If death and taxes are the only certainties, you don’t want to offend those who charge taxes. Taxation was not part of the created order. In the beginning, God only gave humans authority over the other creatures — fish of the sea, birds of the sky, animals and insects of the land (Genesis 1:26-28; Psalm 8 etc).
So, there’s something seriously wrong when representatives from the temple expect tribute from God’s anointed king:
Matthew 17:22-25 (original translation, compare NIV)
22 Travelling back to Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The son of man is about to be handed over to the hands of men. 23 They’ll kill him, and on the third day he will be raised up.” They were deeply grieved.
24 When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter: “Your teacher pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?”
25 “Yes,” Peter said.
Peter didn’t even stop to think. He’d seen Jesus pay the temple tax each year.
But something is different this year. Peter just declared Jesus to be God’s anointed king (Christ), the Son appointed to rule the earth by his Father in heaven (16:16). And Jesus explained that the temple leaders in Jerusalem will kill him (16:21; 17:23).
Peter needs to stop and think. Why should God’s anointed king pay tribute to the rebels?
Matthew 17 25 When Peter went inside, Jesus raised the topic. “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings receive their taxes or contributions? From their own sons? Or from others?
26 “From others,” Peter said.
“Right,” Jesus said. “So, their sons are free.”
Verse 25 is exciting. It’s the closest we’ve seen to Jesus calling himself a king. In all his teaching on God’s kingship (the kingdom of God) Jesus never claimed to be king, since kingship must come from God. Now, in private, with someone who has received the revelation of his kingship, Jesus feels free to discuss his regal authority.
Peter no longer knows the answer to the question.
It’s weird to pay the tax, making him subservient to the temple authorities. It’s dangerous not to pay the tax, an offence against the temple authorities who will be seeking grounds to execute him. What should he do?
The king’s answer is as hilarious as it is creative. As a demonstration of the authority God gave humans over the creatures, Jesus sends Peter to collect the tax money from a fish. He can then pass it on to those who are making the demands, so they have no grounds for accusing him of an offence:
Matthew 17 27 “But we don’t want to offend them, so head down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you’ll find a coin — enough to pay my tax and yours.”
Laughing all the way to the lake, Peter knew creation’s true king came not to be served, but to serve.
What others are saying
John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew 58.2 (c. AD 400), in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 14-28:
What he says is something like this: “I am free from paying tribute. For if the kings of the earth do not take it from their sons but from their subjects, much more ought I to be free of this demand, being the Son not of an earthly king but of the king of heaven and myself a king as well.”