A BRIEF REST IN CAPERNAUM.
ONE more incident, related by St. Matthew only, marked his brief stay on this occasion in Capernaum.
From time immemorial there was a precedent for collecting, at least occasionally, on the recurrence of every census, a tax of "half a shekel, after the shekel of the sanctuary," of every Jew who had reached the age of twenty years, as a "ransom for his soul," unto the Lord. This money was devoted to the service of the Temple, and was expended on the purchase of the sacrifices, scapegoats, red heifers, incense, shewbread, and other expenses of the Temple service. After the return from the captivity, this be ah, or half-shekel, became a voluntary annual tax of a third of a shekel; but at some subsequent period it had again returned to its original amount. This tax was paid by every Jew in every part of the world, whether rich or poor; and, as on the first occasion of its payment, to show that the souls of all alike are equal before God, "the rich paid no more, and the poor no less." It produced vast sums of money, which were conveyed to Jerusalem by honourable messengers.
This tax was only so far compulsory that when first demanded, on the 1st of Adar, the demand was made quietly and civilly; if however, it had not been paid by the 25th, then it seems that the collectors of the contribution (tobhîn shekalîm) might take a security for it from the defaulter.
Accordingly, almost immediately upon our Lord's return to Capernaum, these tobhîn shekalîm came to St. Peter, and asked him, quite civilly, as the Rabbis had directed, "Does not your master pay the didrachmas?"
The question suggests two difficultiesviz., Why had our Lord not been asked for this contribution in previous years? and why was it now demanded in autumn, at the approach of the Feast of Tabernacles, instead of in the month Adar, some six months earlier? The answer seems to be that priests and eminent rabbis were regarded as exempt from the tax; that our Lord's frequent absence from Capernaum caused some irregularity; and that it was permitted to pay arrears some time afterwards.
The fact that the collectors inquired of St. Peter instead of asking Jesus Himself, is another of the very numerous indications of the awe which He inspired even into the heart of His bitterest enemies: as in all probability the fact of the demand being made at all shows a growing desire to vex His life, and to ignore His dignity. But Peter, with his usual impetuous readiness, without waiting, as he should have done, to consult His Master, replied, "Yes."
If he had thought a moment longerif he had known a little moreif he had even recalled his own great confession so recently givenhis answer might not have come so glibly. This money was, at any rate, in its original significance, a redemption-money for the soul of each man; and how could the Redeemer, who redeemed all souls by the ransom of His life, pay this money-ransom for his own? And it was a tax for the Temple services. How, then, could it be due from Him whose own mortal body was the new spiritual Temple of the Living God? He was to enter the vail of the Holiest with the ransom of His own blood. But He paid what He did not owe, to save us from that which we owed, but could never pay.
Accordingly, when Peter entered the house, conscious, perhaps, by this time, that his answer had been prematureperhaps also conscious that at that moment there were no means of meeting even this small demand upon their scanty storeJesus, without waiting for any expression of his embarrassment, at once said to him, "What thinkest thou, Simon? the kings of the earth, from whom do they take tolls and taxes? from their own sons, or from those who are not their children?"
There could be but one answer"From those who are not their children."
"Then," said Jesus, "the sons are free." I, the Son of the Great King, and even thou, who art also His son, though in a different way, are not bound to pay this tax. If we pay it, the payment must be a matter, not of positive obligation, as the Pharisees have lately decided, but of free and cheerful giving.
There is something beautiful and even playful in this gentle way of showing to the impetuous Apostle the dilemma in which his hasty answer had placed his Lord. We see in it, as Luther says, the fine, friendly, loving intercourse which must have existed between Christ and His disciples. It seems, at the same time, to establish the eternal principle that religious services should be maintained by spontaneous generosity and an innate sense of duty rather than in consequence of external compulsion. But yet, what is lawful is not always expedient, nor is there anything more thoroughly unchristian than the violent maintenance of the strict letter of our rights. The Christian will always love rather to recede from something of his privilegeto take less than is his due. And so He, in whose steps all ought to walk, calmly added, "Nevertheless, lest we should offend them" (put a difficulty or stumbling-block in their way), "go thou to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that cometh up; and opening its mouth thou shalt find a stater: that take and give unto them for Me and for thee." In the very act of submission, as Bengel finely says, "His majesty gleams forth." He would pay the contribution to avoid hurting the feelings of any, and especially because His Apostle had promised it in His behalf: but He could not pay it in an ordinary way, because that would be to compromise a principle. In obeying the law of charity, and of self-surrender, He would also obey the laws of dignity and truth. "He pays the tribute, therefore," says Clarius, "but taken from a fish's mouth, that His majesty may be recognised."
When Paulus, with somewhat vulgar jocosity, calls this "a miracle for half-a-crown," he only shows his own entire misconception of the fine ethical lessons which are involved in the narrative, and which in this, as in every other instance, separate our Lord's miracles from those of the Apocrypha. Yet I agree with the learned and thoughtful Olshausen in regarding this as the most difficult to comprehend of all the Gospel miraclesas being in many respects, sui generisas not falling under the same category as the other miracles of Christ. "It is remarkable," says Archbishop Trench, "and is a solitary instance of the kind, that the issue of this bidding is not told us." He goes on, indeed, to say that the narrative is evidently intended to be miraculous, and this is the impression which it has almost universally left on the minds of those who read it. Yet the literal translation of our Lord's words may most certainly be, "on opening its mouth, thou shalt get, or obtain, a stater;" and although there is no difficulty whatever in supposing that a fish may have swallowed the glittering coin as it was accidentally dropped into the water, nor should I feel the slightest difficulty in believingas I hope that this book, from its first page to its last, will showthat a miracle might have been wrought, yet the peculiarities both of the miracle itself and of the manner in which it is narrated, leave in my mind a doubt as to whether, in this instance, some essential particular may not have been either omitted or left unexplained.