This matters more than the temple


April 10, 2009 by J. Madson

salt_lake_temple_side_2Tuesday is the longest day in Mark’s accounts of the last week of Jesus’s life. The day begins with the fig tree as mentioned in the previous post. Due to space I am going to focus on only two of the many confrontations that occurred throughout the day and please excuse me if I don’t strictly follow Mark’s chronology. I am hoping to write another quick post on Wednesday and Thursday tonight in my poor attempt to catch up.

Render Unto Caesar

“Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.”
(Mark 12:13-17 NRSV)

We generally read this scripture as a statement on the separation of church and state. That Jesus meant we should pay taxes, render military service, even support our government, etc. I would argue that this is a very poor reading when we take into account context.

The scripture immediately begins by informing us that the Pharisees, in spite of their false praise, were seeking to trap Jesus and show that he was either a revolutionary guilty of treason (refusing to pay taxes) or he was a Roman sympathizer (collaborating with the Roman domination system). Either way they sought to diminish his position with the crowds or find him as a traitor to Roman rule. I hope it becomes clear that if Jesus simply meant we should pay taxes then there would be no need for the added drama and a yes would suffice but he “knowing their hypocrisy” had a very different message in mind.

When Jesus asked them to produce the coin, he had already won the discussion. They are discredited and shown to be hypocrites and religious frauds. Why?

Historically we know that there were two types of currencies in Israel at this time. One bore the image of the Roman Emperor and the inscription, Caesar Son of God. The use of this money was considered blasphemous since it not only had a graven image but also proclaimed Caesar as divine and the Son of God. The other coinage used in Israel had no image. Within this context we can see that a contextual reading of this passage both historical and scriptural lends itself to another, I would argue, better reading.

The fact that they carried idolatrous coins let everyone know where they stood and their allegiance. They were sell outs, pious frauds. Their allegiance was to the kingdom of Rome and not the kingdom of God. His response is to give the forbidden coin back. Whose image is on this coin? Caesars. Well then give it back to him.

The scripture read in context does not mean we have a duty to support our government or we owe our government allegiance regardless of its actions but rather Jesus illustrated the Jewish leaders complicity with Rome and the powers that be. His reply also begged the more serious question of what belongs to God. For Jesus and his contemporaries everything belongs to God and nothing to Caesar.

Stanley Hauerwas stated the problem in this manner.

What bothers me is when they want to say well as a Christian I couldn’t kill anyone but as a congressman or senator I have to do it. Well I don’t think that works.

Parable of the “Greedy” Tenants

“Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.”
(Mark 12:1-12 NRSV)

This parable is often known as the parable of the vineyard or the parable of the wicked tenants. The owner sends servants who are beaten. More are sent. Some are beaten and others are killed. The owner eventually sends his son in the hopes that they will respect him but instead they kill him. There is no doubt that the tenants are wicked or murderous bur the motivation “for their murderous behavior is greed: they want to possess the produce of the vineyards for themselves.” This is of course Satan’s desire in the garden to possess the whole of it.

Jesus concludes his story by asking what the owner will do. The obvious answer is supplied, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” For the purpose of discussion I will move away from the interpretation that this story is meant to tell of Jesus’s divinity (ie he is the son of the owner) and focus more on the textual context.

It is clear that this story is an indictment of the authorities as Mark describes it for “they realized that he had told this parable against them.” This refers to the chief priests, scribes, and elders in the previous story. In short, those who controlled Jewish society and were part of what Crossan calls the “domination system.” Most revealing to me is the fact that the vineyard is Israel consisting of the land and the people. It is not a condemnation of the Jewish people as a whole but of the greedy tenants. And who are the tenants who use force and violence to maintain their positions of power and control? They are the wealthy and powerful religious and political leaders who want control of the land, people, and wealth. It is they who are threatened by Jesus and his revolution from the bottom. The text is clear that these men realized the parable was spoken against them and sought to arrest Jesus. They were unable to because “they feared the crowd.” The people were on the side of Jesus. This is a harsh parable and one that forces to examine all systems, governments, leaders, rulers, etc that are in positions of power. Do they recognize who the vineyard belongs to or are they greedy, jealously guarding their power and prestige, through coercion, violence, and control, in short through a system of domination?

The Greatest Commandment

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.”
(Mark 12:28-34 NRSV)

Here we see an honest seeker ask Jesus’s opinion on the commandments. This passage is in my opinion one of the more theologically deep and important passages in the New Testament. Besides from the obvious loving of God and neighbor which should be applauded for both ethical and moral reasons, there is the added insight gleaned from the textual and historical context. To love God means loving him above all else, above Caesar as illustrated earlier, above political allegiances, and I would even venture religious institutions. If God is the ruler of the universe then Caesar and any other lord (political or religious) is not. However, there is something even more radical occurring in this passage.

Jesus is essentially arguing that love of God and love of neighbor is indistinguishable. In the Book of Mormon, King Benjamin summarizes these two great commands into one statement:

“when ye are the in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mos 2:17).

In summation, our worship of God is one and the same as our love of neighbor. In turn, the relevance I find in Jesus of Nazareth is in that he is an image of what it means to love your neighbor. Much of Jesus’ work, vocation, or whatever we should call it was to show us what it is to be a child of God, ie how to love God through the love of neighbor. To love unjust and just, in short our neighbors or all of humanity both enemy and friend.

