Fish Shtick


“But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:27)

Sometimes God is just plain fun. Yes, he does have his dark clouds, lightning, thunder, fire and brimstone moments (actually, a lot of them), but every once in a while he does stuff that has no explanation other than he’s feeling a bit quirky.  Spitting in a blind guy’s eyes—or adding mud to the mix—would qualify as offbeat, I would think. Sending frogs to plague Pharaoh also has a nice wackiness to it. There are tons of examples of a playful, even zany God all through the Bible.

One of the quirkiest of all has to be the coin in the fish’s mouth trick. To come up with the cash to pay the temple tax, Jesus sends Peter fishing. When he finally catches one, Peter looks in the fish’s mouth and—Voilá—there’s the exact change, just like Jesus said! Presumably Peter threw back the fish and headed, somewhat dumbfoundedly, over to the temple to pay up.

Now Jesus may have had some deep, metaphysical reason for this sanctus ichthus abracadabruce, but I doubt it. Maybe the fish is symbolic of himself as a spiritual ATM where poor sinners can find “change.” Maybe it was to teach Peter that taxes of any kind are fishy. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for how future fishers of men can make a buck or two off the flock (sorry, mixed metaphor), a point not lost on many televangelists and prosperity preachers. Or maybe the incident is meant to show how mankind is meant to have dominion over the earth’s natural resources and exploit them for quick profits. Or maybe Jesus had just remembered where he had lost his pocket money when he created the world.

But I think Jesus was just messing around. Most likely it wasn’t a miracle at all, but a clever illusion he had set up beforehand. First, he knew it was temple tax time, and he purposely did not pay it knowing the TRS (Temple Revenue Service) would come looking for him. He lets it be known that he’d be around that day and figured an agent would come calling. So the night before, when all the disciples were asleep (they were always falling asleep), he went to the lake and caught a fish. Opening its mouth, he put in the four-drachma coin, securing it with a bit of netting and Gorilla Glue. He then put the fish in a large pottery jar and submerged it near the shore just beneath the surface of the water.

The next morning the agent comes as expected and Jesus nonchalantly tosses of his instructions to Peter. As Peter leaves, Jesus follows behind to watch. When Peter is ready to throw in his net, Jesus hollers out, “Not there! Over there!” and points to where he submerged jar it. Peter throws the net but comes up empty. “A little to the left!” calls Jesus. Peter comes up empty again. After a few more failures, an impatient Jesus grabs the net and places it around the submerged jar. “Okay. Now pull,” he says. Peter does so and there’s the fish. The fact that it was in a jar Jesus notes as a mere curiosity. Peter opens the fish’s mouth, finds the coin, unwinds the fish netting, and rips the glued coin free (along with a hunk of fish). Jesus breathes a sigh of relief.

The rest, as they say, is Scripture.


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