I. What Scripture Says
Matthew 17:24-27 says,
24 After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?”25 “Yes, he does,” he replied.
When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”
26 “From others,” Peter answered.
“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. 27 “But so that We may not cause offense, 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.”
Now, I've addressed this somewhat before, on the related subject of why popes sometimes say "We" instead of "I," but here are the critical features to note:
- Jesus Speaks of Himself as Radically Distinct from Everyone Else. For example, when Jesus speaks of the Father, He'll call Him "My Father" or "your Father," but never "Our Father." If you've never noticed this, it's worth checking out. I compiled 35 times Jesus calls God "My Father" (the first 25 here, the last 10 here). And here are 14 different times Jesus describes God as "your Father" to others. John 20:17 is the most blatant example, in which speaking to Mary Magdalene, Jesus calls God "My Father and your Father," and "My God and your God," avoiding saying "Our Father" or "Our God." The one exception people think of, the Lord's Prayer, isn't -- it's us saying Our Father, not Jesus. He explains as much in Matthew 6:6-9. This feature is quite stunning, really. There are plenty of times when both the Old Testament and New Testament writers call God "Our Father," but Jesus doesn't. The reason is clear: His relationship with the Father is radically different than ours. He's the eternally-begotten, while we're children of God through adoption. It's like this in every context. It's one of the ways we can tell Jesus considered Himself God rather than simply a glorified man. Jesus never even says "Us" or "We" (other than in the passage quoted above).
- Jesus speaks of Peter and Himself as "We." Having just established that Jesus never uses "Us" or "We" (even conversationally) in referring to Himself and somebody else, we find the only exception to this rule in the entire New Testament: Matthew 17:27, where God Incarnate speaks of Himself and a regular man, St. Peter, as "We."
- This "We" Includes Only Jesus and Peter. The surrounding passage makes it clear that the "We" Jesus creates is limited to Him and Peter. After all, the tax is two-drachmas. Jesus could easily have paid for all Twelve of the Apostles and Himself (after all, the money is coming from a miraculous fish). He doesn't. He pays only for Himself and Peter, and the fish only has four-drachmas in his mouth. And just to clarify, Jesus tells Peter that it's for "My tax and yours," clarifying exactly who that "We" includes. As I said in an earlier post, "the one time in the entire Bible that God (or anyone) refers to God and man as 'we' isn't to the entire world, or even the entire Church, but to just one man: Peter."
In other words, Jesus Christ, by His very nature, is so far beyond you and I that to speak of us as a "We" is insulting to Him, and totally misleading. By nature, Peter is unworthy of even being near Jesus, much less being mentioned as a "We" with Him. Peter says so himself when he starts to realize who Jesus is (Luke 5:8). Nevertheless, by His own Election, God the Son desired that Peter should be raised to the point where Jesus could speak of Himself and Peter as a "We." So Peter has been caught up in a special Communion with God which he was not worth of. Not only is this an incredible privilege, but it's a privilege belonging only to Peter - not the other Apostles.
In this way, we see Peter serving as a Vicar of Christ -- that is, as Christ's chosen representative on Earth. After all, Peter is to act, on behalf of himself and Christ, in paying the Temple tax. And not just in the usual way that anyone proclaiming the Gospel does so on behalf of Christ, but in a special way that He's individually called to by God Himself.
II. The Protestant Response
Here's John Calvin, trying to explain his way out of the obvious implications of this passage:
This is hardly even an argument. But taking it point by point:
That they address him [Peter] rather than the other disciples was, as I conjecture, because Christ lived with him; for if all had occupied the same habitation, the demand would have been made on all alike. It is therefore very ridiculous in the Papists, on so frivolous a pretense, to make Peter a partner in the dignity of Christ. “He chose him (they say) to be his vicar, and bestowed on him equal honors, by making him equal to himself in the payment of tribute.” But in this way they will make all swine-herds vicars of Christ, for they paid as much as he did. And if the primacy of Peter was manifested in the paying of tribute, whence comes that exemption which they claim for themselves? But this is the necessary result of the shameful trifling of those who corrupt Scripture according to their own fancy.
- Calvin just asserts that the reason that Peter and not the others is involved is that Jesus lived with Peter. No evidence: he even calls it conjecture. Even if it were true that they lived together, Jesus could have easily paid the tax for all of His Disciples. It's intentional that the miracle covers only Jesus and Peter, not some oversight because the others didn't happen to be there.
- As for the exemption that Calvin complains about (the popes not submitting themselves to being subjects of secular rulers), it's quite easy to draw support from the passage. Christ makes clear that He and Peter are, by right, exempt from the tax; they pay it simply to not cause offense.
- The idea that "all swine-herds" are thus vicars of Christ because they also paid the tax misses the Catholic argument by a mile. It's not that anyone who paid the Temple tax was a vicar of Christ, acting on His behalf. It's that Peter was, because Christ speaks of the Two of Them as a "We" and there's a miracle covering Jesus' and Peter's tax. If any of this was true of the other taxpayers, Calvin would have a point. As it is, that's a terrible argument.
- Catholics don't claim that Peter is "equal" to Christ in dignity and honor, but that he acts with the full authority of Christ. It's not because Peter is so intrinsically powerful, or dignified, or honorable, but because Christ has chosen to work through Peter in an individual way. Likewise, when Moses was given the ability to speak on behalf of God in leading the Israelites, it didn't make him equal to God. But it did mean that when Moses says, "God says," it's to be treated as if you heard it from God yourself.
In other words, Calvin misrepresents the Catholic argument, and fails to respond to any of the real substance. It was a pretty disappointing response, and if anyone knows of a better argument against the Catholic version, I'd love to hear it.