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Question; The Fish and The Shekel

Question by Nora:

I had a question about a scripture, I’ve read it many times, although I think I understand lol. I know there’s more. It’s Jesus and the temple tax, and the miracle of the coin in the fishes mouth in Matthew.


This is a great question, and I fired off a short email in response, but there’s so much in these few, short verses, that I thought it would be beneficial to share with everyone.

First off, let’s start by looking at the text in question:

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the tax?”

He said, “Yes.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?”

And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.

However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

Matthew 17:24-27

The catechism, and the Church Fathers tell us that there are several “senses of scripture,” that we have to look at when interpreting a particular passage. (CCC 115-119)


First we have to look at the literal sense of the text. In that sense, we have tax collectors coming to St. Peter, and inquiring why Jesus hasn’t paid the temple tax.

What’s interesting to note, is that they approach Peter and not the other apostles. This is because Peter was the leader of the group, under the rabbi (Jesus), and so was called up by the authorities. This is much the same way that the Pope is the leader of successors of the apostles, the Bishops of the Church, and together they guide Christ’s Body here on earth.

Also, when Jesus instructs Peter to pay the tax with the miraculous coin from the mouth of the fish, He only supplies a single coin, instead of two half shekels.

This demonstrates the link between Jesus and Peter. Not too long before this episode, we see Jesus renaming Simon as Peter, and declaring that upon him the Church would be built.

Then there is the spiritual sense, and what lesson can be learned to increase our spiritual growth in Christ.

Old Covenant

Under the Old Covenant, there were three types, or levels, of law.

There was the judicial law, and this was established to give everyday civil type law, because God was setting Israel up as its own nation and a nation needs civil law.

There was ceremonial law, this covered things like sacrifices at the temple and observance of festivals.

Then there was, and is, the moral law. This law is eternal, and was not abolished by the New Covenant of Christ.

The first two types of law no longer apply to us as Christians. We don’t have to keep kosher dietary laws, we don’t have to travel to Jerusalem for Passover, and we don’t have to keep our cotton and polyester from mixing together. But we are still bound by the Ten Commandments, and by what Jesus said was the “great commandment,”

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

This is the great and first commandment.

And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40

Even though we are freed, liberated as it were, from the judicial and ceremonial components of the Law, we much exercise this freedom carefully. Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, that even though eating the meat sacrificed to idols will not harms them, if it causes a fellow Christian to be scandalized, then it is a stumbling block to them, and a sin against Christ.

Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol’s temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?

And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.

Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:9-13

It is for this very reason, that at the First Council of Jerusalem, the apostles laid down what was required of the new converts. There was a sect, called the Judaizers, that insisted new gentile converts become circumcised, keep kosher, and obey all the Old Covenant Laws (collectively known as Mosaic Law) to be part of the New Covenant. As can be imagined, this didn’t go over well with adult converts, people who had never lived by Mosaic Law couldn’t be expected to be able to keep all 600 plus laws overnight, never mind the circumcision part.

At Jerusalem, the apostles took up the question of whether we, as Christians, and part of the New Covenant, had to abide by the Mosaic Law. The decision they came to is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.

When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the Church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.

But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.”

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.

And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us;

and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.

Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,

but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood.

Acts 15:1-2,4-11,19-20

They decided, because the apostles, and especially Peter, had the charism of Binding and Loosing granted to them by Jesus (Matthew 16:19 & 18:18), that they would only lay the minimum of the Law on them. But this wasn’t because the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation, it was because, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians, the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was causing scandal.

This is the reason that Jesus had Peter pay the temple tax for the both of them. It wasn’t because Jesus was bound by the ceremonial or judicial laws of the Old Covenant, it was because causing scandal, when it could easily be avoided, would detract from His message, and hinder His ministry.

This doesn’t mean we should compromise our moral principles to look good in the eyes of those outside the Church. In fact, we can see how destructive this path can be if we look at some of the historic Protestant Churches in America that compromised on core principles, and instead of being lauded by society, they just hemorrhaged members.

We can never compromise when it comes to the moral law, but if there is something that causes offense to your brother, and abstaining from it would do no harm, maybe we should see this example of Christ as a call to temper our Christian liberty with some Christian charity.

(This question was submitted through this page: Questions about Catholicism )

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