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Clearing up Confusion with Today’s Gospel on the Temple Tax

August 13, 2017 2 Comments

The Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the 19th Week) is likely confusing to anyone who hears it proclaimed in the United States because the New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE), used for the lectionary in this country, makes what I would argue is an inaccurate translation of the Greek text. 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?”  When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the subjects are exempt. 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 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, those who belong to another’s family and are thus foreigners or strangers.

In light of this, I find the NABRE’s translation of huion as “subjects” to be odd. I consulted about two dozen other English translations of this passage and not one of them renders the word as “subjects.” They all translate it as either “sons” or “children.” I believe that one of these translations is necessary to make the English 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 and therefore He, as God’s Son, is exempt from the temple tax. However, to avoid giving scandal or stirring up controversy, Jesus instructs Peter to pay the tax (and tells him how to obtain the money to do so).

The particular tax in question is the annual levy to pay for the upkeep of the temple. It amounted to two drachmas and was paid with the didrachma, a two-drachma silver coin. This represented about half a day’s wages for a typical laborer and was paid by all male Jews aged twenty and over, both at home and abroad. However, certain Jewish officials (especially the higher ranking priests), were exempt.

It really is a charming Gospel: Jesus tells Peter to pull out the first fish he sees, and that in its mouth he will find the money necessary to pay the tax. What a wonderful story! It is a quiet miracle, one which affirms Peter’s faith in Jesus’ divinity and Sonship without confronting others who were not yet ready to hear or believe this. The Father does exempt Jesus from the tax, and He 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 He 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.

Filed in: Bible

Comments (2)

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  1. Ryan says:

    Thank you for posting this! This particular part of their journey (and it’s reason for being included in the Gospel) always eluded me. The fact that God the Father would exempt His Son (and does) clears it up. I also love how you pointed out the quiet grace of God here, allowing the temple tax to be paid without asking an act of faith of people not yet ready for it.

  2. Don says:

    Thanks, Msgr. Pope. Your post raises a question: what Bible translation do you prefer? I have many: NAB, NAB-RE, RSV-2CE, Douay-Reims, CTS New Catholic Bible (i.e., Jerusalem Bible). Someone recently recommended the Knox translation. All of them seem to have advantages and shortcomings. I tend to use the NAB-RE most often because it tracks the lectionary fairly closely. But it drives me nuts that we don’t have a Bible available in English that tracks the lectionary completely!

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