The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, O.P.

Nature’s ATM

When John Paul II visited Cuba, Fidel Castro evidently asked—of all possible things—if we know what sort of fish it was that Peter caught with the coin in its mouth (Mt 17:24-27). Not perhaps the most obvious or intelligent use of the opportunity of meeting a pontiff, but the preoccupations of autocrats are often strange. Maybe the island regime was fishing for new sources of income.

The response, in any case, was apparently “red ­snapper”—though since there are no red snappers in Galilee, the present-day restaurants of the region are banking on a comb-tailed tilapia. Of the twenty-seven species in the lake, however, some still hold out for the barbel, while others plead for the eel-like Clarias lazera.

The Chromis simonis, however, is the most intriguing candidate. Having developed an oversized maw meant to carry a sachet of eggs, outside caviar season this mouth-breeding creature keeps in form by scooping up mouthfuls of pebbles off the lake floor. Why not coins as well?

Posing questions of such specificity does help hammer home the concrete reality of the Incarnation. But it is also a divertingly good way to miss the message.

Paying the Temple tax was not like paying your cable bill. Nor was it like paying any old tariff—though, this is the lesson Martin Luther drew: Christians should voluntarily submit to bearing the common tax burden. Rather, the Temple Tax was a divine commandment (Ex 30:11-16). Paying it meant the holy honor of being part of the Lord’s true worship.

Not all were liable. The priests, as Temple employees, were officially exempted, while the Essenes made a conscientious objection. The collectors’ question to Peter has such cases in mind: “We propose to collect, does your master object?”

Jesus’ response would look baffling on an audit. He claims no narrow statutory exemption, nor manifests a concrete moral qualm. Instead, he says he enjoys the freedom of God’s sons. The echo of the Letter to the Romans is not misleading, for this answer, in fact, entails an overruling of the Law. But lest he be a source of scandal, Jesus submits himself to Torah—like Saint Paul, who to the Jews became a Jew: it is good not to eat meat…or do anything that causes your brother to stumble (Rom 14:21; cf. 1 Cor 9:20).

The poetic, folksy, prophetic touch of finding the funds in the fish makes clear that, in the end, God himself pays the price of proper worship. Or rather, for God’s children the world becomes a wellspring of worship. Like a dutiful citizen, creation itself bears a holy dignity and joins the assembly, freely offering its riches in praise of God. All creation is in birth pangs…awaiting the revelation of God’s sons (cf. Rom 8:22-23)—awaiting, that is, this very moment.

Supposing it was the fish with the eggs, how carefully from the beginning God prepared creation to give birth to this perfect praise! You dolphins and all water creatures—tilapia, barbels, and Chromis simonis—praise the Lord! (cf. Dn 3:79).


Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.