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

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.

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.