Paying The Tax You Do Not Owe


There is an interesting confrontation in the gospel of Matthew between Peter and the tax collectors at the temple. In Matthew 17:24, Peter is asked whether or not Jesus pays the temple tax. Peter, always willing to speak without thinking, replies in the affirmative, but is then engaged by Jesus in a conversation about taxes and family relationships. The gist of Jesus’s discussion with Peter is that the sons of kings do not owe taxes, thus as the Son of God, Jesus does not owe the temple tax.

Nevertheless, in verse 27 Jesus replies to Peter,

“However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

This account recorded by Matthew has become an important principle for me in ministry. Sometimes, so as not to give offense, we need to pay the tax that we do not owe.

Paying the tax we do not owe often means choosing to be the offended if it advances the gospel or helps to maintain unity within the church. Paying the tax may mean apologizing even when you do not feel that you were wrong (or that you were the only one wrong). Sometimes in ministry, paying the tax may mean keeping our mouths shut when we could share information that would make us to look better.

Of course this does not mean that a pastor (or anyone) should always be the victim.

Apologizing for something you did not do is not honest and may have a detrimental effect on your ministry, for instance. But, apologizing to someone who was offended by your words, regardless of how ridiculous their offense may have been, does not hurt you and may strengthen your ministry.

Jesus could have made a big deal about the fact that he did not owe the temple tax, or he could just pay the money. Often pastors are faced with situations where they must decide whether it is most important to win a battle or a war. Paying the tax you do not owe may mean you lose a battle, but if you keep focused on your ultimate goals and win the war, then the cost will have been well worth it.

I once offended someone in a congregation because I said something was “screwed up.” I have never thought of that term as having a crass connotation, but in the mind of this person that word had a sexual connotation. I could have worked through the etymology of the word and presented her with a three page paper on why I was justified in using that word during a sermon. Or, I could have apologized and worked to not use that word again. To this day, I do not think I was wrong for using that word, but I also do not think I would have been right to vehemently defend my position. I apologized, and I struck that word from my preaching vocabulary.

Be willing to pay the tax you do not owe.

I originally wrote this for and had it posted at LifeWay’s Pastors Today blog.