The following is a fictionalized version of the account found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 17.
The boat rocked back and forth gently in the waters of the Galilean Sea. The sun would be setting in an hour or so and Peter sat alone, listening to the gentle groan of the boat, the water lapping at its sides, the wind, the birds. The rest of the men and Jesus were back at the house. Peter realized he was hungry and his train of thought was broken briefly as his mind wandered to what they might be doing back at the house, what teachings Jesus might be sharing with them and the food that would be prepared by the time he got back, when he got back. Peter brought his attention back to why he was out here in the first place: to catch a fish.
It had been awhile since he had been in a boat for fishing, but not long enough to forget the various tricks, techniques and approaches to fishing that he had gained over years of making a living at it. It felt good to be out on the water, real good. Things always seemed much simpler out on the water. He had been casting his net for a while now: nothing. He had seen a few successful fishermen bringing in good catches for the evening a little earlier and had set out to where they had come from. But, nothing.
A lot had happened recently.
Peter recalled going up the mountain with James and John about a week and a half ago. He didn’t think that he would ever forget the way Jesus looked up there. His whole appearance changed before their eyes. It was still him, but, even more so. There was so much light and brilliance. Where did it come from? It was all around Jesus, within him and without him. Yet they could still see him. Was that even possible? He looked powerful, too, so very powerful. Truly he had seen Messiah, the Son of God yet… they were still alive after seeing these things? So many things raced through Peter’s mind. His cheeks blushed with slight embarrassment as he remembered his request to build special places for Jesus, Moses and Elijah there on the mountain. Wait, how did he know it was them? Jesus didn’t tell Peter. The Prophets of old didn’t come over to John, James and Peter and introduce themselves. Yet, they knew. So much to take in!
Peter remembered the dreadful fear he felt when The Voice came out from the heavens, “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And just as quickly as he remembered the fear, it was replaced with the same comfort that he received when he felt Jesus’s hand on his shoulder telling him to get up and to not be afraid. God was not one to be afraid of? How could this be?
Peter, James and John did as Jesus commanded and didn’t tell a soul about what they saw and on the way down the mountain, Jesus clarified a few things they were concerned about. It was always interesting to watch how he answered some of their questions, sometimes he was serious, like going to war serious, and other times joking, or like this time, very casual but matter of fact.
When they were coming down the last stretch from their trek on mountain, they had noticed a crowd below them. John recognized a few of the disciples and Peter saw the others. They had been doing as Jesus instructed; preaching the Kingdom and healing the sick. They had come to one they couldn’t heal. Peter couldn’t remember who, was it Thomas? Philip or Nathanael? Basically, this poor kid was passed through each of the disciples. Sheepishly, they brought the boy to Jesus. The kid’s father told Jesus the story, the child was an epileptic to the point where he had severely damaged himself when seizures took him, falling into anything from cooking fires to water.
Jesus received the boy so gently, so openly; a welcoming smile on a face dirty from dust and sweat. Yet, at the same time, his response to the rest of them was firm, exasperated almost. Later that evening, after the crowd had left, the disciples were gathered around a small fire, sharing some flatbread and wine with Jesus. John prompted Peter to ask why they couldn’t heal him. Again, his responses were something to behold. He was firm, gentle, candid, matter-of-fact, insightful and encouraging all at once.
All these events were piling up in Peter’s mind. Jesus at one point just a few days ago was saying he was to be killed. What was that all about?
And then there was earlier today.
Peter was out on an errand for the people hosting the disciples in their home when he was approached by the authorities from the temple who collected the temple tax approached him. They knew who Peter was, and who he followed. A simple, pointed question from them, and then they walked away.
“Does your Teacher pay the Temple Tax?”
Was this a trick? Were they trying to trip up Peter’s master through Peter now?
“Yes, of course he does.” Was Peter’s response. They walked off, smugly, a look on their faces that said, “We’ll see”.
