As Jesus and his disciples were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is to be handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day." And they were overwhelmed with grief. When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, "Does not 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."
The concept of taxes is that you pay for the benefits which the state provides for the common good. Today’s Gospel seems to use this well-known reality to highlight something which reason alone could never discover. “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day."
We read in the Gospels that Jesus has foretold his own death and resurrection several times to the disciples. We also know that their reactions to this ranged from disbelief to defiance to grief. But, at the heart, the disciple’s challenge to accept the reasonability of Jesus’ passion was similar to our’s: Why? Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?
Matthew seems to employ an analogy with taxation. In order to belong to the Kingdom of God, you should have to pay a price, a tribute or a tax. For “the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax” from foreigners, while the own “subjects are exempt.” If the King of Heaven were to apply the same policy, we all would need to pay our way into heaven, while Jesus Himself would be exempt. In reality, however, the King of Heaven chose the opposite route, and paid our “taxes” in our place. He paid with His life.
Of course, the currency for that payment is of a completely different order. But the comparison still helps to contemplate Jesus’ generous heart. He walked among men knowing that and what He was about to “pay” for each one of them. This redeeming intention could have entitled Him to condescendence or smugness. Yet He was not moved by self-righteousness but by love. His loving sacrifice begins already with the patient, humble behavior of which today’s account is only one small example. If we only look carefully, we can find the stunningly pure love with which He paid for our entrance into His Kingdom in every feature of His life, and in every aspect of His presence in the Church: patient, humble, selfless. Whoever starts to experience this love of His, starts to comprehend why He suffered and died for us.