A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Mark 11:27-12:17 on Sunday 20 January 2019
The Roman Empire had the colosseum where they threw criminals to the lions. Great Britain had cockfighting until it was banned in 1835. And Spain has bullfighting even today. But the closest thing we have to a blood sport in Australia is the ABC program called Q&A.
I’m sure Q&A could be the panel show where intelligent people meet to solve difficult problems. But that would be boring TV, which thrives instead on conflict and drama. Instead, we get a mix of guests guaranteed to start an argument with the token conservative or Christian to be thrown to the lions.
I have to admit, I can’t watch it. It’s just not my sort of thing. But I would pay money to watch Jesus on Q&A. To watch the experts try to trip him up with a trick questions. To see him turn the tables with his own questions in response and evade all their traps with his intellect and humour. And we’re lucky because that’s what we get to see in Mark chapters 11 and 12.
It was the Tuesday after Palm Sunday. Two days before this Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey. The next day Jesus had cleared out the temple courts, overturning the tables of the money changers and the benches of the dove merchants. With both actions Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. God’s chosen king, sent to bring peace and to put right the worship of God.
That was Sunday and Monday. But from Mark chapter 11 verse 27 to the end of chapter 13, it was Tuesday. And the leaders in Jerusalem were afraid of Jesus. A man who claimed to be king and who threatened the temple was too dangerous to be allowed to live. These leaders were a loose coalition of powerful factions and interest groups and one after the other they came to Jesus in the temple to test him and to trap him. If they could get him to say something that would threaten the Romans or embarrass himself in front of the crowds, they would soon be rid of him.
The first group to have a go at Jesus were the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders. They were members of the Jewish ruling council called the Sanhedrin. They were the authorities. They were in charge. Jesus’ riding into town on a donkey and clearing out the temple was a direct attack on their rule. Jesus’ words and actions, his very existence, undermined their authority. So they came to him to ask him,
“By what authority are you doing these things.? And who gave you authority to do this?”
If they could get him to claim to be the Messiah in public, it would be a threat to the rule of Caesar and would bring the Romans down on him hard.
Jesus answered with a challenge.
“I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism – was it from heaven, or from men? Tell me!”
It wasn’t just a promise, like if he said, “I’ll tell you who gave me this authority, if you can tell me the time.” It wasn’t even just the case that the answers to both questions were the same. Like, “I’ll tell you who gave me this authority, if you tell me who created the world.” Both answers are the same, although the questions are unrelated. Instead Jesus’ question contained the answer to their question: John’s baptism.
It’s a direct reference to the ministry of John the Baptist. And why did John baptise people in the Jordan? Because after him was coming someone more powerful than him who was going to bring God’s kingdom with its judgment and blessing, and people needed to get ready for his coming. And for whose coming was John getting them ready? Jesus.
“Behold,” John had said to his disciples, pointing at Jesus, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
“No, Lord,” John had said to Jesus, “I should be baptised by you.”
John saw himself as waiting for Jesus.
“John’s baptism,” Jesus said, “was it from God or was it from men?”
It wasn’t an irrelevant change of subject. It’s not a question that came out of nowhere. It was a direct hint at just where exactly Jesus believed his authority came from. The God whose kingdom both John and he proclaimed.
Imagine for a moment that a group of us were standing on the main street outside a new café that was just opening. Because if there’s one thing Corowa needs, it’s another café. And outside the shop there was a sign, “Corowa’s best café.” That sort of thing naturally starts an argument. Because one of you thinks the Civic is the best. And another one of you thinks the Green Bean is the best. And another one of you thinks that Docs is the best. Country people are very loyal and this sort of argument could end friendships.
So you asked me to settle it once and for all. What’s Corowa’s best café? And I looked at the sign and said, “Can’t you read?” and walked away. Now, I didn’t answer the question. You didn’t hear it from my lips. You couldn’t quote me and use it against me later. But the way I didn’t answer the question, answered it.
That’s what Jesus did. “John’s baptism,” said Jesus “was it from God or was it from men?”
John’s whole ministry pointed to Jesus, God’s king who was bringing judgment and salvation. But Jesus knew the leaders would be too afraid to admit it. To admit that John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus, to admit that John was sent by God would be to admit that Jesus had the right to do whatever he wanted to the temple. They weren’t going to admit it. But they were also too afraid to deny it, because of the crowd.
“We don’t know,” they said, lying through their teeth. They knew perfectly well what they thought.
“Neither will I tell you,” said Jesus. But he already had.
Jesus then told a story. The vineyard owner is the Lord and the vineyard is Israel. The care with which the owner prepared the best possible vineyard describes the way the Lord did all he could to make Israel fruitful in obedience and love. He gave them his promises. He rescued them from Egypt. He gave them his commandments. He brought them to the their own land. He defended them against their enemies. The Lord blessed Israel in order to bless the whole world.
