350. The Tribute to the Temple and the Stater in the Mouth of the Fish.
5th December 1945
The two boats that they took to go back to Capernaum are gliding on an extraordinarily calm lake: a real large slab of blue crystal, which becomes one smooth piece again, as soon as the two boats pass. But they are not the boats of Peter and James, but two boats which they probably hired at Tiberias. And I can hear Judas complaining because he is left without any money after this last expenditure.
"He has seen to everybody else. But what about us? What shall we do now? I was hoping that Chuza... But nothing... We are in the same state as a beggar, one of the many who beg for alms of pilgrims on the roads" he grumbles in a low voice to Thomas.
But the latter replies good-naturedly: "What does it matter, if it is so? I am not at all worried."
"Of course! But when it is time to eat, you are the one who wants to eat more than anybody else."
"Certainly! I am hungry. I am brave even in that respect. Well, today instead of asking any man for some bread and a dish of something, I will ask God directly."
"Today! But tomorrow we shall be in the same situation; and the day after tomorrow it will be the same again; and we are going towards the Decapolis where we are unknown; and they are half-heathens there. And it is not only a question of bread, there are sandals that wear out, and the poor who pester you, and one could be taken ill..."
"And if you go on like this, you will have me as good as dead shortly and you will have to think about my funeral. Oh! how many worries! I... am not worried at all. I am happy and calm, just like a new-born baby."
Jesus, Who appeared to be engrossed in thought, sitting on the prow almost on the edge, turns round and says in a loud voice to Judas who is astern, but He says it as if He were speaking to everybody: "It is very good to be penniless. The paternity of God will shine more brightly even in the most humble things."
"Everything has been all right for You recently. It is all right if we cannot work miracles, it is all right if we get no offerings, it is all right if we have given away everything we had: in a few words, everything is all right... But I feel ill at ease... You are a dear Master, a holy Master, but as far as material life is concerned... You are worth nothing" says Judas without bitterness, as if he were criticising a good young brother, of whose improvident kindness he was proud. And Jesus replies to him smiling: "It is my greatest quality to be a man worth nothing with regard to material life... And I say again: it is very good to be penniless" and He smiles broadly.
The boat rubs the shingly shore and stops. They land while the other boat comes close and is about to stop. Jesus goes towards the house with Judas, Thomas, Judas and James, Philip and Bartholomew.
Peter lands from the second boat with Matthew, the sons of Zebedee, Simon Zealot and Andrew. But while everybody sets out towards the house, Peter remains on the shore to speak to the boatmen who brought them there and with whom he is perhaps acquainted, and later helps them to set sail. He then puts on his long tunic and walks up the shore towards the house.
While he is crossing the market square two men go towards him and stop him saying: "Listen, Simon of Jonah."
"I am listening. What do you want?"
"Your Master, only because He is such, does He or does He not pay the two drachmas due to the Temple?"
"Of course He does! Why should He not?"
"Well... because He says that He is the Son of God and..."
"And He is" retorts Peter decidedly and he is already flushing with rage. And he adds: "But, as He is also a son of the Law, and the best son the Law has, He pays His drachmas like every Israelite..."
"We have no proof of that. We are told that He does not pay and we advise Him to do so."
"H'm" mumbles Peter who is on the point of losing his temper. "H'm... My Master does not need your advice. Go in peace and tell those who have sent you here that the drachmas will be paid at the first opportunity."
"At the first opportunity!... Why not at once? Who can assure us that He will? He is always wandering about aimlessly!"
"He cannot pay at once because He is penniless. If you turned Him upside down, not a penny would drop to the ground. We are all penniless, because we, who are not Pharisees, who are not scribes, who are not Sadducees, who are not rich, who are not spies, who are not asps, we give what we have to the poor, according to His doctrine. Have you understood? And now we have given everything, and until the Most High provides, we can die of starvation, or stand at the street-corner and beg. Inform those who say that He is a glutton also of that. Goodbye!" and he leaves them grumbling and seething with anger.
