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Our readers asked:

What Does the Fish with the Coin in It’s Mouth Symbolize in Matthew 17?

Ann Naffziger Answers:

Question: I love to fish, so perhaps my question(s) stems from that: It has to do with an image from Matthew 17. Yesterday, I was reading the Gospel for the day (August 12, 2013: Matthew 17:22-27), and it occurred to me that I found some of the details about the story a little peculiar, especially the fish with the coin in its mouth. Does that symbolize something? It seems like such an odd detail that there must be some more significance to it. Is there a reason the fish (or water) is the bearer of money (or financial providence)? I admit I found the fish with the coin a little funny, and I was reading a book called Between Heaven and Mirth (Fr. James Martin, SJ) about how we can misunderstand scripture that was meant to be humorous in its original cultural context; do you think this is an instance in scripture that meant in a humorous way (i.e. finding things where you would least expect them)? Is something else going on?

Answer: If this passage originally included some humor that Jesus’ contemporaries would have understood, it is lost to us today, leaving us with a puzzling episode that is only related in Matthew’s gospel. Most likely the episode comes from an oral tradition that carries the folkloric element of the coin in the fish’s mouth. Certainly there are plenty of other biblical stories with surprising finds so such a story as this isn’t unusual in this sense. It seems, however, that the thrust of Matthew’s passage is less on the odd place of the coin’s discovery and more on the theological problem of whether Jesus’ followers should be paying taxes to support the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The disciples were facing a conundrum. If they believed Jesus was the Son of God, why should he — and they — pay for the upkeep of their Father’s house? Yet if they didn’t pay the Temple tax, they would no longer be considered Jews, an identity they didn’t intend to shed. Jesus solves the dilemma for them by affirming his identity as the Son of God (and extending sonship to his followers) while protecting himself and Peter from still more confrontation with Jewish authorities.

 
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The Author : Ann Naffziger
Ann Naffziger is a scripture instructor and spiritual director in the San Francisco Bay area. She has has written articles on spirituality and theology for various national magazines and edited several books on the Hebrew Scriptures.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Mike

    What Does the Fish with the Coin in It’s Mouth Symbolize in Matthew 17?

    one Jesus tells Peter to go over to a certin aera in the water and catch a random Fish then take out the coin in its mouth. the question is did Jesus really know that the fish Peter was going to catch would have a coin in it?

    I think not, Jesus did all of that just to mess with Peter’s head. Jesus waited until Peter catches what ever fish he got then by the power that God gave him, makes a coin materalize in the fishes mouth. just to make Peter wonder how did Jesus know that their would be a coin in that fishes mouth?

    “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” 26 When Peter[d] said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. 27 However,
    so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook;
    take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will
    find a coin;[e] take that and give it to them for you and me.”

    then the lession was to Peter, does a Son have to pay rent or give offerings to his father, or is it, what ever is the Fathers is his too? for the have equalitiy between the two. We see this in the story of the prodigal son as well, to the one that did not go astray. then Peter answers correctly. But Jesus knows that the Pagans would not understand this, and too keep them off of His back and Peters. Hush money from Jesus to the tax collectors.

    God still owns this earth everything on it is Gods. he just told man to take care of it, then gave it to Satan to rule over.

  • Barnoba Gomes

    As a Jew it was the duty to pay tax in the temple, it was not mandatory yet Jesus paid to avoid misunderstanding

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