April 10, 2009 by J. Madson
Tuesday 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.