The last incident related in Matthew 17 provides us with a significant clue about the timing of the event. Verse 24 of that chapter informs us that collectors of the annual half shekel tax were about their duty. The half-shekel tax has its origin in Exodus 30. In that passage Moses is on the mountain being given detailed instructions on how the tabernacle should be constructed. In verses 11 through 16 he is told to take a census of the people and to charge a half shekel per person as a ransom or atonement offering for the tabernacle construction. The Lord makes it clear that the rich are not to be charged more and the poor must give no less. The tabernacle was the place where God would meet with his people.
Nothing in the passage indicates that this would be anything more than a one time offering for the tabernacle construction. However, in II Chronicles 24:4-11, we find that the temple is in disrepair. Joash orders that the half-shekel tax that Moses ordained be implemented again, this time for the temple’s repair. Again the Bible is silent about the tax until after the return from the Babylonian captivity. In Nehemiah 10:32-33, the half-shekel tax is reduced to a third of a shekel and ordered to be collected annually for the operation of the temple. No other OT discussion is presented for this tax. But we know that during the Hasmonean (intertestamental) period, the tax (back at a half shekel) was collected yearly.
In the Shekalim, a portion of the Talmud and Mishnah, we learn that the half-shekel tax was to be announced on the first of Adar, the last month of the Jewish calendar. On the 15th of that month the collectors went out to begin collecting this tax from the people. So this is the clue that gives us the general timing of Matthew 17. Adar is the last month of the year. The month following this tax month, then, must be Nisan, the first month of the year. And it is on the 15th of Nisan that Passover occurs. Christ is crucified on Passover. Therefore, if the collectors of the half shekel tax are about their duty in Matthew 17:24, it is no more than one month until Christ will be crucified in Jerusalem. Counting back to the events earlier in chapter 17, we find that Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God could not have been more than a couple of weeks earlier. Therefore, although we discussed Christ’s ministry being in two parts—one teaching faith in who he is and one teaching faith in what he must do—they were not equal in time. Part 1 took about 3 years and 4 months while Part 2 would last no more than 6 weeks.
Notice that Peter’s declaration was made in Caesarea Philippi, the northernmost point of Palestine. From here then through the next few chapters, Jesus will be moving south on a definite course for Jerusalem and the culmination of his ministry. Verse 22 in chapter 17 says “they were gathering in Galilee.” This is probably a reference to meeting with several people to travel as a group to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. Traveling in groups was preferred to avoid the robbers along the roads in the more desolate areas. In 17:24 we read that they are in Capernaum. Later in 19:1 we find them crossing the Jordan to connect with the main road south that ran from Damascus all the way to Machaerus on the east side of the Dead Sea. In 20:17 Jesus turns off that road to cross back over the Jordan toward Jerusalem. Then in 20:29 the group leaves Jericho continuing toward Jerusalem. And in 21:1, they come to the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem in preparation for what is known as the triumphal entry in 21:10.
But in 17:24, there are still three to four weeks before the Passover. It is at this time that the tax collectors ask Peter whether his teacher pays the temple tax. This was not necessarily a question of challenge or entrapment. Several groups so the tax as not binding. The Sadducees, who held only to the Torah, did not see this tax as commanded to be collected yearly. The Essenes also refused to pay it. And most rabbis were exempt from paying. The exemption of the rabbis is probably what prompted the collectors’ question. Jesus was a rabbi—a teacher, although he was not welcome among the religious leaders as other rabbis were. So the collectors probably were genuinely interested in whether Jesus considered himself a rabbi and therefore exempt from paying the tax. Peter quickly answers that Jesus does pay the tax, but we then learn that Peter gave a quick answer without really knowing for certain.
Peter comes back to the house with the idea of asking Jesus about the tax. But before he can say anything, Jesus questions him. The Greek word used in verse 25, prophthano, means to come before or anticipate. In other words, Jesus anticipated that Peter was going to question him about the tax and therefore spoke first to get Peter thinking. Jesus asks from whom do the kings of the earth take tax—from their sons (their own family members) or from others (the subjects of the realm). Peter answers correctly with the obvious answer—from the subjects. Jesus responds emphasizing his point: “Then the sons are free.” We must remember two things: (1) the tax was for the temple—the house of God, and (2) it was Peter who declared in chapter 16 that Jesus was the Christ, the son of the living God. So, in getting Peter to connect with the logic of an earthly king not taxing his own son to support the king’s palace, Jesus reminds Peter that he, Christ, is the son of God and should not be required to pay tax to support the house of God—the temple. But then Jesus says that he will pay the tax anyway so as not to give offense—another good lesson that we do not need to go about offending just to take advantage of what we believe we rightfully deserve (reminding us of Romans 12:18 “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Jesus tells Peter to drop a line in the sea, and a fish will be caught that has a shekel in its mouth. That a fish would have a shekel in its mouth is probably not so surprising to Peter. A certain kind of tilapia exists in the Sea of Galilee with a large mouth that it uses to carry its young. The natural instinct of the fish (especially at this time of year which was a time of spawning) would have it take anything shiny into its mouth. Many of these fish are caught today with such things as bottle caps found in their mouths. So Peter may have discovered some coins in this way before. But the miracle comes in by the fact that Jesus tells Peter a shekel will be found in the first fish caught.
I think Christ’s last statement that the shekel should be used for Jesus (the son) and for Peter gives the implication by connection with Jesus that Peter would become a son of God as well.
Chapter 18 begins with an argument. Over in the parallel passage in Mark 9 we find that upon entering the house, Jesus asks the disciples what they were discussing on the way over. They are reluctant to say because they had been arguing about who was the greatest. So in Matthew 18 they give an answer by asking a question—Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? The argument may have started after Jesus told them again that he would be put to death (17:22-23). James and John probably told the others not to worry too much because Jesus would be glorified in the end. The others perhaps wondered what they meant since dying sort of is the end. But James and John (told to be silent about their transfiguration vision) could only say, “Just trust us. We can’t tell you now, but we know better.” I imagine the other disciples would bristle at this, and we can well see how an argument over who was greatest could ensue.
But Jesus answers them by placing a child (probably belonging to one of the disciples) before them. He says that to enter the kingdom they must become like the child—they must have a child’s humility. What is a child’s humility? It is certainly not the idea of going around talking about how worthless you are. But it is also not going about trying to oversee, control, and manage everything. Children seem to naturally understand and assume the authority of their parents. Children also look to a group activity with excitement, desire, and joy just to participate without the sense of trying to rule or control.
Notice that Christ says to enter the kingdom they must be like the child. He also says the greatest in the kingdom has the humility of the child. Well, if you can’t get in without the characteristic that makes you also great, everyone in the kingdom must be great. And that’s Christ’s point. All his children are of great worth to God. Yet in relation to each other, they are equal. There is no hierarchy established so that some are greater than others.
Jesus continues in verse 5 by letting the disciples know that they also need to look at all the children of the kingdom in this way. Earthly elements of status should not impair their sight. Slighting some of God’s children based on perceived earthly status can cause them to sin—in anger or some other self-preserving way. Jesus emphasizes how God sees such horrific sins with the millstone application.
Additionally, he tells the story of the lost sheep. This story reiterates Christ’s point that all his children are greatly valued—he is “especially fond” of them all.