Mark 12:13-27, Not Rendering and Not Knowing


[October 3, 2010] In this section of Mark (11:1—14:11), Jesus is recalling the people of Israel back to the position where the prophets of Israel had left them. Until the Messiah comes in glory, Israel—and all the nations—are under the condemnation of God’s judgment. (This is similarly the point of Romans 1:18—3:20.) In other words, Israel is still under the condition of exile. The Temple and the Land are provisional gifts—not the “real deal”—and therefore not to be presumed upon. They are only signs of the promise, not its fulfillment. In the judgment of God they can be taken away.

The time for the Temple is now over. Jerusalem will come under siege and be overcome and the Temple will be destroyed. This is not the result of historic accident but because of the unfaithfulness of the leaders of Israel and because of forces at work among the people that are antagonistic to God’s purpose for them. The leadership of Jerusalem are the leaders of the people of Israel—the chief priests and scribes and elders: those in charge of the Temple and setting the religious calendar, those responsible for the Scriptures and teaching them to the people, and the ruling body of the city, the court or Sanhedrin.

These are the people whom Jesus is addressing now in the first part of this section. In 11:15-18 He has accused them of being hypocritically self-serving, of using the Temple for their economic gain (“you have made it a den of robbers”) instead of serving its function as God intended (“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”). In 11:27-33 He has exposed their incompetence to judge because of their self-interest and cowardice. And in 12:1-12 He has accused them of holding back the crop or fruit (the people’s repentance and service) that belongs to God and attempting to steal the vineyard (the people of Israel) from God. Because of this, God will take the vineyard, the Jewish people, away from these false shepherds and give the care of them to others, namely the church (which for the most part failed in this role) and the future rabbinic movement (which still cares for the Jewish people). Today’s reading continues along this line of examination and judgment.

The forces at work among the people are the forces of “zealousness” led by members of the Pharisees. These represent very different interests than the leaders in Jerusalem. They think that God’s kingdom can be established by themselves and by force if necessary, by purifying the themselves of the Gentiles and their influence and punishing the sinners (sinful non-practicing Jews). They become the “Judaizers” and the party of the “Circumcision” that resist the Gentile mission of the church and in many cities physically attacked the believers. Eventually they will attack the leadership of the city of Jerusalem and begin the war against the Romans that ended in the devastation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

Historically these two collide, the leadership of Jerusalem and the zealous among the people, with devastating consequences which Jesus attributes here to God’s judgment. As far as the Gospel according to Mark is concerned, the apostle Peter retold the Gospel to his audience in Rome on the eve of the Jewish War, and Mark compiled, edited and wrote the manuscript while the War was taking place. This, and the persecution of the church under Nero, accounts for the urgency of the gospel.

After the chief priests, scribes and elders attempt to confront Jesus and he turns the table on them and confronts them instead, the questioning of Jesus continues. Jesus made a grand entrance into the City that was, in fact, upsetting. There will be consequences as far as the Romans are concerned and they want to get rid of Jesus before they themselves get in trouble. Because of Jesus’ popularity, they are afraid to seize Him directly, so they work on creating as much distance between Jesus and themselves as possible.

Render unto God What Belongs to God (12:13-17)

Perhaps the governor has already spoken to Caiaphas, for His men would have reported someone claiming to be the “King of the Jews” (the Messianic Son of David and King of Israel). For in the meantime, the chief priests and elders are looking intently for an opportunity to trap Jesus in His words so they can arrest Him, or to find a way to seize Him away from the crowd, preferably at a time when the crowd is not prepared to do anything about it and retaliate against them. Eventually Judas will give them what they need.

So the chief priests, scribes and elders send to Jesus His nemeses from Galilee, some Pharisees and Herodians, to see if they can catch Jesus in saying something treasonous, so they can arrest Him. Matthew does not report that they are “sent” but Luke tells us they are spies without telling us that they are Pharisees and Herodians. Mark explains that they are Pharisees and Herodians sent by the chief priests, scribes and elders to trap Jesus.

