Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Caesar Salad

Mark 12:13-27
by Daniel Harrell

One of my guilty internet pleasures is scanning entries at the FML website (some of you know what I’m talking about). On it, one father wrote, “Today, after the church service was over, my two-year-old daughter started to sing into the microphone. She said, ‘Here Dad, you sing.” I picked up the microphone and proceeded to sing ‘Jesus Loves Me.’ She took the microphone back and said, ‘No he doesn’t.’” Happy Father’s Day. I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when he said that the kingdom of God belongs to little children? Something about belonging to God brings out the exclusiveness in all of us. There is a nagging tendency among believers to treat God’s favor as favoritism and as license to snub those you’re certain Jesus could never love. In a conversation recently with a Christian political lobbyist, I was struck by the ease with which he vilified his opponents. I couldn’t help but wonder whether a bit more grace might win him a few more votes, and Jesus a few more converts. Perhaps such is just the contentious nature of politics. Privilege is power, and for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, their power was threatened by this rogue carpenter who taught that God’s grace was for those who least deserved it―for the outcast and the sinner who needed it most. For the religious establishment, such unfettered accessibility to God’s favor threatened their hard-earned righteousness. If righteousness could be had for free, what good is a Pharisee?

Tonight’s the last, for now, in this series of Jesus’ red-lettered sayings from Mark’s gospel. We’ve been going at it for over a year, and will pick back up with a few more in the fall as we wrap up the church bicentennial year. Coming up for the rest of the summer is a chance to hear from several other members of our able church ministry staff, as well as the pleasure to hear Joni Eareckson Tada on July 12. As for me, I have a couple of Sundays I’ll devote to my annual church fathers’ series, this year starting with the letter J. I’m actually planning to tackle one father and one mother this year: Justin Martyr and Julian of Norwich.

As far as we know, Justin Martyr, the 2nd century church apologist, was the first Christian author outside the gospels to quote tonight’s first set of red letters: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” According to Justin, Jesus meant that Christians were to be model citizens in Roman society, refusing the emperor only one thing: their worship. Of course it was Justin’s refusal to worship the emperor that made Justin into Justin Martyr.

In Mark 12, the context is not emperor worship per se, but rather how to trap Jesus. The religious establishment has been gunning for him since chapter 3, but because of his rock star popularity, they couldn’t just gun him down. They either had to discredit him in the eyes of his fans, or goad him into breaking Roman law. Ergo the trick question in verse 14: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Answer yes, and Jesus offends the occupied Jewish masses for whom Roman taxes were both economically and blasphemously burdensome. Answer no, and Jesus incurs the wrath of Rome. Either way, the religious establishment strikes a major blow. What’s interesting is that you have the Pharisees and the Herodians working together. The Pharisees chafed under Roman rule and were offended by an Emperor with delusions of divinity. The Herodians, on the other hand, were Jews who’d hopped into bed with their Roman oppressors, setting aside convictions the Pharisees were so adamant about protecting for the sake of personal benefit.

Ironically, Jesus and the Pharisees actually shared a common faith. Both were of chosen stock, both traced their ancestry to Abraham, both worshipped at the Temple and regarded the Law as God’s sacred word, and both looked toward God’s deliverance from Roman oppression. And both remembered the Sabbath day and kept it holy. Yet their politics diverged deeply—evidenced most starkly in regard to the Sabbath. As much as sexual conduct headlines contemporary political news cycles, Sabbath conduct did so in Jesus’ day. Sabbath was a core aspect of Israel’s identity. It was the tangible thing that set them apart from their pagan oppressors. As with Christians who refuse to work on Sundays, Pharisaic Jews kept Sabbath as a way of drawing their line in the cultural sand. Yet since the Romans were apparently fine with letting their Jewish subjects keep their Sabbath for the most part, it wasn’t much of a line. For the Pharisees, however, strict Sabbath observance succeeded as a political ploy. By sticking to the Sabbath the Pharisees could look like they were sticking it to Rome. By keeping the Sabbath better than everybody else they could project an image that they were better than everybody else. They cornered the market on both prominence and piety―since to keep Sabbath kept you in God’s graces.

