From Matthew’s Gospel:
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors 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 kings of the earth take toll or 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 lake 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.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 17:22-27 (NRSV) – June 17, 2014)
“O great,” I think, reading this story. “Here’s one of those fairy tales that make the story of Jesus so unbelievable for some people.” Let’s face it, a fish with a silver coin in its mouth that’s just enough to pay the taxes levied by the authorities ranks right up there with Jack’s magic beans, the goose that laid golden eggs, and Rapunzel’s spinning wheel that made gold from straw. It has all the markings of the fantastic and none of the real.
Commentators are all over the board in trying to figure it out, too! They pose all sorts of questions: How did Jesus know the fish would have the coin? How did Peter know where to throw his hook? What is the significance of the fish itself? Or of the coin? And they posit answers: The story shows Jesus’ complete divine knowledge of everything (omniscience). The story shows Jesus’ mastery over nature (omnipotence). The tale demonstrates Jesus’ contempt for the temple authorities. (That last one is probably accurate. I don’t believe that the human Jesus, even though God incarnate, had access to complete divine knowledge or complete control over nature, I can’t agree with so the first two.)
The tale even has a standard name: “The Miracle of the Coin in the Fish’s Mouth.” But here’s the thing . . . .
It never happened!
There is no story of Peter actually following through. There is no story of Peter going fishing. There is no tale of coins actually being found in a fish’s mouth. There is no narrative of Peter paying the temple tax.
All we have is a story of a conversation. After relating the conversation, Matthew immediately shifts scene to the disciples’ discussion about greatness in the kingdom of heaven (ch. 18). Not word is written by Matthew or by anyone about Peter actually going fishing.
If Matthew, a tax collector, actually wrote the gospel bearing his name, it makes sense that he would remember and relate a conversation about taxes; he is the only evangelist to tell of this discussion. If Peter really had caught a fish with a coin and used it to pay a mandated offering to the Temple . . . can we believe that such an incredible occurrence would not have been known to and told about by the other gospel writers? That just sounds fishy!
I want to make the radical suggestion that all of the ink spilled in analysis of the “miracle of the coin in the fish’s mouth” has been wasted, that we should focus our attention on the conversation, not on an event that is never described as having taken place. What might the conversation mean? What was its context? Is Jesus being humorous? Could this conversation (which probably took place sixty years or more before it was written down) been more speculative? Could Jesus really have said something like, “Suppose you went down to the lake, cast a line, and caught this fish . . . . ”
Here’s my thought for the morning: this is not a story about a miracle. It’s not a fairy tale like the beans, the goose, or the spinning wheel. It’s a conversation in critique of the temple tax. I believe Jesus is posing a fantastic hypothetical. — “If you were lucky enough to catch a fish with the exact amount of the tax in its mouth and used that to pay the tax, would that be a worthy offering? The authorities would accept it, but would it truly represent you and me? Would it be a sacrificial gift to God? And if the temple tax can be paid with something you were just lucky to find in the most unlikely of circumstances does it have any meaning?”
If Jesus is about anything, he is about investment in faith; he is about commitment; he is about personal sacrifice. Messing with nature so that Peter would find a coin to pay the tax would be out of character for him; telling a tale to illustrate the inadequacy of the established religion, not so much.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.