There is an interesting story in the Gospels involving Peter and the Temple tax collectors. They had cornered the apostle and asked him if he and His Master — Jesus — paid the temple tax.
Under pressure and in typical Peter fashion, he blurted out “yes” without thinking (Matthew 17:24-27).
“Does your teacher not pay the [b]two-drachma tax?”25 He [Peter] said, “Yes.” (Matthew 17:24b-25 NASV)
The priests had instituted a yearly tax for the temple of two drachma (half shekel).
It was patterned after similar taxes paid in the Old Testament. Moses instituted a half shekel sanctuary tax to help fund the tabernacle (Exodus 30:12-13). However this tax was only collected when Israel performed a national census.
There was also a one-third shekel tax instituted annually for the temple in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 10:32; Ezra 6:8). But this was a voluntary contribution from the people while the Exodus tax had the authority of Moses behind it.
So priests merged these two ideas together — taking the half-shekel tax from Exodus and combining it with the annual payment in Ezra.
The Temple tax was not enforceable under Roman law, however the priests considered it a sin if you didn’t pay it. Call it a guilt tax. As people gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, it was an ideal time to collect this tax.
Jesus was probably smiling as He watched Peter sweat in his conversation with the tax collectors. After they had left, Jesus asked Peter if the sons of the Kings paid taxes.
Peter said no.
And in fact, this was not only common practice for the heathen, even the Jewish priests were not paying the temple tax. Why pay when the money was just being funneled back to them anyway? When you began looking upon the money as yours instead of God’s, it is easy to rationalize.
Yet despite this Jesus decided to pay the tax in order not to cause offense.
However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in 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 you and Me.” (Matthew 17:27 NASV)
It was an odd statement. Because in a few days Jesus would charge through the Temple, turning over the money changers tables scattering their money on the temple floor. He would rip open the cages of the doves being sold letting them fly free (Matthew 21:12-17).
Would these money changers and sellers have been offended by Christ’s action? Obviously yes.
So Jesus was not concerned about offending people, but obviously something was different about this situation with the Temple tax collectors.
I believe Jesus paid the tax, because Peter had already given his word that he and his Master would pay it. Jesus did not want to cause offense by breaking this commitment giving the appearance Peter had lied.
However, by collecting the tax payment through a fish, Jesus let Peter know it was not a tax they were obligated to pay. If they were, there would have been enough money to pay the Temple tax for all the disciples.