A Coin Appears in a Fish’s Mouth
Matthew 17.24-27 (NRSV)
When they reached Capernaum, the collector of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.”
And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll and tribute? From their children, or from others?”
When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offence to them, go to the sea, and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin, take that, and give it to them for you and me.
If anyone asked you to name your favourite of Jesus’ miracles, I doubt many of us would pick, or even remember this one.A coin in a fish’s mouth, it sounds a bit like a magic trick, or a joke, doesn’t it? But if we look closely, it has a lot to teach us.
The tax collector is in town and he grabs Peter, asking if Jesus pays the temple tax, implying that he should, and probably that payment’s overdue, and I think we can all identify with that!
The temple tax was an annual payment of half a shekel that all Jewish men, 20 and over, were expected to pay for the upkeep of the temple and its worship. Whilst not compulsory, it was considered their sacred duty to pay up.
Peter immediately blurts out “Yes,” perhaps not wanting to make Jesus look bad or embarrass him by admitting they’ve no money!
Now it’s easy to miss this, but notice, the minute Peter walks in, before he even says a word, Jesus asks him who kings take tribute from, family or others. Do you see, even though he wasn’t there, Jesus already knows what’s happened!
Peter rightly says, ‘from others,’ because in those days, kings taxed their subjects for money to support their rule and their family, but they didn’t tax their children.
And this is what Jesus is getting at. He doesn’t have to pay tribute, tax, to God, it’s almost like paying it to himself, he’s telling us who he is – he is the Son of God!
But Jesus says, so we don’t cause offence, we’ll pay it anyway. Now we know that Jesus was never one to shy away from causing offence, and he’d deal with the temple money men later, but he picked his battles. He knew what was important and what wasn’t, and we have to pray for discernment to do the same, basically he says, don’t sweat the small stuff!
Now like our Queen, Jesus didn’t seem to carry any money, remember, when the Pharisees challenged him about paying taxes to Caesar, he had to ask for a coin!
He needs a coin now, a shekel or a sater, enough for them both, and sitting there in the house, with no doubt a challenging smile on his face, Jesus tells Peter to go and catch a fish, take the coin out of its mouth, and pay.
Now many don’t accept this miracle, saying Jesus was telling Peter to go fishing, and earn the money from a day’s work, but I don’t think that’s it at all.
Peter fished from boats with a net, he didn’t stand on the beach and dangle a hook in the sea like a child would now.
Did Peter do it, I’ll bet he did! And the people around who’d seen the tax collector grab him must have wondered what Peter was doing when he said, “Hold on a minute!”, walked to the water’s edge and dangled a hook in the lake.
It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it, a fish with a coin in its mouth, but it isn’t. We know that fish are attracted to shiny things, that’s how we catch salmon and trout, with flies that attract their attention, like a fallen fly’s flashing wings.
And there’s a Galilean fish called the musht which has a mouth so big, it’s young can shelter in it when danger is near. Doesn’t sound so ridiculous now does it!
But just imagine being there watching as Peter catches the fish, hear the gasps of surprise, the laughter as Peter pulls the fish out of the water and there’s the coin in its mouth. Imagine the tax collectors, probably holding it in disgust and washing it before they put it in their purse!
You can bet they weren’t talking about tax anymore when Peter explained to them what Jesus had done! All they could talk about was Jesus, and I doubt Peter went back to Jesus alone!
But what does all this have to do with us, what does it tell us?
Well Jesus isn’t telling us to go fishing in the canal for a pike with a pound in its mouth! He’s telling us to remember who he is and what he can do!
Jesus uses this comic miracle to show his foreknowledge, to reassure us of his provision, and to show us his incredible power.
He knew a fish in the lake had swallowed a coin. He knew where it was. He knew that it would be the first fish Peter caught; he made sure that it was!
Trust Jesus! He already knows what’s happening in your life, knows what you need before you ask him, and he is all powerful. There is no trouble he can’t help you out of, no sin he will not forgive, no situation he cannot change, nothing he cannot do, except stop loving you!
The Jesus who walked on water, fed 5,000, stilled storms, healed the sick, cleansed lepers, exorcised demons, and rose triumphant over death, is with you now, and he is the same yesterday, today and forever! Jesus worked miracles then and he still works miracles now – maybe his next one is for you!
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
(North West Hub)