When my brother and I were kids, our dad would take us out to a friend’s house to go fishing. The house had once been a hunters’ club lodge and was set right next to a private lake. We would get up early in the morning, fish for a few hours, swim in the lake in the afternoon, and then go back out fishing in the early evening. Usually we caught something, and that something usually was our dinner. They were called fishing trips, but really the trip was less about the fish and more about the hours in the boat with dad or sitting on the dock with mom or gathered around the grill with friends. It was about relationship.
In Matthew 17, Jesus sends Peter on a fishing trip. However, this is a rather unusual fishing trip. Allow me to share what Matthew writes:
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 offense 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.”
The first question that comes to my mind is what Peter was thinking as he walked home after running into the temple tax collectors. He had defended Jesus in front of them, but where exactly was the income from which Jesus was to pay this tax? I wonder if Peter was worrying and fretting about how this was to take place.
Jesus turns this into an interesting teaching moment. He refuses to let Peter keep this problem to himself. He asks him about it, in kind of an indirect way. Do kings tax their own children? Well, of course they don’t. It is their subjects that pay taxes. “Then the children are free.”
The temple was understood for centuries to be the house of God, the place where God’s throne rested. Jesus in five words has explained why he doesn’t have to pay the temple tax: he is the Son of the King, the Son of God. Jesus uses tax law to explain his own divinity. And who said taxes were a bad thing!
But the really cool part was what Jesus says next. Jesus tells Peter to go fishing and to look in the mouth of the first fish he catches. There he will find a gold coin that is to be used to pay the temple tax not only on Jesus’ behalf but on Peter’s as well.
Jesus didn’t have to pay the temple tax; it didn’t apply to him. However, he was willing to pay the tax not only on his behalf but on behalf of Peter, who probably didn’t have the ability to pay it for himself.
Suddenly, Peter’s fishing trip is not about fishing or even taxes. It is a parable of why Jesus came into our world: he came to pay the price for sin that was not his for the sake of those who could not pay the price themselves. And it’s about relationship. Jesus didn’t want Peter to have to give up following him in order to go earn money to pay the tax. He wanted to keep Peter close to his side. That was why the gold coin was for both of them. It was about relationship.
Christ paid a price that was not His to pay, and He paid it because we could not do so ourselves. He paid it so that we could stay close by His side, so that we could have a relationship with Him.
In the movie A River Runs Through It, the narrator says of his upbringing, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” The same appears to have been true of Jesus. In my mind, I see Peter, standing by the sea, pulling out a hook and a coin from the mouth of a fish. This was not a fish story, it was a salvation story.