September 19, 2020

Teaching One Another: A Little Fish Story

Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.

* * *

The other night, during my prayer time, the text was Matthew 17:24-27, a bizarre little “fish story” about Peter going fishing so he and Jesus could pay their tithes.

I am going to throw this one open to the community today. What do you make of this story? What is it all about? 

Make sure you read it in context and see if there is anything in the surrounding narratives that might give you clues. You’re welcome to bring in insights from commentaries, lessons, or sermons from which you have gained understanding.

Help me here today.

‘Cause folks, to be frank, I could use a little scratch. Should I break out the ol’ fishin’ pole?

* * *

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.’

– Matthew 17:24-27 (NRSV)



  1. Randy Thompson says

    The story comes in the context of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Mt. 16:13ff), the Lord’s (first) prediction of his passion and resurrection (Mt. 16:21ff) and the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:1-13). In the story, Jesus tells us that in the world, the “kings of the earth” tax other people, not their “sons.” His point seems to be that as the Son of God, he, like other kings’ sons, is not required to pay taxes. He is above that, although he does not act on this prerogative, and instead, tells Peter to go fishing. The passage is a statement about who Jesus is in relation to God: His Son.

    It certainly is an odd passage. However, if I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, I really don’t have reason to think that it’s impossible to find your temple tax in a fish you just caught. (I wouldn’t use this passage to justify fishing as a way of raising your tax obligations!)

    • This passage, to me, speaks of gifts and endowments. Jesus owes nothing to anyone on earth….it is His very creation, on loan to humankind. Yet, He STILL pays what He does not owe to avoid offence or scandal. Once again, the Lord refuses to “lord over” others….and clearly calls me to keep this in mind when I am feeling oh so special and spiritual!

      And His Providence….that Peter gets exactly what he needs (no more, no less) by following Jesus’ command to him. In one way, the gift of what is needed falls into Pete’s lap, but on the other hand, the coin doesn’t drop from the sky, but requires work and obedience.

      Lots of good stuff in this passage….thanks for reminding us of it!

  2. I just received notification from the IRS today that we owe an additional $1,000 for corrections to our 2010 taxes. This in the heels of other wonderful and timely news (sarcasm duely noted.) Say, shall I get my fishing pole as well…..?? I’ve never fished before and I understand it’s not called “catching”, but fishing for a reason. Carry on…..

  3. I am SO not an apologist, but I like to research and extrapolate from that what I think…So, I humbly (and I may be wrong) submit that according to John Gill, “the collection of the half shekel, paid yearly for the service of the temple: the original of this custom, was an order of the Lord to Moses, upon numbering the people; that everyone that was twenty years of age and upwards, should give half a shekel as atonement money, or as a ransom for his soul; which was to be disposed of for the service of the tabernacle, ( Exodus 30:12-16 ) .” And later in Gill’s exposition on the same chapters, “…the same value with a “sela”, or “shekel” of the province. The Arabic and Persic versions render it, by “four drachms”, which also were the same with a “shekel”: and so was just enough to pay the two half shekels, for Christ and Peter…”

    If I may add to Randy’s comment, Yes, Jesus does not have to pay as he reveals He is the son of the living God, King of the Universe. But, He also pays Peter’s tax-something Jesus didn’t have to do but willing does, then and later on the cross. The fact He asks Peter to go fish and he find the exact amount needed to pay the tax is like the wonderment of the cross-We search, find Jesus and discover the miracle that He has done just exactly what we need to pay for our own ransomed soul.

    Just a thought.

    • “Jesus does not have to pay as he reveals He is the son of the living God, King of the Universe. But, He also pays Peter’s tax-something Jesus didn’t have to do but willing does, then and later on the cross.”

      +1 Good thought!

    • Randy Thompson says

      Good point. Thanks!

    • I like this a lot, what a beautiful picture of the gospel.

      Could we add that Jesus’ offer to Peter required Peter to actually do something (not just say “Yes Jesus I believe you”)?

      The implications are then about faith and obedience, faith and action, and ‘believing’ being more than intellectual assent to some of Jesus’ claims – but taking him on his word and seeing the implications through.

      Alter call anyone?

  4. I think among other lessons, Jesus is stressing humility and servanthood. He is the Son of the Most High God, the one who ultimately will judge all mankind, and yet He is being obedient to those in authority over Him as a human. If we are His followers, and the followers of a rabbi are supposed to imitate everything He does, then we need to think long and hard about our obedience to our authorities, be they federal, state, local, or personal.

  5. I think ” the children are free”, or as another translation puts it, “consequently the sons are exempt” is a clear statement of Gospel superseding the law. And I think that the action that follows “so as not to give offense” parallels the command “do not use your freedom as an opportunity to serve the flesh, but in love serve one another”, in fulfillment of the law.

  6. Was the temple tax considered a tithe under the law, or was it a separate collection from the tithe?

  7. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    My favorite part about this passage is that due to this passage, many restaurants in the Galilee serve St. Peter’s Fish (which is a kind of tillapia, I think). They prepare it by both baking and frying (yes, both on the same fish) and it’s DELICIOUS!

  8. Is the fish an image of Leviathan? Jesus shows how the Temple, the center and image of Creation, is meant to be supported. That is, Jesus didn’t tell Peter to catch some fish to sell in the market; the coin comes out of the deep, pretty close to ex nihilo. Lots of weird stuff happens around fishing in the Gospels. I would contrast the denarius in Matthew 22, about the Roman tax, which one of the Pharisees apparently produced from his pocket; no doubt acquired by doing business.

    None of these stories mean just one thing, of course. The theme that Jesus does not need to pay but chooses to is surely important. The Temple doesn’t have this kind of claim on him, but he submits to it anyway, a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of the previous section: the bright silver coin out of the cold fish.

    Our Pastor likes to use this as an image of prosperity through grace: the Lord owns the cattle on a thousand hills and the gold in every mine, after all.

  9. Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.
    Teach a man to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day !

  10. It’s interesting that Matthew’s gospel talks about money and possessions more than any of the other gospels, especially considering that traditionally, Matthew himself was identified as Jesus’ disciple who was the tax collector Levi. It’s as if he’s going out of his way to say that these things ultimately don’t matter, and that they are so insignificant that Jesus can find resourceful ways to provide what it needed. It’s not something His followers should worry about.

    As far as fish with coins in their mouth, it’s not necessarily miraculous to find fish that have swallowed things in the Sea of Galilee. The miracle is more to the fact that Jesus knew that things would turn out as they did.

  11. Of course it is obvious, it means we are required to pay tithes. At least this is a story used to show even Jesus paid his tithes, you just need to put some …’s to skip over the ‘the children are free’ portion to make your point.

    It may just be in the translation, but what I find interesting is “However, so that we do not give offence to them”, seems he is including Peter in the children. Just a thought