Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Didrachma and the Stater

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 -- Week of Proper 6, Year Two
Evelyn Underhill, 1941

Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 971)
Psalms 78:1-39 (morning)       78:40-72 (evening)
Numbers 11:1-23
Romans 1:16-25
Matthew 17:22-27

Thanks to the footnotes in the NRSV and the annotations from The Access Bible that I read from, I noticed something in today's gospel that I've never noticed before.  The coin to pay the temple tax that Jesus tells Peter he will find from the mouth of the fish is a stater, not a didrachma.  That may be significant.  Here's the course of the conversation as Matthew composes it.

In Matthew 17:24, the collectors of the didrachma ask Peter whether Jesus pays the didrachma (that's a more literal paraphrase of the verse).  The didrachma was worth two drachmas or half a shekel.  The half-shekel tax for the upkeep of the Jerusalem Temple originates in Nehemiah 10 and Exodus 30.  There was a debate during Jesus' day whether the Temple tax should be a one-time donation or an annual one.  NRSV translates Matthew 17:24 to imply that this conversation was about the tax for the Jerusalem Temple:  "...the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, 'Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?"  There is a footnote beside both instances of the term "temple tax" letting us know the Greek is "didrachma."  (Other English translations render this verse differently.  You can look at a list of various translations at this link:  http://www.biblestudytools.com/matthew/17-24-compare.html)

Then Jesus has an interesting dialogue with Peter.  Jesus asks him, "From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute?  From their children or from others?"  Great question.  Peter knows.  The kings take their tribute from others.  Jesus answers enigmatically, "Then the children are free."  The message is clear, and revolutionary.  We are children of the Most High God, the King of Kings.  We are free indeed. 

Then Jesus goes on.  "However, so that we do not give offense to them, go out 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; take that and give it to them for you and me."  The word for "coin" is not didrachma, the half-shekel tax for the Jerusalem Temple.  The word is "stater."  A stater is worth two didrachmas.  The stater is also the Roman tax imposed on Jews for the upkeep of a temple to Jupiter.  That tax was a hated and humiliating tax imposed on Jews beginning in 70 CE, just before the time when Matthew is writing.

It is a fascinating shift of language.  Some commentators who notice the difference will explain the difference by saying that Jesus is paying the Jerusalem Temple tax for himself and for Peter.  But it might be that Matthew is saying something to the early church community.  As a vulnerable new religious movement, potentially misunderstood by Rome and subject to Roman persecution, it is in the community's interest to fly below Rome's radar in order to survive.  Taking issue with Roman taxation is one of the quickest ways to provoke reprisal.  Saying that the children are free, and then finding the tax for the Jupiter temple gives the church a teaching that avoids some threatening consequences while affirming its autonomy.  This comment is a bit like the "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and render unto God that which is God's," another nuanced affirmation of religious freedom cast within the context of the realities of taxation.

Regardless of which tax this passage refers to -- Jerusalem or Jupiter or both -- the point seems to be that it is good to pay the tax for the sake of community peace, "so that we do not give offense to them." 

I think that is a message that will preach, especially for those who are offended by things such as the removal of Christian prayer in public schools and at public events, and the removal of Christian symbols from public buildings and spaces.  There are those who are outraged that out of respect for those who are not Christian, we have gradually withdrawn some of the symbols of Christian dominance as the majority religion in our nation.  Yet such acts seem consistent with the spirit of today's passage.  We are free.  We are free to pray in school (and some wag has said there will always be prayer in school as long as there are math tests).  We are free to pray at public events.  We are free to pray "at all times and in all places."  Our hearts may always be inclined in prayer, and we don't need a microphone to do so.

Yet, "so that we do not give offense" to those who are equally citizens but of different or no faith in our land of religious freedom, it is completely appropriate that we as a majority religion respect the rights of others and refrain from the acts of domination and presumption implied when we behave as if other faiths are invisible or less privileged than ours.  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." the First Amendment declares.  Christianity is not an established religion.  "So that we do not give offense" to others, we should not treat it as such.



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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at www.missionstclare.com
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The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

Visit our web site at www.stpaulsfay.org

Our Rule of Life
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


At 8:35 AM, Anonymous Marguerite said...

Dear Lowell,
I just read a commentary by Dr. Bertrand Comparet I thought you might find interesting. The didrachma was also a stranger tax imposed by the Romans. So the men were Romans who asked Peter doesn't your Teacher pay a didrachma tax? Peter says yes. Peter knows that Jesus had been out of the country before His ministry began. Then Jesus asks Peter, do the kings of the earth or Caesars ask for the Didrachma from from aliens or citizens.
Peter said from aliens. The stater of course was a Greek coin. This was Peters fear...do I have to pay and where will I find a Greek coin, the stater. Jesus lovingly reassures Peter that He is a citizen and does not have to pay. Then he tells Peter where to find the coin. From this information, we can draw the conclusion that Jesus was out of the country prior to his ministry, long enough to be considered an alien even though he was born in Bethlehem. I thought this was interesting and worth some more study. How long did a born citizen of Judea need to be gone before they were considered an alien. Jesus was born in Judea yet the tax is being asked for in the city of Capernaum which is in Galilee


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