Genesis 4:1-9 and Mark 12:28-34
How many of you, prior to each of these Sundays of Lent, are reading the portions of Mark, as we work our way through Holy Week in this sermon series?
We’re up to Tuesday — Mark 11:27 to 13.37 — the longest day in Mark’s retelling.
3 days before Jesus’ death — according to Mark, it’s mostly conflicts Jesus had with the Jewish religious establishment’s leaders.
That’s not surprising when one places Jesus– not in the Temple itself, but for the second day in a row, again in the expansive, open air courts and porticos of the Temple platform. …Often the scene of teaching and theological conversations, and during Passover week, an area thronged with pilgrims.
There Temple authorities and their associates come out to challenge Jesus, trying to entrap or discredit him in front of the crowd.
But Jesus holds his own, and the crowd is pleased, impressed with his knowledge and authority. The Pharisees and Elders, in fact, are increasingly fearful of the crowd’s support for Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to keep who’s who straight when it comes to the leaders who are gathering in opposition to Jesus: chief priests, Pharisees, Elders, Herodians, scribes, Sadducees, Zealots.
I have a general sense of their roles; sometimes I can remember what the positions they represented or advocated. But the New Testament can sometimes be an imperfect history of specific theological disputations pressing in Jesus’ day, but often less aprops for our time.
Tuesday’s confrontations begin when the chief priests, elders and scribes question Jesus’ authority. In response, Jesus’ forces them to confess their limitation and ignorance.
Their situation goes downhill from there.
With the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Jesus pillories the Jewish leadership.
Notice– it’s not an indictment of the Jewish people, as careless Christological readings often interpret it. Israel is not the tenants, but the vineyard. Jewish crowds and Gentile proselytes are Jesus’ audience because they themselves are victims of their leaders.
Jesus, in this unflattering prophetic echo, pointedly accuses the supposed servants of God are serving neither God nor the interests of God’s people.
Instead, Jesus tells the people, “your Temple leaders are wicked tenants using God’s vineyard for their own benefit, refusing to pay their rent and using the produce to get wealthy themselves.”
Next the Pharisees’ and Herodians‘ challenge Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. His response is a further condemnation of the authorities in charge and of their practice of leadership.
Jesus’ answer about “rendering unto Caesar… and unto God” is often interpreted as a solemn statement about there being 2 separate, but deserving spheres of human activity and concern– the civil and the religious, politics and the spiritual, church and state.
However, rather than an eternal pronouncement about our human need to be in some measure obedient to the leaders of the world…
Instead of suggesting that faithfulness to God also includes deference to those in charge of the status quo…
Jesus’ famous retort is a two-fold indictment of his opponents, the leaders of the Jewish establishment of his day, and the worldly gain they’ve substituted for spiritual leadership.
First, he illustrates their collusion with Empire:
rather than using the coins without any graven image out of respect for the 2nd of the 10 Commandments, Jewish leaders are shown to be in possession of a denarius, a Roman coin with an image of the Emperor and his inscription as God’s divine Son.
Second, Jesus asks: Is there anything… or, more pointedly, ANYONE who can be understood to stand outside of God’s reach and concern? Is there anyplace beyond God’s claims for justice?
Jesus has bested his opponents again: no one can claim to be exempt.
“That coin, it’s not only Caesar’s, but Jewish religious leaders shouldn’t even have it in their possessionL Men of God, give that money back to the Emperor!”
“There are no worldly leaders, not even the Pharoahs of the greatest Empires” — Jesus is preaching to enthralled Passover pilgrims — “who have any standing or claim in the face of the one God of heaven and the whole earth.”
Caesar and the Jewish collaborationists and their puppets in the Temple,
Hitler and German Christians in step with National Socialism,
segregationists in civil-rights-era American criticizing civil disobedience as unchristian…
Christian conservatives today and their vision of our Christian nation…
…all these are misusing religion for their own interests,
using God in service of substantiating the claims of some worldly authorities and status quo…
But Jesus is unyielding: “God alone deserves our faithfulness and following.
Because, finally, everyone, even the Emperors and Pharoahs and Fuerhers of this world, are no more than tenant farmers and resident aliens on land that belongs already and always to God.”
Jesus’ answer is a head-on confrontation of the system where Jewish authorities are doing Rome’s bidding, collecting the tribute the Empire demands of its far-flung colonial subjugates.
Mostly levied as taxes on land and agricultural production, Rome’s demands are economically onerous. They’re also symbols of the Jewish lack of sovereignty:
Beholden to the Emperor, they cannot be free for obedience to none other than God.
Taxes and Roman military might are the mechanisms of oppression of Jews by an alien Lord.
Next, it’s the Sadducees gunning for Jesus. The Sadducees are the aristocracy. And with such a privileged position in the society, they’re blind to the suffering of injustice under their noses.
