Summary: Often we wonder where we will get the resources to support God's work, but in many cases we already have it.
Peter just shook his head. That was all they wanted was money. Couldn’t they see the bigger picture? That there was more at stake then just money. They had just arrived back in town and before they could even get settled the church was there with its hand out. Well it wasn’t actually the church, but close enough. They wanted to know if Jesus had paid his share of the temple tax for the year. Well I don’t think Peter knew so he did what most of us would do, he bluffed. “Of course he has, what type of pagan do you think he is?”
You see the tax had been established 1400 years before when the people of Israel were still in the wilderness and its purpose was to provide for the upkeep and maintenance of the tabernacle which was like a portable temple where the high priests performed the required sacrifices. And while the average Israelite probably never thought about it there would have been considerable expense in maintaining the Tabernacle.
Traditionally there has been the tithe or the one tenth given to the Lord, began back with Abraham and continued throughout his family and descendants. However the people now were escaped slaves, wandering through the desert in search of the land that had been promised them, thus the name “The Promised Land.” And as escaped slaves wandering through the desert in search of the land that had been promised them they had very limited earning power, as a matter of fact they had no earning power. Therefore 10% of nothing was nothing and nothing wasn’t enough to maintain the tabernacle. What the people did have though was the accumulated savings that they had brought with them. And so a tax was levied on them, one half of a Shekel. This wasn’t a paltry sum in that day, but if they were going to maintain a place of worship then sacrifice was needed and they would have to give beyond what was easy.
Once the people of Israel reached the Promised Land the tithe was reinstated, because now the people were farming, fishing and conducting business and the ten percent they gave back to God, notice that I said gave back because the presumption of the Jews was that all things came from God. Interesting comment don’t you think? The ten percent they gave back to God would pay for the ministry of the tabernacle and later the temple, would provide for the priests and all the other expenses that go with worshipping God.
Now I’m sure that there were those in Israel who felt that they should be able to worship God for nothing, and while that is a neat thought it wasn’t all that realistic. The temple was a costly place to run. There were the daily morning and evening sacrifices which each involved a year old lamb. Along with the lamb were offered wine and flour and oil. The incense that was burned every day had to be bought and prepared.
The temple itself was filled with costly hangings, not out of vanity but because it was seen as a way to tell God “This is how much we value you”. The robes the priest and high priests wore had to be maintained, and the priests had families to support and so they had to draw a salary. And so God’s temple was supported by God’s people, novel thought.
Even after the tithe was reintroduced though the temple tax continued to be paid, and unlike the civil tax which was paid with some grumbling this one was usually paid quite willingly and was almost seen as a patriotic exercise as it remembered the people’s deliverance from Egypt.
And so the tax continued to be collected for fourteen hundred years until this story was recorded. The tax continued to be collected until the temple was destroyed by the armies of Rome in 70 AD, and at that time the Roman Emperor Vespasian decreed that the temple tax should still be collected and used to finance the temple of Jupiter in Rome.
However by the time of Jesus not everyone was happy paying the taxes. As a matter of fact some nationalist and zealots refused to pay the taxes as long as Jerusalem was occupied by a foreign army, in this case a Roman Army. And so the tax had become an issue of religious commitment vs. national commitment.
The real question was whether those who questioned Peter were really interested in getting the temple tax or if they were setting Jesus up? Did they want their half shekel, which was the equivalent of two days labour or were they testing Peter to find out where Christ loyalties lay? We will never know, but we do know that probably the reason that Peter was asked was because he owned the house that Christ was staying in, at least that’s a pretty fair assumption seeing we are told elsewhere in the Gospels that is where Jesus stayed when he was in Capernaum. We do know that this story probably happened right around this time of year because the tax was collected on the first of the month Adar, which is March on our calendar.