There’s a story about a young boy who asks his father, “Dad, why does the wind blow?” The father thinks about it and says, “I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it really.” “Dad, where do the clouds come from?” “I’m not sure, son.” “Dad, how do rainbows form?” “No idea, son.” “Dad, do you mind me asking you all these questions?” “Not at all, lad. How else are you going to learn?”
I was saying to Kathie this week that of all the talks I have prepared in the last 5 years, this is the one I have learned most from by looking at the passage closer. It is full of surprises.
Last year, a report in the Independent noted that children ask 73 questions every day on average. We ask fewer as we get older but life is full of them. Some are more important than others. At one end of the scale there’s “Which brand of butter should I buy?” And at the other, there’s “Are my health struggles life-threatening? Is my relationship breakdown irretrievable? Is this challenge in my job manageable for me? Is this addiction in my life breakable?”
I want you to know that whatever question you throw at Jesus, he can handle it. Nothing fazes him. Nothing bewilders him. Nothing stumps him.
In the Gospels, Jesus is recorded asking 157 different questions. Jesus is always looking for a response from people. But he was asked loads of questions too; possibly as many as he asked.
That is exactly what’s going on in today’s Bible reading. Take a look. For each question Jesus is asked here, he asks one back. It’s like a game of question tennis. 15-love. 15-all. 30-15. 30-all. 30-40. Ooh, advantage Jesus.
And then, a lightning serve from his critics; it looks like it’s going to be an ace, but just when you think he’s in trouble, Jesus sends a devastating backhand return over the net, twice the speed of the serve. And it’s game, set and match Jesus.
Chapters 1-10 of Mark’s Gospel cover a period of about 3 years. But chapters 11-16, over a third of the book, focus on a single… week; the last week of Jesus’ life and the day of his resurrection. Mark’s Gospel is like an express train that’s hurtling along, and then suddenly brakes hard and pulls slower and slower into the station.
We’re going to unpack that one climactic, decisive, explosive week of Jesus’ life in the next three months on Sundays here.
As we saw last week, Jesus has just
· ridden into Jerusalem on a colt as a servant king,
· he’s told his mates to take someone’s donkey without asking,
· he’s vandalised the most iconic religious building in the whole of Judaism,
· he’s insulted pretty well everyone there by calling them crooks,
· and he’s caused permanent environmental damage to an unsuspecting tree.
I love Jesus, big time, but I can see why he made enemies! In fact, in our reading, everywhere Jesus turns there is deep, seething antagonism against him.
There are no less than six entirely separate hostile groups here (Chief Priests, Teachers of the Law, Elders, Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees) who all come to confront him.
These groups are very diverse. You’ve got establishment and grassroots, religious and political, clergy and laity, aristocrats and commoners, liberals and arch-traditionalists – they are all rivals in many ways. But they all have one thing in common – they all hate Jesus. They want him dead.
So basically, they ambush him with three carefully planned questions; the first is personal, the second is political, and the third is philosophical. Next week, Gillian will preach on a question that is sincere, where the questioner genuinely wants to know the answer.
But this week, each question has two calculated aims. Jesus’ enemies want to (a) publicly discredit him and get the crowd on their side and (b) they want to make him fall foul of authorities and land himself in trouble.
Actually, much of the hostility that Christians face today follows the same pattern. Some people set out to make us look silly. “You Christians and your imaginary friend, we can’t take seriously people who believe in leprechauns and fairies at the bottom of the garden!” That sort of thing...
But others claim that our faith is no laughing matter; it’s poisonous, we are dangerous and bad for society. “If there were no Christians there would be fewer wars in the world, all you people do is spread your hate” is a sentiment I come across quite often.
1) Who Do You Think You Are? (11.27 – 12.12)
So let’s look, one by one, at these questions that Jesus faces. How does he answer them? Life is great when everyone loves you, but how do you deal with hostility? What does Jesus do?
The first hostile question (in v28) is personal. It’s Passover week, there are huge crowds in the temple. Everybody is watching. There is tension in the air as in walk Jesus’ critics, with faces like thunder. We’re talking about (v27) the chief priests, scribes, and elders - these are the top-ranking, elite, religious scholars who make up the ruling Sanhedrin.