And they pretty much got away with it until Jesus showed up and started messing with their Sabbath setup. Of course the Pharisees, like any party in power, could not allow for this. And because politics makes strange bedfellows, they conspired with the Herodians about how to take Jesus out. For the Herodians, Jesus’ kingdom talk threatened Roman hegemony and thus their own security and status that was tied to it.

Together they suck up to Jesus in an attempt to throw him off guard and mask their scheme, calling him a man of obvious integrity and godliness. This is all true of course, but the Pharisees and Herodians don’t believe it for a minute. Mark notes that Jesus “knew of their hypocrisy.” He could smell a rat. Jesus says as much himself, asking in verse 15 why they are trying to trap him. He then gives his answer, using a Roman denarius as a prop. He asked them to identify the image on it. The coin bore the image of the current Emperor Tiberius Caesar. That Jesus uses words like image and likeness hearkens back to Genesis 1 where men and women are spoken of being made in God’s image. And thus “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” means that Caesar can have the money and all that goes with it, but God gets your very soul. This is how Tertullian, another early church father, understood it. As did Augustine. Jesus’ beef was not with the Romans. As he said to Pontius Pilate, “his kingdom was not from this world.”

Many have cited this passage as precedent for the American separation of church and state. However, that God’s kingdom is not from the world does not mean God’s kingdom has nothing to do with the world. Our faith should not be compartmentalized from other aspects of our life, political and otherwise. In the back of this sanctuary hangs a bronze plaque in honor of Arcturus Z. Conrad, pastor of Park Street for 33 years. He was quite the flamboyant figure, arriving at church Sunday mornings in his horse drawn limousine, dressed in white tie and tails underneath his preaching robe. His sermon topics typically engaged the social and political issues of his day: the necessity of prohibition, whether bank deposits should be guaranteed, the cost of coal, playing sports on Sunday, municipal corruption and graft, and the depraved presidency of FDR. Word has it that whenever Conrad caught wind of wanton legislation being debated up at the State House, he’d bolt out of the church and charge up Park St. to confront the governor and legislators head on. I guess that’s how Conrad understood “giving it to Caesar.”

Times have changed. Expectations that state government will heel to the demands of a local congregation are generally quite low—and perhaps even unwarranted. Entrusting Christian morality to secular implementation is always a dubious enterprise. Whenever Christian faith relies too strongly on governmental power to uphold its ethics, it’s life-changing power can easily dilute into a civil religion not worth its salt. And yet, there are times when God’s people are compelled toward more confrontational postures even if the expectation is failure. In Conrad’s words, we must at times “breathe that flame designed to consume us.” Such passion—albeit always infused with compassion—has been exhibited from many corners of the church as we’ve historically marshaled righteous opposition against slavery, hunger, poverty, racism, illiteracy, abortion, penal injustices, health care disparity, war and violence.

Not that this is what Jesus intends here. Here, the intention is to elude the trap. Which he does, thereby allowing the Sadducees to take their shot. Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees were members of the religious ruling council, known as the Sanhedrin. The Sadducees are mentioned only here in Mark, and unlike the Pharisees, are described as those “who say there is no resurrection” which is what made the Sadducees so sad, you see (sorry). The Sadducees rejection of the resurrection was not because the Sadducees were theological liberals. On the contrary, the Sadducees were extremely strict when it came to the law, adhering to a “Torah only” approach to Biblical authority because the Torah came straight from the mouth of God (through Moses—the Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament). For the Sadducees, if it wasn’t in the Torah, it wasn’t true. This is why Jesus answers their question from Exodus, the second book of the Torah.