They deny the authority of the prophets, only accepting Torah proper as Scripture, and thereby free faith of many of its claims to social justice.
Likewise, the Sadducees in their collusion and comfort, are insulated from seeing, much less feeling social injustice. So they miss the impetus for the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead.
A fairly recent development for Judaism, this belief in the resurrection of the dead originated in a defense of God’s justice: the martyrdom of Jewish resisters of the earlier Hellenistic empire rectified by a blessed afterlife (thereby preserving a sense of God’s justice).
But if the Sadducees don’t believe in an afterlife, why are they asking Jesus a question about it… about whose wife a woman will be in the resurrection if by the tradition of levirate marriage, she was married consecutively to 7 brothers in this life?
The Sadducees aren’t searching for what Jesus has to say or any deeper understanding of the ways of God. Instead as with the other representatives of Jewish authorities challenging Jesus, it’s a trap, an argument he can’t win, to discredit him before the ever-growing adoration of the crowd.
But, to the amazement — I can even imagine the applause — of the crowd, Jesus again calls his opponents out for their lack of understanding and faith: ‘they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.’
Jesus uses the Sadducees’ challenge to make another important point before the crowd: “God is a God not of the dead, but of the living.” It’s another of his winning redirects — making the point that God and Jesus’ message and passion are not about what happens to the dead. Questions about what happens when we die is to miss the point. The Kingdom Jesus proclaims is not a Kingdom about life after death, but a Kingdom of life in this world.
Finally, we come to the encounter Diane shared as our second reading this morning.
Suddenly conflict disappears a connection is made between Jesus and one of his interrogators, a scribe, one who sees Jesus has answered all his challenges well.
This scribe asks, “Which commandment is most central?”
What matters most?
What’s really the heart of God?
What’s it really mean to take God seriously and live life accordingly?
Jesus’ response combines the “Sh’ma Yisreal” from Deuteronomy that forms the centerpiece of observant Jews’ morning and evening prayers with Leviticus’ command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s oratory shorthand — Jesus affirming radical monotheism and undercutting all the lesser lords of this world. Everything, including your whole life, belong to God and not at all to anyone less.
Loving God therefore means giving God your all. And loving your neighbor as yourself, it means refusing all the false divisions and hierarchies of our world.
As surely as all belongs to God, there’s no grounds for differentiating between the respected and the marginalized, the righteous and sinners, rich and poor, friends and enemies, Jews and Gentiles.
And no reason to take seriously all the powers of this world that are committed to those divisions and the mistreatments they intend to excuse…
“You are right, Teacher,” replies the scribe, adding a most surprising affirmation, almost an “Amen,” saying, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Can you imagine the response of a mostly oppressed people? …A scribe siding with Jesus over against all the power and authority of the Temple.
“What matters most is justice, and your religious leaders aren’t leading for justice.”
Church, you don’t have to remember all the politics and parties and positions of Jesus’ day. It’s enough to understand Jesus is standing up to any religious establishment that, as I have said for the last two Sundays, is implicated, condemned ultimately, by its service towards maintaining an unjust status quo. He’s calling us to lives that undercut social relations of oppression and exploitation that typify Jesus’ and our day.
Jesus isn’t rejecting Judaism.
In fact, we’ve just been reminded that not all scribes were opposed to Jesus.
Neither were all Pharisees or aristocrats.
Because he never says the Temple or the high priests are incapable of doing God’s work.
But he is sharing his judgement: they are failing miserably when it comes to standing for justice. And religion that falls short in this way can’t be said to be God’s living word.
The same is true today:
If our religion is not effecting justice in this world,
then can our faith said to be alive?
Finally, pay close attention to Jesus’ closing words to this sympathetic scribe…
words that both affirm nearness and distance,
Jesus say to the scribe:
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Beloved, we are not far from the kingdom when we know it in our hearts —
when we understand God’s interest is not our piety per se,
but as our piety propelling us to using our lives for justice.
Jesus goes on to condemn scribes who devour widow’s incomes.
He describes a widow offering her last mite.
And then, as he and the disciple walk back up the Mount of Olives,
with a view out over Jerusalem and the Temple mount
on their way back to Bethany at the end of the day,
Jesus foretells of the destruction of the Temple.
Beloved, we are not far from the Kingdom when it has a place in our hearts.
But we are not yet in the Kingdom just because we know about it.
We are not in the Kingdom until we are living it.
To be “in the Kingdom” means living the Kingdom,
lives dedicated to justice for all,
anti-imperial non-violence as a way of resisting evil (remember Palm Sunday!),
though it places us on a crash course of confrontation,
living in opposition to all the lesser Empires and little Pharoah and Fuehrers of our world.