Here’s the question (in front of everybody, remember): “By what authority are you doing these things?” In other words, “Show us your credentials! Where’s your degree? What Theological College didn’t you go to? You haven’t been ordained or accredited by anyone, have you?”
There’s real contempt here. This is upper-class toffs looking down their noses and saying, “Who gave northern riffraff like you the right to come in here as if you’re as important as we are? Who do you think you are?”
So Jesus says, (v29) “I’ll tell you. But first, one question from me. Tell me, John the Baptist, remember him? Was he a self-appointed ‘prophet’ or was he sent from God?’”
They go into a corner and discuss their answer. Well, this is a bit awkward really. These top-level leaders never rated John the Baptist at all. He didn’t wear the right clothes. He wasn’t Bishop John the Baptist. He wasn’t from an “official” denomination or anything.
But he was hugely popular. Crowds went out to see him and they loved him. They can’t trash him in front his fans. So what are they going to say?
Notice in v31-32 they make no effort at all to inquire into the truth of the situation. “What do we really think? Could it be this man was actually anointed by God or was he just a cult figure?” They… don’t… care. Their little meeting is about one thing only; what will make us look good to the crowd? If we say he was a nobody, we’ll lose the crowd. If we say “he was a man of God” people will say, “Well, why did you ignore him then?” In the end, they bottle it and say, “We’ll pass on that one.”
So Jesus says in effect, “Well, if you don’t want to know the truth about John the Baptist, I won’t tell you the truth about me.” Bam! Take that! Never try and win an argument with Jesus. He is devastating.
But what about you? Are you going to sit on the fence like these guys? Do you actually believe that Jesus has all authority? Do you really live as if Jesus is properly king over your life? Or is there some root of unbelief, or an unwillingness to give him your whole heart, or some lifestyle issue that limits Jesus’ lordship over your life?
Some people complain that Jesus doesn’t answer their question. He’s like a politician who changes the subject. No, he’s not. He does answer it in the next section, 12.1-12.
Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story now about an absentee landlord.” The meaning of the story is quite obvious. Everyone understands what it means. Verse 12 says, “They knew he had spoken a parable against them.”
Here’s the meaning: The vineyard is Israel. The owner is God. The tenants are the people listening to Jesus right now. The messengers are the prophets over the years. And the beloved son is Jesus.
Remember, Jesus here is just days away from his death. The very people he’s talking to are going to ruthlessly crush him. And in the story, they murder the beloved son. This is all about to happen. Jesus is saying, “I know you are going to kill me. So what do you think God ought to do about you chief priests? Answer: hand the vineyard over to someone else. God is finished with your corrupt, sterile religion. It’s over.”
And here’s the answer to their question about his authority. “You ask me by what authority I’m doing these things in this vineyard. I am the Son of the Owner.” As a boy of 12, he had stood in that very place and said, “This is my Father’s house.”
And so they say, “What are we going to do? The crowds are flocking to this man. And he’s made us look like a bunch of muppets. So let’s get someone else to ask an impossible question in front of everybody so we can humiliate him and trash his reputation.”
2) Should We Pay a Controversial Tax? (12.13-17)
So v13 says they set up the Pharisees and Herodians. These are different people to the ones who asked the last question. It is a very improbable coalition. They dislike each other. They have virtually nothing in common. Just one thing; they both hate Jesus and want him dead.
The Herodians are politicians who are stooges of King Herod and are therefore hated by most Jews. They like taxes to Caesar because they prop up their hero Herod who is Caesar’s lap dog. They do very nicely out of it thank you. There’s not a lot of love for the Herodians.
The Pharisees on the other hand, are an exclusive sect, holier than thou purists, who don’t want to be defiled by grubby politics. They hate having to pay these taxes because they support a tainted, immoral regime.
But it’s not just that. As the footnote in the church Bibles says, this poll tax was a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens. So you can imagine how that blessed everyone in Israel. It’s one thing having Johnny Foreigner marching into your country and making all the rules, but it’s another when he tells you you’ve got to pay extra for the privilege.
So in v13 they flatter Jesus with some two-faced compliments and ask a simple question but, again, notice they ask it with the specific intention to catch him out. It’s a simple ‘yes or no’ question. “Is it right to pay this poll tax to Caesar? Caesar, you know, that big ego in Rome calling himself ‘god’ with his slaves, his drunken orgies, his enemies going to the lions in the Coliseum. You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of Caesar would you?
