Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
24. And when they came to Capernaum, those who received the didrachma came to Peter, and said, Does not your Master pay the didrachma? 25. He saith, Yes. And when he came into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth receive tribute or custom? From their own children, or from strangers? 26. Peter saith to him, From strangers. Jesus saith to him, Then are the children free. 27. But that we may not offend them, go thou to the sea, throw a hook, and take that fish which cometh first up; and when thou hast opened its mouth, thou wilt find a stater: take that, and give it for me and for thee.
Matthew 17:24. And when they came to Capernaum. We must attend, first of all, to the design of this narrative; which is, that Christ, by paying tribute of his own accord, declared his subjection, as he had taken upon him the form of a servant, (Php 2:7,) but at the same time showed, both by words and by the miracle, that it was not by obligation or necessity, but by a free and voluntary submission, that he had reduced himself so low that the world looked upon him as nothing more than one of the common people. This was not a tax which was wont to be demanded on crossing the sea, 577 but an annual tribute laid individually on every man among the Jews, so that they paid to tyrants what they were formerly in the habit of paying to God alone. For we know that this tax was imposed on them by the Law, that, by paying every year half a stater, (Ex 30:13,) they might acknowledge that God, by whom they had been redeemed, was their supreme King. When the kings of Asia appropriated this to themselves, the Romans followed their example. Thus the Jews, as if they had disowned the government of God, paid to profane tyrants the sacred tax required by the Law. But it might appear unreasonable that Christ, when he appeared as the Redeemer of his people, should not himself be exempted from paying tribute To remove that offense, he taught by words, that it was only by his will that he was bound; and he proved the same thing by a miracle, for he who had dominion over the sea and the fishes might have released himself from earthly government. 578
Doth not your Master pay? Some think that the collectors of the tribute intended to throw blame on Christ, as if he were claiming exemption from the common law. For my own part, as men of that class are insolent and abusive, I interpret these words as having been spoken by way of reproach. It was customary for every man to be enrolled in his own city; but we know that Christ had no fixed habitation in one place. Those people therefore inquire if he be exempted from the law on the ground of his frequent removals from place to place. 579
25. He saith, Yes. Peter’s reply contains a modest excuse 580 to satisfy them: “he will pay,” 581 says he; from which we infer that Christ had formerly been accustomed to pay, for Peter promises it as a thing about which there was no doubt. That they address him rather than the other disciples was, as I conjecture, because Christ lived with him; for if all had occupied the same habitation, the demand would have been made on all alike. It is therefore very ridiculous in the Papists, on so frivolous a pretense, to make Peter a partner in the dignity of Christ. “He chose him (they say) to be his vicar, and bestowed on him equal honors, by making him equal to himself in the payment of tribute.” But in this way they will make all swine-herds vicars of Christ, for they paid as much as he did. And if the primacy of Peter was manifested in the paying of tribute, whence comes that exemption which they claim for themselves? But this is the necessary result of the shameful trifling of those who corrupt Scripture according to their own fancy.
What thinkest thou, Simon? In this Christ gave a proof of his Divinity, by showing that nothing was unknown to him. But what is the object of his discourse? Is it to exempt himself and his followers from subjection to the laws? Some explain it thus, that Christians have a right to be exempted, but that they voluntarily subject themselves to the ordinary government, because otherwise human society cannot be maintained. To me, however, the meaning appears to be more simple; for there was danger lest the disciples might think that Christ had come in vain, because, by paying tribute cut off the hope of deliverance; and therefore he simply affirms that he pays tribute, solely because he voluntarily refrains from exercising his right and power. Hence it is inferred that this takes nothing from his reign. But why does he not openly claim his right? It is because his kingly power was unknown to the collectors of the tribute. For, though his kingdom be spiritual, still we must maintain, that as he is the only Son of God, he is also the heir of the whole world, so that all things ought to be subject to him, and to acknowledge his authority. The meaning, therefore, is, that God has not appointed kings, and established governments over mankind, in such a manner as to place him who is the Son in the same rank indiscriminately with others, but yet that, of his own accord, he will be a servant along with others, till the glory of his kingdom be displayed.
The Pope has not less foolishly than successfully abused this passage to exempt his clergy from the laws; as if the shaving of the head made them sons of God, and exempted them from tributes and taxes. But nothing else was intended by Christ than to claim for himself the honor of a King’s Son, so as to have at least a home privileged and exempted from the common law. And therefore it is also highly foolish in the Anabaptists to torture these words for overturning political order, since it is more than certain, that Christ does not say any thing about a privilege common to believers, but only draws a comparison from the sons of kings, who, together with their domestics, are exempted. 582
27. Throw a hook. Though I acknowledge that Christ had not always full coffers, yet I think that he was not compelled by poverty to give this order to Peter, but that he did so in order to prove by a miracle, that he had a more extensive dominion than all earthly kings, since he had even fishes for his tributaries. And we do not read that this was done more than once, because one proof was enough for his whole life. Thou wilt find a stater. A stater was of the same value as a shekel, namely, four drachms or two didrachma. 583
“Les didrachmes, dont est yci parle, n’estoit pas un peage qu’on payast a passer d’un coste en autre de la mer;” — “The didrachma, which are here spoken of, were not a custom paid on crossing from one side of the sea to the other.”
“Pouvoit bien, s’il eust voulu, s’exempter de la suiection des princes terriens;” — “might easily, if he had chosen, have exempted himself from subjection to earthly princes.”
“Si par ce moyen qu’il est maintenant ci, maintenant la, il faudra qu’il eschappe sans rien payer;” — “if, because he is sometimes here, and sometimes there, he must escape without paying anything.”
“Une excuse bien modeste et honneste;” — “a very modest and civil excuse.”
“Oui, (dit-il,) il payera;” — “Yes, (says he,) he will pay.”
“Lesquels sont exempts de tous imposts, eux et leurs domestiques;” — “who are exempted from all taxes, they and their domestics.”
The didrachmon weighed two drachms, and the stater, which weighed two didrachma, or four drachms, was worth about two shillings and sixpence of our money. — Ed.