The Pharisees and the Herodians did not normally collaborate since to the more zealous of the Pharisees, Herod was a half-Gentile (an Edomite) who collaborated with the Romans. Nevertheless, they were united in their dislike of Jesus. So they thought to force Jesus into taking a political position—for Jesus, it seems, refused to play this game. The zealous opposed the Romans and the Herodians and the leadership in Jerusalem closely collaborated with them, often in oppressing their own people. Jesus needed to come clear as to which side He was on, and if He does, they can nail Him.

Jesus actually opposed both positions. His position was to render faithfulness to God in patience, that is, while submitting to God’s historic judgment and not taking the kingship of God into our own hands but waiting for the Day of God. Jesus does not recognize the claims of Rome, but neither does He recognize the presumption of those who would turn against Rome. For Jesus it is all about God and our knowing our place under His hand.

As often noticed, when they ask Jesus this question, “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Should we give, or should we not give?” Jesus says, “Bring Me a denarius that I may look at it.” He expects them to carry the money with the graven image of the Emperor on it. He Himself does not have any. Already, He sets them up. They do business with the currency of the Emperor, and they probably depended on the Romans for their good financial situations. They owe their financial security and wellbeing to the Roman occupation.

This is a side issue, but it seems to imply that those who benefit most from an economic system owe something back to those who made it possible. When the wealthy in this country are “rewarded” with tax breaks, they ought not to render thanks by outsourcing to other countries to maximize their profits. They ought to give back to the public, who made their good fortune possible, in the form of jobs and public works. This was how ancient cities were supported and New York City has many public works donated by the wealthy. That was in a day when the wealthy recognized that they owe something in return and that it was not simply their own merit that got them where they are. Bill Gates is an example of someone who gives back.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ answer points out to them with whom they are in bed with, so to speak. They have put themselves in the debt of the Romans and therefore they owe the tax that the Romans claim. It is an accusation. A graven image is associated with idolatry—hence Jews were forbidden to make any graven images—and in this case the image is of the Emperor. The ideology of the state, of any state, is a form of idolatry. If we buy into the ideology, we put ourselves under its power and it imprisons us within its own terms.

As Christians, because we acknowledge God’s rule alone and we acknowledge the judgment of God over all of human history, we cannot submit ourselves to any ideology of state, including the United States. The United States is simply God’s providential arrangement. In submitting to the state we submit to God. We cannot render any state our unconditional obedience, but we can submit to it as God’s arrangement. But we recognize that it is God’s providential arrangement for the restraining of evil and hopefully for our good, but always under the condition of God’s judgment.

In this light, “The things that are Caesar’s render to Caesar.” He is legitimately entitled to what you owe him for the benefits that you have accepted (even passively, whether or not you agree with them) from him. There is always a limit to this kind of concession, for no human being or institution can own you when you belong to God alone. You may owe a debt, but you do not owe yourself. Nor can that debt always be paid in the form that the state demands—for example, in the killing of its enemies. Only God has that prerogative. This is the difference between submission and obedience. Submission is an inner attitude with its attending actions, while obedience is outward compliance with what is asked for. Martyrdom is an example of submission without obedience. This kind of submission, however, condemns the one to whom it is rendered.

The main point that Jesus makes here, however, is in these words: Render “the things that are God’s to God.” This is what they were NOT doing. John the Baptist—whom they would not recognize—demanded the fruits of repentance from the people. In an enacted parable the day before, the reason Jesus cursed the flourishing fig tree is because it had signs of life (leaves) but bore no fruit. Then He told a parable about tenant farmers who refused to render the fruit of the vineyard to the owner of the vineyard. Now Jesus says to them again, “Render to God what belongs to God.”

The coins with the image of the Emperor are the currency of the Emperor. But we ourselves bear the image of God. It is to God that we owe ourselves. We owe God our “fruit,” whether that be the fruit of our repentance (Matthew 3:8), the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), our sacrifices of praise and of doing good and sharing with others (Hebrews 13:15-16). We owe God ourselves in the form of our love, worship and obedience, our time, gifts and skills. God actually claims our entire being, no matter how personal or private. In reality, God even claims what we do in our dreams and the processing that goes on in our subconscious. The state (for example) tries to claim, sometimes, as much as it can. But God’s claim over us is absolute. His claim, however, is not tyrannical like anyone else’s claim is, nor is it oppressive. God is where we come from and is at the root of what we most desire, though in our sin we can no longer recognize it. To render to God what is God’s is like coming home, like coming back to ourselves. It feels just right. It feels, in fact, like “perfect freedom.”