He goes into the house and upstairs where Jesus is listening to one who begs Him to go to a house on the mountain beyond Magdala, where a man is dying. Jesus dismisses the man promising to go there at once, and after the man has left, he turns towards Peter, who is sitting in a corner engrossed in thought, and says to him: "What is your opinion, Simon? As a rule, from whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from foreigners?"
Peter starts and says: "How do You know, Lord, what I was going to say to You?"
Jesus smiles making a gesture as if to say: "Never mind"; He then says: "Answer My question."
"From foreigners, Lord."
"Well, then, the sons are exempt, as in fact is right. Because a son is of the same blood and household of his father and therefore he must pay only tribute of love and obedience to his father. So I, the Son of the Father, should pay no tribute to the Temple, which is the house of the Father. You gave them the right answer. But as there is a difference between you and them, which is: that you believe that I am the Son of God, while they and those who sent them do not, in order not to scandalise them, I will pay the tribute and at once, while they are still in the square collecting the money."
"But how, if we have not one penny?" asks Judas, who has approached them with the others. "You can see whether it is necessary to have something!"
"We can ask the landlord to lend it to us" says Philip.
Jesus makes a gesture with His hand commanding silence and says: "Simon of Jonah, go to the beach and cast a line with a strong hook as far as you can. And as soon as a fish bites, draw the line. It will be a big fish. Open its mouth on the shore and you will find a stater inside it. Take it, go to these two men and pay for Me and for you. Then bring the fish here. We will roast it and Thomas will give us the charity of a little bread. We will eat and then go at once to the man who is dying. James and Andrew: prepare the boats, we will go in them to Magdala and we will walk back in the evening in order not to interfere with the fishing of Zebedee and Simon's brother-in-law."
Peter goes away and shortly afterwards he is seen climbing onto a half-beached boat; he throws a thin strong line, fitted with a little stone or lead, at the end, to which is attached the real fishing line. The water of the lake forms silvery spray when the weight sinks into it, then it becomes calm again when concentric circles slowly move away...
But shortly afterwards, the little rope which hung loose in Peter's hands, is pulled taut and vibrates... Peter pulls the cord, which is shaken more and more vigorously. With a last jerk the fishing line emerges with the catch that whirls over the fisherman's head and falls on the yellowish sand where it writhes tortured by the hook that rends its palate and by incipient asphyxia.
It is a magnificent fish, the size of a brill weighing at least three kilogrammes. Peter tears the hook from its fleshy lips, thrusts his finger into its throat and pulls out a large silver coin. He lifts it up holding it between his thumb and forefinger to show it to the Master, Who is at the parapet of the terrace. He gathers the thin rope, rolls it up, picks up the fish and runs away towards the square.
All the apostles are dumbfounded... Jesus smiles and says: "And we will thus remove a scandal..."
Peter comes in: "They were coming here. And Eli, the Pharisee is with them. I endeavoured to be as kind as a young girl, and I called them saying: “Hey, messengers of the Fisc! Take this. That's four drachmas, isn't it? Two for the Master and two for me. We are now square, are we not? I will be seeing you in the Valley of Jehoshaphat, particularly you, my dear friend.”
They took offence at my mentioning the “Fisc”.“We are of the Temple, not of the Fisc.” “You collect taxes like excise men. Every tax collector, as far as I am concerned, is of the Fisc” I replied.
And Eli said to me: “You insolent one! Are you wishing me to die?” “No, my friend, never! I wish you a pleasant journey to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Are you not going to Jerusalem for Passover? So we can meet there, my dear friend.”
“I do not wish and I do not want you to take the liberty of calling me your friend.” “In fact it is too big an honour” I replied. And I came away. The amusing side is that half the people of Capernaum were there and they saw that I paid for You and for me. And that old snake will not be able to say anything now."
The apostles could not help laughing on hearing the story and seeing Peter's miming. Jesus wants to be serious. But a light smile slips from His lips while He says: "You are worse than mustard" and He concludes: "Cook the fish and let us make haste. I want to be back here by sunset."