The tenant farmers are the leaders of Israel. They don’t own the vineyard but are put in charge to care for it, and they pay their rent with a share of the harvest. This shows that the Lord expects a return on his investment. Israel is meant to be his people for the world, a shining light of grace and truth in the darkness of sin and injustice.
As the owner sends his servants at harvest time, so the Lord sent his prophets. And the farmers mistreated the servants in the same way that Israel’s leaders persecuted the prophets. They refused to listen to them. They put some in prison and put others to death, behaving as if the nation belonged to them and not to the Lord.
The story was relevant because Jesus had just referred to John the Baptist’s ministry. And what happened to him? Herod had put him in prison and then cut off his head.
What was the vineyard owner supposed to do? He only had his own dearest Son left to send to them, probably his only son, but not sending him was like giving up on his claim on his share of the harvest. Was like giving up on the vineyard. So he sent him, saying to himself, “Surely they will respect my son!” This would be his last messenger. He had no one else left. After his only Son, he could only come himself in person.
But what did the farmers do? They agreed with the owner. This would be his last messenger. The owner had no one else left. So, if they got rid of the Son, they imagined that the whole vineyard would be theirs. So they grabbed him, killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner do? The farmers get their just deserts, the vineyard is taken from them and given to others.
Hidden in this story was a claim, a warning and a prediction. Jesus was again claiming to be the Messiah. The Son of God, the Lord’s chosen king. The warning was that Jesus was their last chance. The long line of the prophets had stopped with him. The last great prophet John the Baptist had been murdered. If they rejected the Son, there would be no second chance. There would be no other messenger to send. The leaders would be removed and the kingdom given to others. And the prediction was that this is what would happen. That conflict and drama were inevitable. That there was not enough room in Jerusalem for the leaders and Jesus to live. And the leaders would reject their last chance and the Son would be rejected and killed. And it is ironic that in response to this story, the leaders wanted to arrest Jesus. They knew he was talking about himself and about them. But they were afraid of the crowd and went away.
The next group to approach Jesus were natural enemies. The Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees were conservatives and nationalists and thought that the Herodians were compromisers and collaborators for the support they gave to king Herod in Galilee. The Herodians hated the Pharisees back for hating them. The Pharisees were anti Roman, and the Herodians were pro Roman. But they were both anti-Jesus, and on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they joined forces to try to trap Jesus.
“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are, but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.”
It sounds like flattery, but it is a challenge. It means, “Prove that you aren’t too afraid to answer a simple question. Right here. Right now. Right in front of everyone.”
“Is it right,” they asked, “to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
A simple question. It simply requires a yes or a no. But a simple answer will lead to danger or death. Jesus is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax”, he would get in trouble with the crowd, who hate the Romans and hate their tax. It was a constant reminder that they were not free. But “No, don’t pay the tax”, and he would get in trouble with the Romans, who love the Romans and love the Roman’s tax, especially since the Romans had given the Romans exemptions from having to pay it.
It was the perfect dilemma, and either the crowd or the Romans would tear him apart. Like on Q&A.
Jesus said, “Why are you trying to trap me? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”
Now, unfortunately, we don’t have any Pharisees or Herodians with us today, but we do have a denarius, because I’ve brought mine. It’s a small silver coin. A labourer’s daily wage. Enough to buy food to feed his family. Now it’s not the same coin they would have brought to Jesus. It’s from 200 years later. But it is still an amazing visual aid.
Jesus said, “Whose image is that and whose inscription?”
My coin has the head and name and claim of the emperor, Septimius Holy Augustus.
He is the ruler of the Roman Empire and representative of the gods. The coin says who’s in charge and why.
This one is probably the one Jesus was shown. On one side it has the emperor’s head with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar. Divine Augustus.” On the other side it says, “Pontifex Maximus.” Great high priest. Whose image? Whose blasphemous and idolatrous inscription? Who is the king, the son of the gods?
“Caesar,” they answered.
Jesus replied, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”
By this Jesus meant, “This coin bears Caesar’s image. By owning it and using it, you are benefiting from his rule. You are tacitly acknowledging his right to rule you. Pay him his due. Give him his coin. But you bear God’s image. Every day, in every way, you are benefiting from his rule, whether you acknowledge it or not. Pay God his due. Give him yourself. Every one of you and all of you and the whole of you.”
What an answer! If you ask me, Jesus was a genius. If he wasn’t true, you could not make this up.
TV thrives on conflict and drama. And that’s what we’ve seen in these three episodes. Between them they tell the gospel. Firstly, Jesus is Lord. John the Baptist’s ministry pointed to him. He is the Messiah, God’s promised king, Secondly, he is the Son of God, the Lord’s last messenger to his people. You cannot afford to ignore him for there is no other message before the Lord comes himself. Thirdly, give yourself to God. You bear his image. You benefit from his rule. Give yourself to God, each of you, all of you, the whole of you. Because you belong to him.