The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Bishop MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 17:22-27

Posted by Dim Bulb on August 10, 2013

This post opens with the Bishop’s brief analysis of Matthew 17, followed by his notes on Mt 17:22-27.

ANALYSIS OF MATTHEW CHAPTER 17

In this chapter, is given an account of our Lord’s glorious Transfiguration on Mount Thabor, of which Peter, James, and John, were chosen to be witnesses (Mt 17:1–8). After cautioning these privileged Apostles against divulging this glorious event till after His resurrection, He, in reply to their question, suggested by their seeing Elias, as well as Moses with Him, distinguishes between His first and second coming. The former has its Elias, too, viz., John the Baptist, whose ministry, already discharged, in reference to our Lord’s first coming, was perfectly similar to that which Elias the Thesbite, is to discharge when he precedes His second and glorious coming (Mt 17:9–13). On reaching the rest of the Apostles and the multitude on the following day, after He came down from the mountain, He found they were unable to cure a lunatic, possessed by a devil of more than ordinary strength. Our Lord cures him, and assigns the reason of the failure of the Apostles, viz., want of the requisite faith, and their omitting to have recourse to prayer and fasting, which are necessary, in order to expel certain kinds of demons (Mt 17:14–20). He again predicts His Passion and Resurrection (Mt 17:21–22). On the requisition of the tax-gatherers, He commissions Peter to pay for both of them, having miraculously provided him with the means of doing so. He instructs him to proceed to the sea, and to take the required sum out of the first fish that came to hand.

Please Note: the verse numbering in some translations differ from other versions, hence the bracketed references.

Mat 17:22  (17:21) And when they abode together in Galilee, Jesus said to them: The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men:

“Abode in Galilee.” The Greek will admit of its being rendered, “travelling through Galilee” (Αναστρεφομενων), and this is perfectly in accordance with the words of St. Mark (9:29): “and they departed from thence, and passed through Galilee.” Our Redeemer left the neighbourhood of Thabor, where, after His Transfiguration, He cured the sick boy; and as this miracle had gained for Him the applause of the multitude (Luke 9:44), He called the attention of His disciples to the prediction He was about to make a second time, as He had formerly done at Cæsarea Philippi, regarding His cross and Passion. This He did with the view of counteracting any feeling of vain glory the Apostles might conceive from the praises bestowed by the crowd. It was to show how voluntarily He suffered, that He uttered this prophecy, on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem; and He wished His journey to be kept secret (Mark 9:29), most likely, lest the people of Galilee, by whom he was revered, should place any obstacle to His proceeding on His journey to Jerusalem.

“The Son of man shall be betrayed” &c. He was delivered up by His Father, who gave Him over to their power; He was delivered up by Himself, who voluntarily underwent death; by Judas, who handed Him over to the Scribes and Chief Priests; these delivered Him to Pilate; and Pilate, to the soldiers.

Mat 17:23  (17:22) And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall rise again. And they were troubled exceedingly.

“And they were troubled exceedingly,” at the tidings of His death, and at their being bereaved of one whom they loved so tenderly. SS. Luke and Mark say, “they did not understand the word.” How, then, be grieved? They clearly understood that He was to be put to death, and hence, their grief; but they could not understand how He, whom they believed and professed to be the Son of God, immortal and impassible, could be subjected to death; or, how such a thing could be reconciled with His glorious reign, which they expected.

Mat 17:24  (17:23) And when they were come to Capharnaum, they that received the didrachmas, came to Peter, and said to him: Doth not your master pay the didrachma?

After quitting Thabor (Mount Tabor, traditional site of the Transfiguration), and leaving the small village at its foot, called by some, Cheseleth-Thabor, our Redeemer had all His thoughts directed to another mountain, on which the justice of His Father was waiting for Him for the long period of four thousand years, the bloody Mount of Calvary, whereon He was to undergo another Transfiguration, quite the opposite of that exhibited on Thabor. Thither He was now directing His steps. He reached Capharnaum, where He had fixed His abode for some time, probably, with a view of arranging affairs connected with His abode there, as this was His last visit to that place. On His arrival, those charged with the collection of the tax, referred to here, out of feelings of respect, refrained from personal application to Him, and addressed themselves to Peter, either, because he may have been the only one with Him, or, because, he was supposed to be most intimate with his Divine Master.

