliens” – which would seem to be an obvious condition for secular occupiers of a land such as Palestine to do. Jesus says, “Then their own people are exempt. Still, we don’t want to get in trouble with them, so go down to the sea, cast your line in, and take the first fish that rises. Open its mouth and you will find a coin. Take it and pay them for both of us.”
While the Elves disdain to include Matthew’s fable in the lectionary, “St Peter’s Fish” is well known. Turns out St. Peter’s Fish is Talapia. The tilapia, also known as the musht, is native to the Lake Tiberias. They are bottom feeders, and “mouth breeders.” That means, they scoop up plankton and other objects into their mouths. They also carry their eggs in their mouths until they hatch, and the young are ready to swim on their own. The temple taxes were collected in the month before Passover, any time from February to March. During that season in Tiberius, the tilapia were likely to be in shallow, warmer water where there was more plankton than in the deep waters. They would be moving gravel on the bottom to build spawning pits, or searching for plant material on the bottom. It is not unusual for these fish to scoop up coins.
Matthew’s magic story reflects the magic of the loaves and fishes, and perhaps anticipates the magic of the colt the disciples borrowed for Jesus to ride in the Palm Sunday parade. But beneath the distracting magic lie some ambiguities. As the Jesus Seminar scholars point out, the historical context for this story is both instructive and in itself ambivalent. If the story is set prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, “it suggests that Jesus submitted to the temple tax and encouraged his followers to do likewise, although they were, strictly speaking, free from that obligation since they were no longer Judeans” (The Five Gospels p. 212-213). They were from Galilee, some distance north of Judea, on the other side of Samaria. If the story is set after the fall of Jerusalem, “it raises the issue of whether Christians should pay the Roman temple tax” imposed by the Emperor Vespasian on Judean men up to age 62, for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome, which had been destroyed in the civil war.
Whatever the historical context, however, Matthew is of the opinion that his early Christian community, which had separated from the Jewish religion, were obligated to comply with secular authority. This of course contradicts Jesus’ own words, recorded later in Matthew, in Mark, Luke, Thomas, and other early sources (but not John): “Give to Cesar what belongs to Cesar and to God what belongs to God.” Instead, Matthew’s Jesus reflects a portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:1-7), which says very clearly, “Every person should voluntarily submit to those who have the authority to govern. For there is no legitimate authority except that authorized by God, and those authorities that exist have been established by God . . . This is also why you pay taxes.”
Scholars now are reasonably certain that Romans 13:1-7 was added by a scribe or copier at a much later time. The interpolation contradicts Paul’s insistence not to “accept the life of this age as your model, but let yourselves be remodeled by the recovery of your true mind, so that you can discern what is consistent with God’s purposes – what is good, worthwhile, and completely genuine” (Romans 12:2, Scholars Version). Paul’s apocalyptic certainty is missing, and the language reflects conventional wisdom. In addition, according to the commentary by Dewey et al., when those verses are removed, Paul’s argument flows more logically from 12:21 to 13:8.
It seems that Jesus’ body was hardly cold before his revolutionary, counter-cultural teachings were watered down and made safe for a society interested in economic survival in a controlling empire; in conforming, not transforming; in collaboration not covenant.
Twenty-first century exiles from traditional Christianity can hardly be expected to take St. Peter’s fish story with any seriousness, especially in light of the much better known admonition to “give to God what belongs to God.” That the saying was a quipped conundrum in response to a trap is well known. For first-century Jews, the earth and all it contains belongs to God. Cesar only can lay claim to the coin with his picture on it. But for twenty-first century, post-modern minds, God is a metaphor, and the government tax collectors have even less sense of humor than those ancient pharisees.
Worse, right-wing Christian fundamentalists are only too happy to agree with whoever tampered with Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (NRSV).” Tea Party libertarians notwithstanding, the religious right is busy writing laws that restrict reproductive rights, civil rights, and human rights in the name of freedom. The interloper goes on: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good . . . . But if you do wrong, you should be afraid. . . . It is for the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer (NRSV).” As usual, verses 6 and 7 are ignored. These are the verses that say, “pay taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Theirs is a circuitous argument for government control, and against social justice.
But what is Matthew suggesting with the story of St. Peter’s fish? The NRSV translation does not shed any more light than the Scholars Version. In the NRSV, Jesus asks “From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” Again, obviously, kings would normally not tax their own children. Jesus recommends that Peter not run the risk of offending the children of kings who are exempt from taxes, and suggests conjuring a fish to provide the required coinage. Matthew does not tell us whether Peter did what Jesus suggested.
We are left scratching our heads. Is this a joke or a sell-out? Is Matthew’s Jesus suggesting pacifying the prevailing powers that be or is he once again demonstrating the same covenantal trust in distributive justice-compassion found in the sermon on the mount?
There are plenty of stories about people getting wisdom, knowledge, or gold from animals. The stories are multi-cultural, inter-religious, and world wide: Balaam’s Ass, who saw the angel of the Lord in the path while Balaam did not; the “great fish” where Jonah hung out for three days, pouting about preaching God’s law to the Ninevites; Jack who sold his cow for magic beans, which resulted in unending wealth (albeit stolen three times from the giant at the top of the beanstalk); Finn MacCool, who was the first to taste the fat from the salmon of knowledge (by accident); not to mention the goose that laid the golden egg. In all of them the animals are smarter than their human masters; in most of them, either the oppressed poor out-wit the rich, or the power of greed causes the end of the spell regardless of the economic circumstances of the main character in the tale.
It’s a fish story. You pays your money, you takes your chances . . .