“When they arrived at Capernaum, the tax man came to Peter and asked, “Does your teacher pay the temple tax?” (Matthew 17:24 NIV)
They were tired and dusty, clogged right up,
coming down into Capernaum, and Simon,
for one, could smell the sea from a mile a way.
He wanted nothing more than to run headlong
into the shallows for a rinse and wallow,
and then, while the sun dried his robe,
to sit on the bank with a fishing line and think like a fish,
which is to say, of nothing more complicated than supper and sea surge.
He was tired of crowds. He was tired,
truth to be told, of questions he couldn’t answer,
of standing open to heaven and having his heart
constantly stirred by Y’shua’s every word,
of being challenged to believe by what the man did,
and didn’t do, day in and day out,
until he felt stretched so far he didn’t know himself,
changed past recognition.
Why he even had a new name. Peter. The rock.
And what kind of a name was that for a fisherman:
A man more on water than on land?
No, even if he was to be a rock, he needed to sit
on the shore with his feet in the water
and be lapped for a short eternity,
licked into shape by the passing of the seasons.
This headlong rush toward destiny on
Y’shua’s coat tails was wearing him down.
And the man wouldn’t listen.
He seemed determined to ram himself headlong
into the wall of the temple and the shield of Rome.
It was not as if Simon hadn’t seen the glory for himself,
up there on the mountain, the bursting sun in the savior’s face,
the raw power flowing out of him
to light the world and chase the dark,
death itself, from the corners where it hid,
to bring at last the dawn…
and yet Y’shua wouldn’t hear it spoken of,
damped the radiance down, walked the dusty roads,
endured the crowds and the criticism of the temple toadies
and those Pharisees as though he was just another prophet,
as though he was just another man.
So when they came among the houses,
when they turned into the home street
and were almost at the door, the temple tax man,
that Joseph bar Simeon, officious in his roll as always,
water would bead on the oil of his tongue,
caught Simon-Peter off guard.
“Simon,” he said, taking hold of his sleeve and turning him,
“tell me, where does you master pay the temple tax?”
And what had Simon done? Stared like a stunned fish…
“He does pay it, doesn’t he?
Surely such a holy man pays his obligations
to the temple. It is so little after all.”
And Simon had stammered out: “Of course.
He’s not from here. He pays in Nazareth.
He’s a Nazarene. You know that.”
And he’d shaken the man off and climbed
the stair to the roof well behind the others.
Y’shua was already sitting, and the others were making a circle.
Simon’s mother-in-law was bustling after food and wine,
the servant girl running for a bowl of water for their hands.
“So, my fine Rock, tell me…”
Y’shua looked up into his face,
shading his eyes with his hand against the setting sun,
“what do you think? When a king levies a tax, who pays?
His children or his subjects?”
Augh! There it was again, like a hand twisting his stomach,
the seat of his soul, like a fire brand in his face
lighting every half truth and avoidance, every shadow of himself…
was there nothing the man did not hear or see?
“Master,” he shrugged elaborately and sank down into the circle,
though he knew it was already too late, “it is certainly the subjects.”
“Then the children get off free, yes?
The children never pay. Who are you Peter?
Who am I?”
And Simon, called Peter, had leapt up,
all but torn his hair, and run to the lake to quench himself.
Not a half hour later, he stood in the shallows and cast his line,
hoping against hope that the familiar weight in hand,
the tug of the lake current on the bated twine
would take his mind and sink it.
But the bate was no more in the water
than the fish struck, a big one,
and he had all he could do to fight
it to shore on the slender twine,
to hook it behind the gill and drag it
through the shallows to the bank.
He stunned it with he haft of his fishing knife
and gutted it right there, caught up in the primal wonder of it…
this is why he fished, why any man fished…
and scrapped the guts back into the water.
Something gold flashed up at him.
He bent, without thinking and stirred the guts with his fingers.
Hard. Round. Flat. A coin. Not big.
He swished it through the water, rinsing off the mess,
and held it up between finger and thumb in the last of the sun.
4 Drachmas. A four drachma coin in the mouth of a fish.
And he went running, all but skipping,
fish over shoulder, back home.
“Master,” he said, as soon as he reached the roof,
“here’s a strange thing. A miracle almost.
What do you think I found in stomach of this fish?”
And he flopped his catch down at Y’shua’s feet.
And Y’shua had smiled.
Just sat there and smiled up at him in the twilight.
He knew. Blast and bother, the man knew.
Knew before he ever saw the coin,
before he ever saw the fish, he knew.
He’d known when Simon ran out.
Why he might as well have sent him himself.
Have said, “Simon, go down to the lake and cast a line.
Take the first fish. Open it up and there will be a coin.”
With a sense of the inevitable,
Simon dug out the 4 Drachmas
and held it up in front of Y’shua’s face.
“Well there, Peter,” Y’shua said, “God, our Father provides.
There is just enough for both your temple tax and mine.
Think of it as a gift from our Father the King
so his children can pay along with the subjects,
and no one will be needlessly offended.
“No one but me.” was Peter’s thought as it settled in him like a stone,
like one more pebble in the tower of his faith,
like one more certainty.
“No one is offended but Simon, subject of the King,
who is always dying so that this Peter,
apparently the King’s own son, can be born.”
“And Peter,” Y’shua said, poking the fish
where it lay on the stone of the roof,
“such a blessing. Such a Father.
We have our supper besides…”