The Bible Monthly vol. 1
II. THE HALF-SHEKEL AND THE STATER.
The half-shekel was twice the value of the silver drachm, which is mentioned in the parable of the lost coin (Luke xv. 8, 9). The technical name of this Greek coin was didrachm, and in currency value it appears to have been equal to the bekah, or half the Jewish shekel (Exod. xxxviii. 26). The shekel itself was equivalent to a fourdrachm piece, which was also called a stater.
Each of these two coins—the didrachm, or half-shekel, and the stater—is named once only in the New Testament, and the occurrence of both names will be found in the account of the beautiful incident in the life of our Lord given in the first Gospel only (Matt. xvii. 21-27).
If this passage is read from the Revised Version, it will be seen that in verse 24 the words "tribute money " and "tribute," are replaced by the words "the half-shekel," and in verse 27, "a piece of money " by "a shekel," with a marginal note that the word in the Greek is "stater." And it is necessary to note especially these new translations in order to appreciate the full beauty of the sacred narrative.
When our Lord and the disciples who were with Him came to Capernaum on this particular occasion, those who received the didrachms, or half-shekels, said to Peter, "Does your Teacher not pay the half-shekel? "
This tribute was paid by the Jews to the priests and Levites for the maintenance of their own temple-worship at Jerusalem, and must be distinguished from the taxes imposed upon the Jews by the Roman Government, and which the Jews, as a conquered people, were compelled to render to Caesar (Matt. xxii. 15-22).
The temple tax originated in the contributions which were first required by Moses, the servant of God, from the children of Israel in the wilderness. Then Jehovah enjoined that every male Israelite above the age of twenty, whether rich or poor, should make an offering to Him of one bekah, or half-shekel (Exod. xxx. 11-16), when the census of the people was taken. The amount collected, which was 603,550 bekahs, or 301,775 shekels, was utilised in the construction of the tabernacle (Exod. xxxviii. 25-28).
We read that in the days of Joash, the king of Judah, this tax was collected from the people, and used to pay the expenses of the restoration of the house of the Lord, which at that time was greatly in need of repair (2 Kings xii. 4; 2 Chron. xxiv. 5, 9).
After the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, Nehemiah and the people agreed to charge themselves with an annual contribution towards the service of the house of God (Neh. x. 32). The amount named on this occasion was a third, not a half, of a shekel. Possibly their extreme poverty prevented them from giving the half.
The question put to Peter, therefore, was not that of an overbearing tax-gatherer in the employment of the Romans, pressing for compliance with the exactions of a foreign civil law, but a Jewish inquiry whether the Prophet of Nazareth would not pay the customary tribute of the half-shekel for the upkeep of the temple and its services. It was a matter of conformity to a religious practice rather than of obedience to a political claim.
Peter was ready instantly to stand sponsor for his Master's pious observance of every requirement made under the law. Accordingly, without any qualification, he answered in the affirmative, and entered into the house to lay the matter himself before our Lord, and perhaps to inquire how the money was to be obtained. But the Lord "prevented " him; that is, He anticipated Peter's purpose, and corrected the hasty and mistaken utterance of His apostle.
Those who had questioned Peter had not had the many exceptional opportunities that the apostle had of learning that the great Prince of the house of David had come. Some excuse might be made for the inquirers, but none for Simon Peter, whose reply was altogether inconsistent with his own recent confession of the glory of the Person of Jesus and his vision of that glory in the holy mount. By the revelation of the Father, he had said to the Lord Jesus, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God " (Matt. xvi. 16), and his own eyes had seen the transcendent beauty and majesty of the King, while his own ears had heard the witness from. heaven, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased " (Matt. xvii. 5).
Surely Peter was altogether forgetful of these claims of the Lord and of his own full admission of them, when he so, hastily assured the tax-collectors that his Master would pay the half-shekel. It might have been assumed of Isaiah, or of Ezekiel, but was it not more fitting that the Son of God, the King of Israel, should receive tribute rather than pay tribute? The incongruity of the question should have been apparent to Peter of all men.
Before the apostle could say a word, however, the Lord said to him, "What thinkest thou, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? from their sons or from strangers? " And when he said, "From strangers," Jesus said, "Therefore the sons are free."