The Sadducees’ question wasn’t so much to get an answer as it was to mock the idea of anybody rising from the dead―including Jesus. By this point Jesus had announced his own plans to come back to life. The Sadducees give him this silly song and dance about a childless wife with seven deceased husbands, attempting to show that once you bring in resurrection, Torah teaching on marriage no longer makes any sense. According to the Torah, a single man whose brother died without a son had an obligation to marry his brother’s widow. This provided for the widow in a society where no children and no husband meant no social security. It also guaranteed the continuance of the family line. However here, there is no line to continue because there were no children. So at the resurrection of the dead, which brother gets the wife?

Jesus replied that clearly the Sadducees understood neither the word nor the power of God―the very word and power, by the way, that paved the way for Jesus own resurrection. Jesus first teaches that there is no marriage in heaven—which explains why people say “until death do us part” in their marriage vows. Instead, as far as marriage is concerned, resurrected people will “be like the angels,” verse 25. This does not mean that we all get halos and harps and flit around eternally from cloud to cloud (as if that’s what angels do). Rather, like angels, we will enjoy eternal communion with God, the very thing that human marriage has always been intended to approximate. In Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem―representing the redeemed people of God―comes down to earth like a beautiful bride with Jesus as the husband. There’s no more marriage in heaven because everybody’s married to Jesus. As angels, they do not share in the marital bliss we humans do. But they are there cheering us on, which no doubt displeased the Sadducees since they didn’t believe in angels either.

But they did believe in the Torah, so when Jesus asks whether they’ve read the part about the burning bush (where an angel happens to appear), that had to make the Sadducees hot. Of course they’d read the part about the burning bush. OK, but had they understood it? In Exodus 3, God spoke to Moses out of that bush, identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The context is Moses’ commissioning to go rescue God’s people out of Egypt, a mission Moses felt completely unqualified to do. God’s assurance of Moses’ success is based on God being the God of Abraham, et. al., the idea being that if God protected the patriarchs—who were the recipients of God’s promise to save a people for himself—then surely God will keep that promise and protect Moses too. And not just in this life, but forever. This is how it was that God could speak of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the present tense (and how Moses could show up at Jesus’ Transfiguration). If death got the last word, as the Sadducees believed, then God had broken his covenant promises. But since “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (verse 27), then Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must somehow still be alive.

But how can the patriarchs be raised from the dead if Jesus himself has yet to blaze the trail? If belief in Jesus gets you eternal life, how do you get it if there’s no Jesus yet to believe in? For the Old Testament saints, it was their hope in God’s salvation to come that comprised their saving faith. As the apostle Paul wrote regarding Abraham’s faith, “he believed God’s promise and it was credited to him as righteousness.” But how can they be raised from the dead if there had yet to be any resurrection?

In the book of Colossians, the apostle Paul describes the Colossians as “already raised with Christ” even as they still lived and breathed on earth. In doing so, like Jesus, Paul hints at a dual reality, an already-not-yet existence, an eternity that occurs even while earthly clocks still tick. According to some interpretations of Einstein’s theory of relativity, our experience of time as the constant tick-tock move toward the future is for the most part just an illusion anyway. What truly exists is a greater reality beyond the speed of light where no time passes and everything occurs in the conceptual present—whether past, present or future. God abides in this dimension unbound by time, interacting with all events of history simultaneously (sort of like a comic strip reader reading the comics). In the tick-tock of temporal time, our bodies and our selves return to the dust from whence they came, awaiting new creation. Yet in the dimension of eternity, we are seated with Christ in heaven already, just like Paul said. The day of resurrection has already happened on God’s clock; we merely await for our experience of it to catch up with it on that day when, as Revelation describes, the New Jerusalem finally comes down from heaven, and eternity and time compress together and God’s will is finally done on earth as it is in heaven.

The Sadducees were badly mistaken, Jesus said. And like the Pharisees and the Herodians, they fail to trap Jesus. That they eventually succeed at getting him killed is not a testimony to their own eventual cleverness. Instead, their eventual success at destroying Jesus only further demonstrates his authority. Not only does he teach that in God’s kingdom the only currency is sacrificial love, Jesus proves it so loving the world that he dies a sacrificial death. And not only does he teach the resurrection of the dead, Jesus proves it by doing it.

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