The official leadership of the people of Israel were motivated by practical and political concerns rather than by what they—or the people—owed to God. We need to be wary for ourselves that we do not become more concerned with success, influence or survival that we forget what we owe to God. It is the way of personal misery and will have future consequences that delay our spiritual arrival.

Knowing the Scriptures and the Power of God (12:18-27)

The next people who came to question Jesus were out not to get Jesus in any legal trouble but rather to make Him look foolish, and thus create distance between themselves and Him. “They” were the Sadducees, the religious party to which the High Priest and most of the priestly aristocracy (the chief priests) belonged. They prided themselves in being fundamentalists who only accepted the authority of the five books of Moses, the Torah. Since the doctrine of the resurrection is not explicitly taught in the Torah, they do not believe in it. (They would say that the doctrine of the resurrection comes from Persian—that is, Zoroastrian—influence; and modern scholars usually concur.) According to the revelation of God on Sinai, it is this life that matters, not some imaginary (according to them) afterlife. Unwittingly, this belief served to justify their emphasis on what is practical, useful and expedient (since there is no “unseen” benefit), and also as a rationalization of their wealth as God’s reward for their personal merit (since there will be no later time for a just God to even out or correct the “score”).

Jesus, of course, and the early church with Him, believed as the Pharisees did in almost every respect. He believed in the promises of the prophets, in the resurrection and the Day of Judgment, in the eschatological kingdom of God, in God’s angels, and in Satan and his angels. He solves their proposed case by asserting that in the resurrection individuals “neither marry nor are given in marriage” (and presumably do not remain married) but are like angels in heaven (in whose existence the Sadducees do not believe). This clarifies a confusion in Luke’s gospel (20:35) which has been used to support abstinence from sex as a form of asceticism. (Whether angels are gendered and engage in sex without the need of marriage is another question. Perhaps their communion with one another is so complete that this is rendered moot.)

Jesus points out—using the Torah for their benefit—that God says, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” God does not say “was” (as if God exists in linear time in any case). This implies, according to Jesus—who is using a rabbinical way of arguing—that God has a present and living relationship with the patriarchs, not just a historic relationship with them in the past. If this is so for them, who are known to have died—it was easy to concede for Enoch and Elijah, and supposedly even for Moses, since they did not die—then it could be true for all the faithful people of God of every generation.

This might be a reminder to Christians as well. Sometimes Protestants in particular can forget that God has a living relationship with those who have died, as if they are simply in limbo until the resurrection. The communion of the saints and indeed the catholicity of the church include the dead. That fact alone does not entitle us to pray to them (although some would differ on the efficacy of our praying for them). Yet, even still we can remember that they are with us in the fellowship of Christ, in a present and living relationship to God. We would do well to honor their works and what they left behind for us. The modern attitude that ignores or disregards the past, as if the church begins and ends with us, is arrogant to say the least but also an insult to our siblings and an affront to God.

I want to point out, however, that this in itself is not proof of the resurrection of the dead, for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not yet resurrected even though God has a present and living relationship with them. They await the resurrection. What Jesus “proves” is that life does not end with death. Even before the resurrection, they live.

Again, like the question of what we owe to Caesar, this is still secondary to the main point. The main point is in the words, “You do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God.”

