Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
The second failure of the disciples in this section is handled briefly, probably because it has occurred before and will appear again several times more. It is their failure to understand Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. This is the second explicit prediction in Matthew, the first having occurred in the previous chapter where it was the reason for Peter’s foolish rebuke of his master (Matt. 16:22).
Here Jesus adds to what he had predicted earlier. In chapter 16 he had said that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (v. 21). That stressed the necessity of his passion. Here Jesus emphasizes the certainty of his death, “must” being replaced by “will” (“they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life,” (v. 23). This is the first time Jesus mentions his betrayal. Later he adds that the chief priests and teachers of the law will “turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified” (Matt. 20:18-19) and still later that Judas would be the one to betray him (Matt. 26.25; see Matt. 26:1-2).
Did the disciples understand any of this? Some perhaps, since the verse ends by saying that the disciples “were filled with grief” They seemed to be getting the point that Jesus would be killed, that they would lose him. But they did not understand what his death meant or why it was necessary, and they certainly did not understand or believe in the resurrection. Mark says, “They did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it” (Mark 9:32), Luke adding that what he meant “was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it” (Luke 9:45).
The last of these three failures was Peter’s own, but it too came from a lack of understanding. When the apostolic band arrived back in Capernaum on what was now the final trip to Jerusalem the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter to ask if Jesus paid it. Peter seems to have risen to the Lord’s defense—“Of course, he pays it,” Peter said—but his words were too quick and too inappropriate, as Peter’s thoughtless outbursts often were.
The “two-drachma” tax was for the upkeep of the temple in Jerusalem and it was based on Moses’ instructions recorded in Exodus 30: 11-16. The tax was fixed as a half shekel (two draehma equaled a half-Shekel), and it was required of every Jewish male over nineteen years of age. Nothing in Exodus says that the tax was to be paid annually, however, though that grew to be a custom over time. As far as the law itself was concerned, it was imposed only one time—when a man became twenty years of age— and beyond that it was purely voluntary. Even more, rabbis were exempt as were the priests who served in Jerusalem. The Sadducees generally disapproved of the tax, and the men of the Qumran community paid it only once in their lifetimes.
In Jesus’ day there was no half-shekel coin. So it was common for two men to go together and pay the tax with a single shekel coin, which is what Jesus told Peter he would find in the fish’s mouth (v. 27).
What is this story about? Jesus explains it when he takes advantage of Peter’s inappropriate response to teach him about his relationship to the temple. Peter may have seen Jesus pay the temple tax before, of course. It may be why he answered so quickly. But as soon as they were in the house together Jesus, who knew what had happened between Peter and the collectors of the tax, asked, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?”
Peter answered correctly. “From others,” he said.
“Then the sons are exempt,” Jesus taught him. He meant that since kings do not collect taxes from their sons, no more would God the Father require a tax to support the temple from his Son, Jesus. At the most basic level the words are a statement about Jesus’ unique deity. As the only begotten Son of God, Jesus is exempt from temple taxes.
But there is more to the incident than this, as we will see in tomorrow’s lesson.