Friday, June 08, 2012

Questions for going deeper with the Scriptures for 
Sunday, June 10th  

Authority.  That’s the key issue underneath the scriptures that we wrestle with this morning.  The religious leaders of the day are challenged and confused by the authority that Jesus seems to have.  Their antagonism seems to come from the fact that he has taken a different path then they have.  He’s not studied like them.  He doesn’t speak like them.  He’s outside of their sphere of influence.  Are they jealous?; insecure?; threatened?; close-minded?  What we see throughout the text is the fear the leaders have of the crowd (11:32 & 12:12).  The leaders are politically isolated, fearful of the very people they purportedly serve.  As I study the text I find myself wondering how I – how we as a faith community – are like these leaders – out of touch with the crowd, the people on the street, the larger population? How are we stuck in our own box and unable to think outside of it?  How do we understand that in a time of great, radical and overwhelming change that impacts us in terms of society, technology, relationships, communication and life-style?  How do we act as coherent, authentic followers of Jesus in a world that is increasingly pluralistic?

Theological Themes:
There is a striking similarity between the parables in Mark 11:27-33 & Mark 12:13-17 which are constructed around the principle parable of Mark 12:1-12.  They all deal with the authority of Jesus – that he is sent by God.  We call it the incarnation. It also addresses our continuing challenge of understanding the divinity of Jesus and his authority.  Is he merely an image of God, one of many ways of understanding the heart of God?; or is he the definitive one?

Textual Curiosities:
“One of the most volatile of all social situations in Israel was the phenomenon of absentee landlords holding property in the Jordan valley and elsewhere something which had been going on to some degree for nearly three hundred years before the time of Jesus.  It had been a bone of contention for a very long time.  Research shows that the action of the tenants in this parable is explicable in terms of Jewish law, where possession was nine-tenths of the law when it came to land.  If the possession of the current landholders had not been disputed for a period of time, they could claim to be the true owners.” There’s a danger in over-allegorizing.  It’s a judgment parable with a point:  God has sent many servants, (a term which is synonymous with “prophet” in Jeremiah 7:25; 25:4; Amos 3:7 & Zechariah 1:6) but Israel had abused them.  Jesus equates the leaders with the evil tenants, with the historical religious leadership of Israel which repeatedly ignored, and persecuted, the prophets God sent to call the people back to the heart of God and the purpose of God in the world.

The passage condemns the religious leaders for their passivity and blatant inaction. “For Mark, a parable is a way of speaking about God, to which a mere intellectual response is not possible.  The only person who can understand a parable is one who is willing to accept or to reject its message. It must produce either faith or disbelief.” – Albert Schweitzer, The Parables of Jesus.  Curiously, we see that these religious leaders, who compose the Sanhedrin (the governing body of the Temple – like our Session), do finally act in the end of the gospel.  It’s their judgment of Jesus that leads to his execution.

The parable of the denarius in Mark 12:13-17 spins around a form of a Roman poll tax, a form of tribute imposed in 6 AD by the Romans across their empire,  which elicited various reactions from Jews.  The Herodians [for collaborating with the Romans] supported it in principle; the Pharisees [for cultural purity] seem to have resented it and even resisted it, but not violently; but the more zealous of the Jews would not pay the tax on principle.  Were Jesus to give a simple yes answer to the question posed by the leaders in  13 & 14 he would be seen as a traitor in the eyes of the people, while a negative response would suggest he was a revolutionary who would need to be dealt with for the crime of treason or sedition.

In Jesus’ day, Tiberius was the Roman emperor (14-37 AD).  Coins were inscribed with “Tiberius Caesar, son of divine Augustus,” implying at least Tiberius’s quasi divinity.  On the other side the coin read “pointifex maximus” indicating that Caesar was the high priest, the highest religious figure in the empire. The zealots wouldn’t even touch the coins since they contained a graven image. Jesus isn’t a revolutionary, but rather recognizes the role and importance of the state in life.  Yet the state or emperor isn’t sovereign, of over all things – God alone is.  Everything should be rendered to him. Jesus’ response is ironic.  He basically says, “give these worthless pieces of metal back to Caesar.  But give your life – all of your life – back to Yahweh.”  The tenants in the parable forget who actually owns the “vineyard”, a metaphor repeatedly used by the prophets, to symbolize Israel and the world (Isaiah 5).  It’s as if the religious leaders, like the tenants, think it all belongs to them.

Jesus sees through the philosophical tests or verbal trickery of the leaders and doesn’t just reject them, he exhorts them to true faith.  His parables force them to make a choice: for or against the Kingdom of God that Jesus is preaching.  Inactivity isn’t an option.  If you understand, and hear the invitation from God – you either respond by joining in or in becoming an adversary to God’s work.

Questions for wondering and exploring:
• What is Jesus saying to us and our church community today about how we profess and live out our faith?  How do you apply this teaching of Jesus’ divine Sonship and divine authority in a pluralistic society?  How can we claim that Jesus is The Way and be in respectful, open relationships with those that think it’s Buddha, Mohammed, or evolutionary chance?

• Is their a third way to following Jesus and his teachings in life that is between the rigid dogmatic stance of fundamentalism and the laxist hyper-reductive progressive desire to not offend or exclude anyone?  How does Jesus speak to this?  How are we to live as a community of faith centered around knowing God through Jesus in 21st century East Bay?

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