These are people who are capable of reading, though the words imply that everyone should strive to know the Scriptures. Jesus obviously considers knowing the Scriptures to be foundational. We can be ignorant of the text of Scriptures, and this is to not know the Scriptures, that is, to not know its content. But these people probably were familiar with the Scriptures in this sense. There is another form of ignorance, however. This is to know the letter of the Scriptures but to be blind to what it is “saying,” to what it refers to. For example, if I describe a house, you can know every detail of my description, but it will never be the same as actually seeing the house and then hearing the description. The Scriptures have a literal reference that of course we cannot duplicate, but this is actually only a vehicle for its spiritual reference, and that is something we must have if we are to truly “know the Scriptures.” This spiritual reference is divinely revealed to the human spirit. It is not accessible except by divine revelation by an act of God’s grace. The revelation that enables us to know the Scriptures is the revelation of Christ, who was revealed to the prophets in the form of promise and to us in the form of fulfillment. We read it backwards into the types and promises. Whether we do so legitimately depends on whether we are right to believe that the One revealed to us late in time is the source of the revelation given to Moses and the prophets (and sages and scribes) of Israel whose words are recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus read the Old Testament as the Word of God; that is, He heard the authority of God’s Voice, God’s Word, in those words. The church listens to the Old Testament with Jesus.

Once our eyes are opened to see Christ, then the Scriptures—which reveal Him (and by which our eyes are opened)—become clear as to their meaning. They begin to open up to us and we see “through” the words to the Word. They become living to us, and we find ourselves in an existential and a personal encounter with the Person of the Word who faces us in Christ. This understanding is what makes the words of the Scriptures authoritative, not simply the rendering of its literal meaning. The Sadducees for all their knowledge of Scriptures were still missing the main point. This is the same issue of blindness that we saw earlier in the Gospel with respect to the presence of Jesus, only here it is in relation to the Scriptures.

Jesus also says to them, “You do not know the power of God.” This refers to the power of God to raise the dead, of course. It also points out what is a general deficiency in them. Not only do they not believe in God’s power to raise the dead, they do not really appreciate that God is real. I do not mean that they questioned God’s existence, but rather that they question the import of it. For Jesus we are always living in the presence of God and this fact bears more weight than any other circumstance in our situation. What people see and what they think is completely unimportant compared to what God sees and thinks. The outcome and practical results of our actions is irrelevant compared to how God weighs our actions. Even the way we look at our needs in terms of the conditions around us does not matter in view of God’s ability to care for us. We are to use our common sense and make our plans under this overarching consciousness of God’s presence and power. To know the power of God is to know the force of God’s reality.

The Sadducees, and here Jesus’ finger is still pointing at the chief priests and scribes and elders, live as if only this world matters. Everything is to be weighed in terms of their practicality, utility, efficiency, and effect. They equated their results with God’s power. Their wealth was God’s reward for their goodness. Therefore, what worked in terms of acquiring that wealth was what mattered, as long as one kept within the literal framework of the Torah.

Many people who call themselves Christians have not woken up to the fact that God really IS, and that all this other stuff is relative to this one fact. And this God does not ignore us to live our lives as we please or as we can best manage, but addresses us as our Lord. God does not merely give us laws to keep from a distance, but is close to us, closer indeed than our own breath, and addresses us from within even as He speaks to us from without. This idea, that we can appeal to God when we need to, treats the Lordship of God as frivolous and manifests a serious disbelief in the extent of God’s reality.

This is not surprising, for the ailment of our souls is its attempt to seal itself off from God, as if it existed on its own. The soul has been co-opted by the powers of the world to help create the world as a shared mental space that exists in independence from both the creation and from God. This world that is at enmity with God has no actual existence in creation apart from our minds. We create it and are created by it. Nevertheless the powers that rule it, Satan and all his princes and dominions, exercise a real force on us to keep us enslaved to it. In any case, the soul, because of this imprisonment and slavery, and its total inability to extricate itself—until it has been judged (by the grace of God)—is incapable of believing in the reality of God, regardless of what substitutes it conjures up to convince itself that it does believe. The unredeemed soul is incapable of “knowing the Scriptures or the power of God.”

The answer was standing in front of them. Jesus, in revealing Himself, reveals the Scriptures and the power of God. We need to open our eyes and ears, to see and listen, and let God reveal Christ to us inwardly in our spirits—by the Holy Spirit working through the testimony of the Scriptures—so that our hearts can be won. Keep paying attention with an open mind and an open heart. Christ will shine on you.

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