Peter had about all he could take for now; the glory on the mountain, the boy – both why he wasn’t healed and then why he was – then Jesus saying he was going to die and now these petty Temple tax collectors. Add to this, everything Peter had seen at Jesus’s side since he began following him. His mind was going into overload. The boat rocked back and forth as Peter pulled in his nets again. Nothing. An exasperated sigh coming out as he gathered them back up and recast. One bloody fish! Peter thought to himself. The sun was cresting over a ridge to the west.
Peter had finished his errand and had come back to the house to see Jesus helping one of the women with some of the evening meal preparations. A frustrated look and furrowed brow on Peter’s face, a playful smile and an inquisitive look on Jesus’s face.
“Simon, I’d like to know your thoughts. When kings collect duty and taxes… do they collect these from their children or from the other people?”
“Well, the others, of course.”
“Then the children are free from paying.” Jesus looked up from his task, letting what he just said sink in. Waiting for Peter to get the underlying message of the Kingdom. Peter’s look didn’t change much, but Jesus could tell things were starting to move. He continued, with a lightly sarcastic tone, “But…so we don’t offend those who do not understand such things, I tell you what…” Jesus walked over to Peter and put his hands on his shoulders. “Go out to the lake and go fishing. The first fish you catch, open its mouth, in there you’ll find a four-drachma coin, which is enough to pay my temple tax and yours.”
Jesus walked back to finish his task.
“Do I bring any fish back home for the meal?”
“Just do as I said Peter, you’ll find what you are looking for out there.”
From the boat, night almost upon him, Peter thought more about everything he’d seen and heard. He was taking a step back, looking at the larger picture as he heard again his Lord’s words, “The children are free…”. The Kingdom was so much more than what the majority of teachers in Israel believed and taught. Peter recalled hints of it throughout the Prophets and the Law, and things Jesus had said clarifying the Scriptures. So many things were being turned upside down. Of all these things, Peter knew one thing, Jesus really knew what was going on. It was more than insight, definitely more. The very Spirit of God was with Him and in Him. He was the Son of the Living God.
Peter began pulling on the net and felt the familiar tug of the catch. At last! Peter pulled furiously on the rope, light was fading fast but there was still light enough for him to see what he was doing. He pulled the net up on the boat, it looked like a good handful of fish, twelve, maybe fifteen? Peter heard Jesus’s voice again, “The first fish…”
Peter open the net where he could crab a fish, he dove his hands in, not trying to pick one fish over the other. The first one he grabbed was a fighter, kinda large and heavy, reminding Peter just slightly of himself. Sitting back, he saw a small glint of metal as the fish’s mouth opened and closed as it fought for breath and freedom. Having done this many times, Peter easily opened the fish’s mouth and sure enough pulled out a coin. It had a little silt and filth on it, but Peter put the coin on the bench next to him and released all the fish back into the water.
Sitting back down, he wiped the coin off. The size was familiar to him, and was able to read the inscription as he wiped the small bits of filth and silt on the coin.
Enough for Jesus and Peter. He let out a laugh and held the coin up in the air, saying to no one in particular, “HA! The first fish! Hahaha!”.
Peter had not noticed, but some time ago, Jesus had come down to the shoreline to watch his friend and disciple fish and work out the things in his head. Jesus stood up and walked back towards the house, a smile on his face.
“You see Peter… I’ve got this. The children are free.”
After Peter had returned to shore and tidied up the nets, he walked back into town and found the two men. They were wandering about the local synagogue, still collecting the temple tax.
“Well, well…” Said one.
“So have you spoken to your Teacher?” Said the other.
Peter smiled. “From whom do the kings collect their duty and taxes? Their children or the people?”
“The people of course.” Said one.
Peter laughed. “So true. And the children are free!” He handed over the four-drachma coin. “This is for me and my Teacher. Now, if you’re satisfied, I’m hungry and will be having my supper now.”
Peter walked off, a smile on his face. He looked back to see a puzzled yet clueless look on theirs.
“The Children are Free…”