Matthew 17:24-27, When they came to K’far-Nachum, the collectors of the half-shekel came to Kefa and said, “Doesn’t your rabbi pay the Temple tax?” “Of course he does,” said Kefa. When he arrived home, Yeshua spoke first. “Shim‘on, what’s your opinion? The kings of the earth from whom do they collect duties and taxes? From their sons or from others?” “From others,” he answered. “Then,” said Yeshua, “The sons are exempt. But to avoid offending them — go to the lake, throw out a line, and take the first fish you catch. Open its mouth, and you will find a shekel. Take it and give it to them for me and for you.”
Let me be blunt, THIS IS NOT A MIRACLE STORY!!!
Today most Christians suffer from thinking about Yeshua as “too high up and too much like God”. We think of Yeshua as The Son of God, God incarnate; therefore everything he did as a man must be permeated with the mystique of the Divine. Every statement carrying a deep theological “God filled” meaning and every action a miracle. It seems that he must always be associated with the stuff of wonder and stirring religious import.
We almost never think of Yeshua as hanging out with the folks, shooting the breeze, having discussions about politics, people or work. Christians are familiar with Yeshua being a carpenter, but the actual Greek word used simply means “a tradesman”, more like a handyman. That being said, it would appear that his day job never gets reconciled with his Divinity. So this brings us to the question, “did Yeshua have a sense of humor?” Did he ever sit around the campfire with the “guys and gals” telling stories and, more importantly, did he tell jokes?
The story of the Temple tax indicates that Yeshua had an excellent sense of political satire. The problem why most modern Christians think its a miracle story and don’t “get” the joke is because humor doesn’t transfer well between cultures, especially if those cultures are separated by over 2000 years. So lets unpack this story and see where the humor is.
The Temple tax (מחצית השקל or the half shekel) was a tax paid by Israelites and Levites which went towards the upkeep of the Jewish Temple, as reported in the New Testament. Traditionally, Kohanim, the Sadducees, were exempt from the tax. During the time of Yeshua, payment of the Temple tax was a politically contentious issue. There was serious theological conflict between the Sadducee custodians of the Temple and the Pharisee/Essene sects over animal sacrifice, relations with Rome, and use of the Jewish army. As discussed in previous posts, Yeshua, as an Essene, was in violent disagreement with what went on in the Temple, so we can assume that payment of the Temple tax was a NO for him.
When they came to K’far-Nachum, the collectors of the half-shekel came to Kefa (Peter) and said, “Doesn’t your rabbi pay the Temple tax?” “Of course he does,” said Kefa. The story opens with the Temple tax collectors asking Kefa if Yeshua pays the temple tax. Kefa responds with the politically correct answer of “yes”; however Kefa is in for a surprise when he gets “home”.
When he arrived home, Yeshua spoke first. “Shim‘on, what’s your opinion? The kings of the earth from whom do they collect duties and taxes? From their sons or from others?” Not taking Kefa’s politically correct answer for granted on his return home, Yeshua immediately asks Kefa for an opinion. He wants to know where Rome, here Kings of the earth, collect their taxes from. The distinction between “sons” and “others” is asking “does Rome collect taxes from its citizens (sons) or its conquered nation states (others)?”. After 167 BCE Rome no longer need to levy taxes against its citizens, all Roman income was generated from either conquest “spoils” or taxes levied against conquered peoples, the “others“.
“From others,” he answered. “Then,” said Yeshua, “The sons are exempt. There is a double play on the word “sons” going on here. The reference to “sons” in this verse is now referring to the temple Sadducees. You see in Yeshua’s time the Romans and the Sadducees where one and the same as far as the Pharisees and Essenes were concerned. In order to keep their political power the Sadducees had sold out to the Romans and were nothing more than Rome’s puppet administrators. This word juggling would have been funny to the average Jew, a way of making fun of the Romans and Saducees at the same time without being politically overt.
But to avoid offending them — go to the lake, throw out a line, and take the first fish you catch. Open its mouth, and you will find a shekel. Take it and give it to them for me and for you.”
There are two punch lines here. First, Yeshua could have cared less about offending either the Romans or the Sadducees, he viewed both as adversaries, literally “a Satan*”. The fake concern would have been humorous to Yeshua’s followers. Second, catching a fish with a coin in its mouth is satire at its best. Yeshua is saying that you have as much of a chance of catching a fish “bearing money” as you have of me paying the Temple tax. The play on Kefa being a fisherman by trade adds to the satire.
So, slim chance of finding money in a fish, and slim chance on Yeshua paying the Temple tax. There is nothing funnier than a well crafted joke.
* The word Satan is the English transliteration of a Hebrew word for “an adversary” in the Bible.
Lets face it, if you have to explain a joke, its not that funny. But the opportunity to see Yeshua as a political satirist should not be missed out on.