The scribe understands Jesus’s message and draws the obvious conclusion in no other place than the temple itself, which was believed to regulate and manage individuals salvation:

“You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

In the middle of the temple, the scribe “affirms that following the two commandments matter much more than the temple and what occurs there.” This statement prompts the rare response from Jesus that the scribe “is not far from the kingdom of God.” If we were to bring this statement into today’s vernacular we may not be surprised to hear the scribe and in turn Jesus affirm the saying, “the two commandments are much more important than all the endowments, sealings, and ordinances.”

In conclusion “Jesus was challenging Israel to be Israel; that is, to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth.” Israel was never chosen to be self-righteous or saved while their enemies perished. In a perverse sense, religions have become lights surrounded by self-aggrandizing mirrors that reflect light only back upon themselves. What Jesus demands is that we become the type of people that shine light and goodness upon all of humanity who in turn will voluntarily want to go to mount Zion because it is full of people who actually love their neighbors.

7 thoughts on “This matters more than the temple

  1. Grégoire says:

    Don’t have anything interesting or relevant to say. Just wanted to chime in and let you know that I’m getting an awful lot out of this series. Thanks again for writing.

  2. Ron Madson says:

    I get this at work in part (Josh and I work together as lawyers–of all things). I am coming to appreciate more and more the term “radical christianity” for I am increasingly convinced that Christ was and remains the ultimate revolutionary–from the most intimate relationships to global new world order. In Christ I find no fault and peace. I would recommend watching my favorite series: “Jesus of Nazareth” by Franco Zeferilli (sp?). We are all invited to “come follow me (him)” and frankly I have no interest in even attempting to follow anyone else–
    I enjoy these posts—my faith in Christ is the foundation of my love of all the other posts found in the Mormon Worker which I believe reflect knowingly or not the “light of Christ”

  3. Grégoire says:

    Hey Ron,

    I was going to ask if you two were closely related or not, but never did because it didn’t seem apropos. Cool that you guys work together. I bet you have some interesting discussions.

    In Christ I find no fault and peace. I would recommend watching my favorite series: “Jesus of Nazareth” by Franco Zeferilli (sp?). We are all invited to “come follow me (him)” and frankly I have no interest in even attempting to follow anyone else–

    Now that I’ve broached the personal comments taboo, I’ll tell you something else…

    I took my daughter to the movies a few months ago. We saw Religulous, which is a documentary starring Bill Maher (a comedian who is openly skeptical). The film uses humor to promote a rigorous materialism, and it’s a very brutal critique of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Scientology.

    There’s a brief scene in which Maher ventures into a makeshift chapel in a truckstop which is full of very poor working people. African-Americans, overweight Whites, everyone has bad teeth and dirty clothes, etc.

    He goes in to mock them, and after about five minutes he prayed with them. After that scene he admitted that while he finds Christianity to be ridiculous, he loves Christians who are “actually Christlike”.

    When I read your article about being arrested at the demonstration I thought of that scene. It’s very easy to look down one’s nose at the average Christian, but even the most hardened cynics respect people like you – who have the courage to walk the walk.

  4. hawkgrrrl says:

    Excellent post!

  5. J. Madson says:


    thanks for the compliment and for stopping by our blog.

  6. Kerri says:

    Years late to the party, but it is Holy Week once again, so anyway… I think this post address a three of the MOST IMPORTANT and most misunderstood/misrepresented doctrines of Christ. I love the internet for preserving your 2009 thoughts for me to come resonate with in 2013. Thank you for sharing them; for being a light that is shining to draw others to the “radical” truth and not merely “reflecting back upon yourself”. Namaste.

  7. Jessica Ramirez says:

    Great blog!
    The greatest commandment of all is something we too often allow to venture away from our conscience. Interestingly enough, when Jesus said to “follow me”, he literally meant follow his path; his life, his teachings, his love for us, and his beautiful, pure and forgiving heart. Obviously not one person on this earth, could ever hold a candle to Jesus, nor will they ever; made beautiful and pure, he IS and always will be the light that should guide us daily as we deal with people and less than comfortable situations. Our test here, is constantly striving to walk as he did, and to testify to the truth. What is truth? I ask this question all of the time and even I continue to change my answer.
    Jesus is the only truth we have to follow; the idea that we would cast a person out or shun a person for their love for the same sex, their shortcomings, or faults…is ludicrous. Jesus would have never done that. I like the story of the wooden plank, or the wooden beam as some people refer to it….maybe we should revisit this scripture and meditate on that tonight.
    Another interesting aspect I always get from the tax collector story, is not just his obvious “kicking the pharisees in the teeth” a little, but the actual meaning by what he implied; the tax collector (although a sinner) would still be held more worthy and above the pharisees in Gods eyes. What does this say? I think for people today, such as those who look down on others, oppress their own people on race, gender, nationality, etc….I think these people will be the ones scorned in the end of times just as the pharisees were scorned. Let the Savior hold us accountable in the end of times ,and let us not be punished more than we will probably already be, for stooping to the level of the pharisees, and judging those we deem less than us, or not living as they should. We are not the creator, and we have no power over this world (some think they do, but they don’t). Not one of us has the right or authority to judge another here on this earth, nor should we want that responsibility.

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