In these words of quiet and gentle reproof, the Lord, within the circle of His own followers, maintained the dignity of His own person, and the rights that were His by virtue of His Sonship. Even according to earthly usage, royal families were exempt from the taxes imposed upon the subjects of the kingdom, and Jesus, though of Nazareth, was David's Son and David's Lord. The temple at Jerusalem was His Father's house (John ii. 16). He was indeed a Son over His own house, and not a servant in the house of another. As Son of God and King of Israel, He was absolutely free from all liability to a tax levied to meet the expenses 'of the service of God.
The Lord, however, would not assert His rights to the tax-collectors themselves. , Though the King of the Jews (Matt. xxvii. 11), He deigned to be here as a subject, and not as a ruler and divider (Luke xii. 14). He showed that He was ready to comply with the request made, and to pay the temple dues. For our sakes, however, He had become poor, and, for the payment of the tax, there was no silver in the purse (cp. Matt. x. 9). Yet though He was poor, as men speak, He possessed all things. And He proceeded to show to the forgetful apostle that He was Lord of all, that the sea was His, and He made it, and that He had dominion over whatsoever was passing through the paths of the sea (Ps. viii. 8).
The Lord, accordingly, in His word to Peter, added, " But, lest we cause them to stumble, go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth thou shalt find a stater [that is, a coin equivalent to two half-shekels] : that take, and give unto them for Ale and thee."
Although the Jews made the commandments of God of none effect by the tradition of the elders, the Lord would not, by an apparent disregard on His part of a religious obligation, give them an occasion of stumbling. In His humiliation unto the death of the cross, He Himself would be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to the nation (Rom. ix. 32, 33), but in the matter of the temple-tax He would remove all excuse for disbelief. He therefore satisfied the collectors by the payment of the money claimed. The method by which the coin was obtained for the payment was for the apostle's special instruction, and not, so far as we know, for the tax-collectors. To Peter, the Lord proved that He was more than the King of Israel, that He was the Lord of creation, and a fish of the sea was the keeper of His privy purse.
THE WORK OF WONDER.
The Lord Himself laid down the conditions under which the capture of the fish should be made. And on reflection it will be seen, as has been pointed out elsewhere, what a striking demonstration the miracle affords of the omniscience and omnipotence of Christ, which are ever a resource for His followers.
For the due fulfilment of the Lord's words to Peter, it was necessary :—
It is not actually stated in the Gospel that the miracle took place, but there can be no doubt that Peter, in obeying the directions of the Master, found that all these conditions were duly fulfilled. The stater was in its assigned place, and it provided the exact sum required to pay the tax for the two—as our Lord expressed it, "for Me and thee."
In the law given by Moses, it was said, with reference to this contribution, that the rich were not to give more than the half-shekel, nor the poor less (Exod. xxx. 15). And here the riches of the grace in Christ abounded over the poverty of the law to meet in perfect equity its righteous requirement, if the temple tax could be regarded in the light of a binding obligation. There was exactly a half-shekel for each, no more nor less.
ONE COIN FOR THE TWO.
The mouth of the fish did not contain two half-shekels, one for each of them, nor one half-shekel for the Lord only. The Lord would not dissociate Himself from His servant and follower. Peter had left all to follow Him who had nowhere to lay His head, and as he was sharing His poverty, so the Lord showed His disciple that he should share His affluence. Peter should see that the silver and the gold were His, and the fish in the sea also. "The stater thou shalt find is for Me and thee," the Lord said;
The utterance is a revelation of the magnificent grace of our Lord Jesus Christ towards a confessor of His name. Peter was one of the Lord's own who were in the world, of whom He said, "Where I am, there shall also My servant be " (John xii. 26). The disciple should be as his Master, poor as He, persecuted as He, rich as He, glorified as He. To the overcomer in Laodicea, the Lord promised, "I will give to him to sit down with -NIe in M y throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father in His throne " (Rev. iii. 21, R.V.). He who has fellowship in the sufferings of Christ shall also enter into the joy of his Lord. The essential feature of this great partnership, of which the Gospel and the Epistle testify, was exhibited that day at Capernaum : one stater "for Me and thee." In these gracious words we see :—