The Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the 19th Week) is likely confusing to anyone who hears it proclaimed in the U.S., because the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE) (which is used for our lectionary) makes a strange, and I would argue inaccurate, translation of the Greek. Here is the passage in question (the crucial section is presented in bold italics):
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes,” he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, “What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?” 26 When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt. 27 But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you” (Matthew 17:24-27).
The NABRE translation makes little or no sense; kings do in fact collect taxes from their “subjects.” Their subjects are not exempt from taxes, tolls, or censuses.
In contrast, the Greek text is clear and does make sense. It speaks not of subjects and foreigners, but of sons and strangers. The Greek text is straightforward:
- ἀπὸ τῶν υἱῶν αὐτῶν ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀλλοτρίων
- apo ton huion auton e apo ton allotrion
- from the sons of them or from the strangers?
The Greek word huion means sons or descendants by birth (or possibly by adoption); it refers to people sharing the same nature as their father. The Greek text is referring to people who are of the family or household of a king.
These sons (or members of the king’s family) are distinguished from allotrion, which are those who belong to another person, to the family of another. By extension, they are foreigners or strangers.
So, I find the NABRE’s translation of huion as “subjects” to be strange. I consulted 25 other English translations of this passage and not one of them renders the word as “subjects.” They all render it as either “sons” or “children.”
Whatever textual critics may wish to advance by way of textual variants, “sons” is needed in English to render the text intelligible.
With the translation of “sons,” the meaning of the passage becomes clear. Jesus is pointing out to Peter that kings do not tax their own children. Therefore, Jesus is exempt from the temple tax because God is His Father; Jesus, as Son, is exempt from the temple tax. However, to giving scandal or stirring up a big debate, He instructs Peter to pay the tax (and tells him how to obtain the money to pay it.)
The tax in question is the didrachma, a two-drachma silver coin; it was the annual tax levied to pay for the upkeep of the temple. The tax represented about half a day’s wages for a laborer and affected all male Jews aged twenty and over, both at home and abroad. However, certain Jewish officials, especially the higher ranking priests, were exempt due to their position.
It is a charming Gospel: Peter is told to pull out the first fish he sees, and in its mouth he will find the money necessary to pay the tax. What a wonderful story! It is a quiet miracle to affirm Peter’s faith in Jesus’ divinity and Sonship, without confronting others who were not ready to hear or believe this. The Father does exempt Jesus from the tax and supplies the money to pay it; the tax officials are spared a conflict because they are not yet ready to render an act of faith in Jesus’ divinity.
God is merciful and prepares us for belief. Having granted the gift of faith, He sends confirmations to strengthen our faith little by little. He draws us in gently and clearly.