They ask him, “Doth not your Master pay the didrachmas?” What this tax refers to, is a subject of much controversy with commentators. Dismissing, for brevity’ sake, the improbable conjectures or opinions hazarded on this subject, it may be said, with truth, that the probable opinions are reduced to two. By some, it is maintained, after St. Jerome, Ven. Bede, &c., that the tribute in question was a sort of capitation tax, imposed on the Jews, either by Pompey, after he took Jerusalem, and made it tributary to the Romans; or, by Cæsar Augustus, after the census taken under Cyrinus (Luke 2), and on the plan, or after the model, of the tribute which each person among the Jews, after having reached his twentieth year and upwards, was bound to pay, for the repairs and service of the Tabernacle, as a price for his soul and to avert a scourge, whenever a census or numbering of the people was made (Exodus 30:13-14). This tribute, at the earliest period, was to be paid as often as the census of the people would be made, whether by the order of God, or on account of some public necessity. It appears that afterwards, the wants of the Tabernacle or Temple, at any time, were considered a sufficient reason for demanding this tribute (2 Chron 24:5–9). After their return from the Babylonish captivity, the Jews voluntarily submitted to an annual tribute of one-third of a sicle for the support of the Temple (Ezra 10:32). Afterwards, the enactment of Moses (Exodos 30), was regarded by the Jews as of perpetual annual obligation, binding on all Jews, whether residing in Judea, or in foreign countries. Hence, the two drachmæ (equivalent to half a sicle), referred to here. This ancient religious tax was, according to St. Jerome, the model of the Roman tax referred to here. (See Dixon’s “Introduction,” vol. ii., p. 75, &c.)

Others, with St. Hilary, &c., maintain, that there is question here, not of a tax paid unto, or imposed by the Romans, or any civil authorities whatsoever, but of the very tax which the Jews religiously paid, as self imposed, for the repairs and service of the temple, sacrifices, support of priests, and religious ministers, and that it was for this tax application was made here.

Père Mauduit devotes a lengthy and able dissertation, to prove this latter opinion, and to refute that of St. Jerome. He shows, that the words of our Redeemer to St. Peter, “The kings of the earth, of whom do they take tribute?” &c., and the reasoning which they involve, are quite clear and cogent in this latter opinion, since, the tax being paid to God, and for the use of His house, His eternal and consubstantial Son was, according to the usages of the world, naturally exempted from paying the tribute given to His Heavenly Father. Whereas, such reasoning is hardly applicable in the former opinion; for, although our Redeemer was the Son of the King of kings, to whom “belongs the earth and its fulness,” still, by His own free act, He rendered Himself the subject of earthly princes; and not being the son of Augustus, or of any other temporal ruler, He owed it to His condition, as a subject, to pay tribute to the ruling powers, to which every subject is bound (Rom. 13), as He owed it to the nature He voluntarily assumed, to submit to its infirmities (sin and ignorance excepted). He suffered hunger, thirst, lassitude, &c. Mauduit refutes another reason adduced in favour of St. Jerome’s opinion, grounded on the use of the word, κηνσος (census), by St. Matthew, which the advocates of St. Jerome’s opinion assert, refers to a tax imposed by secular authority. According to him, this proves nothing; because, our Lord’s question to St. Peter was very general, comprising all sorts of imposts and tributes levied by sovereigns on their subjects, “tributum vel censum;” all kinds of imposts, from which the children of sovereigns had a claim for exemption by title of birth. Moreover, this tribute was fixed, whilst a tax on property varies, which Augustus had, probably, in view, in ordering the census in Judea, under Quirinus. Mauduit, therefore, concludes, that there is question here of the tribute referred to, (Exodus 30:13, &c.) According to the ordinance therein contained, whenever the wants of the temple demanded it, there was a numbering, from time to time, of the children of Israel, who reached their twentieth year and upwards, and all who were registered of this age paid two drachmæ, or half a sicle. But, in course of time, this tribute, which first was only paid occasionally, became annual, owing to the great demands on the temple, in sacrifices and its various services. Collectors for that purpose were established in the several cities and towns of Judea, who conveyed their contributions to Jerusalem each year, on the occasion of the Paschal solemnity; and, as our Redeemer had fixed His abode, at Capharnaum, He was applied to for this tribute. The words addressed to St. Peter, “Doth not your Master pay the didrachmas?” insinuate, that many either refused, or evaded the payment of this tribute, which is greatly in favour of the opinion of Mauduit, as this would not be allowed, if it were a tax imposed by the Romans.

After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the dispersion of the Jews, Vespasian commanded all the Jews, wherever they happened to reside, to pay into the imperial exchequer, the tribute they formerly paid for the exigencies of the Temple of Jerusalem.

The word, “didrachma,” means, “two drachmæ,” the value of which is supposed to be about 1s. and 3d. (15d.) of our money. The drachma was an Attic coin, one-eighth of an ounce in weight. The “stater,” also (v. 26), was an Attic coin, equal to four drachmas; weight, half an ounce. St. Jerome tells us (Ezechiel 4), that a “stater,” is equal in value to a “sicle,” and that the didrachma, to half a stater or sicle. Josephus (Lib. iii. de Antiq. c. 12), explaining the Law of Exodus, regarding the “half sicle,” which each Jew, who was numbered at the age of twenty or upwards, was obliged to pay, tells us that a sicle was a Hebrew coin, equivalent to four Attic drachmæ.

