Archive for September 2007

Mark 12

September 22, 2007

To a group of chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders, Jesus tells a parable about the ultimate tenants from Hell. A man prepared everything for them:

  • he planted the vineyard
  • he built a wall around it
  • he equipped it with a pit for pressing the wine, and
  • he built a watchtower

As rent, all he wanted was some of the fruit of the vineyard.

But when he sent servants to collect the rent, they were abused:

  • one was seized and beaten
  • one was struck on the head and treated shamefully
  • one was killed
  • others were beaten and others were killed

So, the man sent his son. But they killed the son, reasoning that the man would never be able to reclaim his property. But, Jesus says, the owner of the vineyard will return, kill the tenants, and rent to other, presumably more suitable tenants. As scriptural evidence, he cites Psalm 118:22-23, an odd bit of scripture that seems out of joint in the psalm itself. His listeners, however, immediately perceive that the parable is about them and want to arrest Jesus. Only fear of popular outcry restrains them.

Next, Pharisees and Herodians, an odd mix, attempt to trap Jesus. The question they ask is odd: does God instruct that taxes to be paid to Caesar?  Jesus’s answer is tactically brilliant, in effect comparing tax evasion to idolatry.

Next in line to trap Jesus are Sadducees, Apparently hoping to find a flaw in His theology of resurrection (or, perhaps, a loophole in monogamy), they propose a thought experiment, one of very genuine and immediate concern to many people. If a man is repeatedly widowed, won’t he become a polygamist at the resurrection? Jesus’s answer is that, first, sexuality will not exist in heaven and, second, that no one really dies, because God is “I am.”

Then a teacher of the law quizzes Jesus, asking Him what the greatest commandment is. Jesus not only answers the question by reciting the Shema, but goes for extra credit by citing Lev. 19:18 commanding that one love one’s neighbor. The teacher then addresses Jesus as “teacher,” replies that these two things are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus sees this as a wise answer, but does not credit the teacher with knowing the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather, he says that the teacher is near it. Indeed, in the next few verses, Jesus will warn, “Watch out for the teachers of the law.” His answer was seen as intimidating: no one dared ask Jesus any more questions.

In the next vignette, Jesus quotes Psalm 110 to challenge the notion that the Messiah is a descendant of David. He therefore asserts that the Messiah has been with Mankind all along and that Mankind’s immediate superior is the Messiah, not Jehovah.

The chapter closes with an important teaching: it doesn’t matter what you give. What matters is your attitude in giving. A widow places two tiny coins, called lepta, in the temple collection. Because those were everything she had to live on, that amounted to an act of faith that God would provide. 

Who are the servants of the man with a vineyard? Jesus is very specific about the injuries, and his audience immediately apprehends that the parable is told against them, so the servants are presumably individually recognizable as prophets. Among the prophets described in the Old Testament, Uriah was put to death by Jehoiakim. Jeremiah was beaten and thrown into a well.

Psalm 118 is not identified explicitly as a psalm of David, and the reference to the capstone rejected by the builders has no readily identifiable reference other than David (who was rejected by Saul). It is part of the Hallel of Salvation, recited on major celebratory feast days, such as Passover and Hannukah. (It may have been written at the time of return from exile.

Why did Sadducees attempt to get Jesus’s ruling on multiple marriages? We are told that they don’t believe in the resurrection. A detailed examination is provided by Levenson, who says that belief in the resurrection became a requirement of orthodoxy in 200 AD, not because it was in the Torah (it isn’t), but because the Mishnah, i.e., the first code of rabbinic Judaism, required it. He says, “The [scriptural] literature that I have been discussing regards the threat of death, then, as real and terrifying, yet also reversible. As I have said, these texts display none of the assurance and tranquility associated with the notion of the immortality of the soul. Their protagonists, rather, hope against hope for continuation and the fertility and safety that make it possible. They seek divine protection against the death-dealing forces that threaten the family by closing wombs and taking children away.”

Why did Pharisees and Herodians, specifically, conspire to have Jesus declare in favor of tax evasion? The Pharisees were known as advocates of purity, while the Herodians were royalist schemers. This is an odd combination. Perhaps they came with opposite opinions, the Pharisees that tribute could only be given to God, while Herodians were determined that taxes be paid. Perhaps the word used for “trap me” would better be rendered as “entangle me in your disputes.”

What are the implications of Jesus’s statement about taxes and Caesar? Could coins lacking an image be given to God? If so, then Hebrew coins could be given to God. Who does a coin with an image belong to after that person dies? What in creation bears the image and inscription of God, and how does one give that to God? In Genesis, we are told that Mankind was made in the image of God, and in Romans 1:20, Paul says that God is manifest through all creation.

The exchange with the teacher of the law is an exchange of unequals. It begins as an examination of a pupil by a teacher. Jesus passes the test and is promoted by the teacher to the rank of an equal. But Jesus does not accept the promotion. Instead, He puts the teacher in his place by saying that he is not far from the Kingdom. Consider why the teacher’s answer was wise: if human beings genuinely loved God, they would obey His laws, a crucial one of which is to love other human beings. If they could do that also, no one would sin, and there would be no need for burnt offerings and sacrifices of atonement. But the answer somehow fell short, perhaps because the teacher of the law did not recognize the Son of God standing so near to him. In 12:38-40, Jesus says that teachers of the law are not to be trusted because they want to be honored. So, they take money from widows and turn prayer into a dramatic contest. Apparently, Jesus gave the teacher of the law an F.

In the issue of whether Psalm 110 refers to the Messiah, the Psalm’s phrasing (“The Lord said to my Lord”) is odd. Presumably it was taken to refer to Saul. If it did refer to Saul, the rest of the Psalm would be ironic, promising that “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind.” But a simpler interpretation is that the Psalm was written by a follower of David. The inscription “Of David” did not necessarily mean that it was written by David itself. In reconciling this question, one must ask whether Jesus had perfect insight into every matter related to God and was therefore inerrant or whether, as a human being, He suffered limitations on interpreting scripture like any other person.