Questions From Readers
● What is the meaning of Jesus’ statement, at Matthew 17:26, that the “sons are tax-free”?—E.D., U.S.A.
Jesus was showing by illustration why he, as the Son of God, was not obligated to pay the temple tax customary among the Jews, collectors of which tax visited each town of Judea yearly at a certain time. After the fall of Jerusalem, the Romans collected this tax, Josephus saying that Caesar laid a “tribute upon the Jews wheresoever they were, and enjoined every one of them to bring two drachmae every year into the capitol, as they used to pay the same to the temple at Jerusalem.”—The Jewish War, VII, 6, 6.
The account is unique to Matthew’s Gospel and reads: “After they arrived in Capernaum the men collecting the two drachmas tax approached Peter and said: ‘Does your teacher not pay the two drachmas tax?’ He said: ‘Yes.’ However, when he entered the house Jesus got ahead of him by saying: ‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth receive duties or head tax? From their sons or from the strangers?’ When he said: ‘From the strangers,’ Jesus said to him: ‘Really, then, the sons are tax-free. But that we do not cause them to stumble, . . . give it to them for me and you.’”—Matt. 17:24-27.
Possibly in an attempt to involve Jesus in some breach of accepted custom, Peter was questioned about Jesus’ position. In later discussing the matter with Peter, Jesus pointed out that, in the normal course of things, kings of the earth do not tax their own sons, but, rather, impose taxes on others, strangers. The sons are tax-free.
The point Jesus made was that as the Son of God, according to the normal practice, he would be able to claim exemption. This was on the basis that the king’s son belongs to the royal household for whom tax is collected and not by whom it is rendered. Similarly, Jesus’ Father, King of the universe, was the God worshiped at the temple, so the Son was not obligated to follow the custom, it not being a legal requirement. (Ex. 15:18; 1 Tim. 1:17) Nevertheless, not wanting to stumble others by suggesting that he did not support the worship carried on at the temple, Jesus saw that the tax was paid.
● Under the Mosaic law, what was the difference between the sabbath year and the Jubilee year? Were not debts canceled on both years?—E. P., U.S.A.
The Jubilee year shares some features of the regular seventh-year sabbath, but there are marked differences. As to the sabbath year, according to Deuteronomy 15:1, 2, there was a releasing from debt: “At the end of every seven years you should make a release. And this is the manner of the release: there will be a releasing by every creditor of the debt that he may let his fellow incur. He should not press his fellow or his brother for payment, because a release to Jehovah must be called.” The expression “at the end of every seven years” is understood as meaning ‘in the seventh year.’ Compare Deuteronomy 14:28.
This sabbath year was thus fittingly called “the year of the release.” (Deut. 15:9; 31:10) During that year, not only the land enjoyed a rest or release, lying uncultivated (Ex. 23:11), but there was also to be a rest or a release in connection with debts incurred. (Deut. 15:3) It was a “release to Jehovah,” in honor of him.
As to the matter of the releasing of debts on the sabbath year, though some commentators view it differently, apparently the debts were not canceled, but a creditor was not to press a fellow Hebrew for payment of a debt. He was released from paying on any debt that year. This was a loving provision, especially since the land was not cultivated during the sabbath year and, with no crops, there would be no income for the farmer during the year.
This year of release from being pressed for payment of debts did not bring release to slaves, many of whom would be in slavery because of indebtedness. Rather, the Hebrew slave was released on the seventh year of his servitude, or on the Jubilee if it came first. (Deut. 15:12; Lev. 25:10, 54) This regulation is mentioned at Exodus 21:2: “In case you should buy a Hebrew slave, he will be a slave six years, but in the seventh he will go out as one set free without charge.” It is to be noted that the freedom of the slave here did not necessarily coincide with the sabbath year.
However, on the Jubilee year all who had sold themselves into servitude, whether the six years of servitude had been completed or not, were set free; there was liberty. “You must sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty in the land to all its inhabitants. It will become a Jubilee for you, and you must return each one to his possession and you should return each man to his family.”—Lev. 25:10.
As to the Jubilee year, seven of the seven-year periods (7 X 7 = 49) were to be counted, and the following year, the fiftieth, was a Jubilee year. The land again had complete rest. (Lev. 25:11, 12) The Jubilee was in a sense an entire year of festival, a year of liberty. The keeping of it would demonstrate Israel’s faith in their God Jehovah and would be a time of thanksgiving and happiness in his provisions.—Lev. 25:20-22.
The Jubilee horn announced that all hereditary land possessions that had been sold (usually because of financial reverses) were to be returned; and each man returned to his family and his ancestral possession. No family was to sink into the depths of perpetual poverty. Every family was to have its honor and respect. Even one who squandered his substance could not forever lose his inheritance for his posterity. After all, the land was really Jehovah’s and the Israelites themselves were temporary residents from Jehovah’s standpoint.—Lev. 25:9, 23, 24.
By reason of the Jubilee law none of the land could be sold in perpetuity. God provided that, if a man sold any land of his hereditary possession, the sale price was to be gauged according to the number of years left until the Jubilee. The same rate was in effect when hereditary land was repurchased by its owner. In effect a sale of land, therefore, was actually only the sale of the use of the land and its produce for the number of years left until Jubilee year. (Lev. 25:15, 16) This applied to houses in unwalled villages, which were counted as the open country, but houses in walled cities were not included in property returned at Jubilee. An exception to this was the property of the Levites in Levite cities, whose only possessions were the houses and the pasture grounds around the Levite cities; these had their property returned at Jubilee.—Lev. 25:29-34.
The seventh-year sabbath brought about a rest or a releasing from being pressed for debts and rest for the land, but the Jubilee year brought much more—complete liberty from indebtedness and from servitude to any fellow citizens and the return of hereditary possessions, as well as another year of rest for the land.