Mat 17:25  (17:24) He said: Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying: What is thy opinion, Simon? The kings of the earth, of whom do they receive tribute or custom, of their own children, or of strangers?

Peter, answering in the affirmative, says, his Master was wont to pay the tribute in question. This he said, either because he saw Him pay it before; or because he knew, from our Redeemer’s doctrine and teaching, how disposed He was to obey legitimate authority, and every just law enacted by such authority.

“When he was come into the house,” and about to consult His Divine Master on the matter, our Redeemer “prevented him,” anticipated him, thus showing that He knew his most secret thoughts; and, therefore, as the Searcher of hearts, and diviner of thoughts, He showed, by this very act, that He was not strictly bound to pay the tribute. He still more shows this by reasoning, and by words.

“Of whom do the kings of the earth take tribute or custom?” That is, what is the rule observed, and the usage universally followed in paying tribute or taxes to earthly kings? Do they receive tribute from their own children, or from strangers, that is, from the rest of their subjects, who are not their children, or belong not to their household?

Mat 17:26  (17:25) And he said: Of strangers. Jesus said to him: Then the children are free.

St. Peter’s reply is, that kings of the earth do not receive tribute from their own children, since it is partly to provide, in some way, for their children, and their household, they receive tribute, but only from “strangers,” who belong not to their house or family.

“Then the children are free,” as if He said, the rule and usage observed among earthly sovereigns—a rule founded on natural equity and propriety—in regard to the taxing of the children and the members of their family, ought also to be applicable to the King of heaven, the great source and foundation of justice and rectitude among men. Hence, as earthly sovereigns exempt from tribute, their children, for whom they ought to provide and lay up stores (2 Cor 12:14), I, who am the eternal Son of the King of heaven, may justly claim exemption from the tribute paid to Him for His temple. This reasoning might also apply, in a certain sense, though not so clearly or directly, if we follow the opinion of St. Jerome. If the kings of the earth exempt their children, it is but just that I, who am the Son of the King of kings, should participate in these privileges enjoyed by their children, and be exempt from paying tribute to any man. The force of our Redeemer’s reasoning seems clear, in the opinion of St. Jerome; and the comparison instituted between the kings of the earth, and the King of heaven, and the treatment received by their children from them, and that which the Son of the heavenly King is supposed to receive from Him, viz., exemption from the tribute paid to them, greatly favours this latter opinion. In this opinion, there is no ground for the false teaching, that Christians are not bound to pay tribute to princes, which is so directly at variance with the doctrine of the Apostle—“Let every soul be subject to higher powers,” and this subjection partly consists in paying “tribute to whom tribute is due” (Rom 13:7).

Mat 17:27  (17:26) But that we may not scandalize them, go to the sea, and cast in a hook: and that fish which shall first come up, take: and when thou hast opened it’s mouth, thou shalt find a stater: take that, and give it to them for me and thee.

“Scandalize them,” by leading them to suppose or judge, that we are indifferent to the service of the temple, and thus undervalue our ministry, or (if there be question of taxes imposed by the civil authority), that we are opposed to civil authority, and thus incite them to insubordination and rebellion. There is clearly question of “scandalum datum” which would be given, if he, whom the tax gatherer did not recognise as the Son of God—which our Lord did not wish yet publicly to proclaim—would refuse the tribute. Our Redeemer’s mode of acting points out to us our obligation to forego our rights sometimes, when, by enforcing or insisting on them, our neighbour would be scandalized.

“Go to the sea and cast in a hook,” &c. Our Redeemer thus shows He possessed nothing in this world. He also displays His power and majesty, His dominion not only over the land, but (what no earthly power can control), over the sea and its inhabitants. He tells him to take the required sum out of the first fish he would catch. By this miracle, He showed His Apostle, that He was free from paying the tribute. He paid it, solely from the motive of avoiding scandal. He also guards against weakening his faith, or scandalizing him; this He does, by the singular exhibition and manifestation of His prescience and sovereign power.

“You shall find a stater,” in value equal to a sicle, equivalent to four drachmas, that is, about 2s. 6d. of our money.

“For Me and thee.” Why not for the other disciples as well? Various reasons are assigned. Some say, Peter alone was with our Redeemer then. Others, with St. Jerome, say, that Peter was the head of the Apostles, and the representative of Christ and His Church, in whom, as chief, the rest were comprised. It appears, most likely, it was done with a view of specially honouring Peter by this new mark of distinction, and to reward his faith and humility, by appointing him as the medium of executing this commission, with which a miracle was connected.

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