This question is a bit like being cornered by two bullies, asking you which one of them you like the best. Whatever answer you give, you’re in for a beating.
I love the way Jesus sees straight through them. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asks. “Bring me a coin.” He doesn’t ask for a coin to show he is poor. He asks for a coin to show everyone the money that is already in their pockets. They buy their food with it. They pay their bills with it.
Jesus’ reply is to say, “Look, it’s Caesar’s face on the coin, so pay him back what’s his.” And it’s important to notice that Jesus changes the vocabulary. They ask him about paying tax. But Jesus uses a word that means not ‘pay’ but ‘pay back’.
In other words, what he’s saying is this: the taxes we pay are not some kind of scandalous extortion. We get benefits for what we pay. It pays for roads, education, police, hospitals, firefighters, street lights, rubbish collection, policing, national defence and so on.
Jesus is saying “Look, you have already benefited from these services, so you have a duty to pay for them. You've already had the blessings of good Roman roads, security, public services – so you owe. So you Pharisees, give to Caesar what’s his.”
But he also says this: “And don’t forget you get blessings from God too. You’re nothing without him. You owe God obedience, and praise and thanksgiving. So you secular Herodians, give back to God what you owe him.”
I’m sure everybody is thinking, “This is hysterical!” For days, these guys have been cooking up the perfect question to ensnare their man. Finally, they think of a corker. They walk up to Jesus, put him on the spot, and fold their arms waiting for the comedy gold moment of Jesus being stumped in front of the crowd.
And in an instant, Jesus utterly confounds them all and makes them look like amateurs. You cannot outwit Jesus. If you live your life thinking you’re smarter than Jesus (as most men love to do) you’ll end up looking a total mug. That’s because Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth.
3) How Do You Know about Eternity? (12.18-27)
The first question is personal. The second question is political. The third is a hypothetical, academic sort of question, typical of the wealthy, theologically liberal people who asked it; the Sadducees.
They saw themselves as grown-up and somewhat superior, and they looked down at people of simple faith. They accepted only the first five books of the Bible and were sceptical of the supernatural.
In particular, they said that there is no personal afterlife. Imagine there’s no heaven, above us only sky… all that stuff. We live on only in people’s memory when we die, which is probably what most people in this country think today.
So they come up with a question in v19 that they think is very clever and sophisticated. It’s a conundrum, a brain teaser, and once again it is intended to make Jesus look stupid.
They invent this convoluted story about a woman who has seven husbands, all of whom die, one after the other. Problem; if there really is an afterlife, whose wife is she going to be in heaven? They’ll all be fighting over her. Unless she was a bit of an old dragon, in which case they’ll be saying, “No, no, you first, I insist…”
It seems a silly question. But actually, it has a modern equivalent. People sometimes ask me, “How will I ever be happy in heaven if my family, who are not followers of Jesus, won’t be there with me? I’ll miss them too much. If my husband or mum or Uncle Des aren’t going to be in heaven I’d rather not be there myself.” Have you heard people say that kind of thing?
How does Jesus reply? As usual, with a question, v24. “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?”
So many so-called trick questions are little more than a display of ignorance about God's word.
They don’t know the Scriptures. He reminds them of what God said in Exodus 3, a part of the Bible they did accept where God says “I am [present tense, not ‘I was’] I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
They don’t know the power of God either. By the power of God, we will all be changed in the next life. We will have resurrection bodies that never age, perfected character that never sins, and new relationships that never strain.
A month from now I’ll conduct a wedding for Katy and Jonathan and they will promise to each other exclusive love “‘til death us do part.” At death, the marriage ends. There is no married life in heaven; it’s for this world only. In the next world, we’ll all be like angels who are not married, have no children and never grow old.
In heaven, relationships will not be the same as the family relationships we have on earth; instead, everyone will be equally closely related to each other as brother and sister in Christ.
As I draw to a close, some final thoughts…
Are you living under Jesus’ authority? Is he really number one in your life? Or are you avoiding bringing your whole life; your time, your gifts, your relationships, your money, your leisure, your professional conduct under his lordship?
Are you rendering to Caesar what is his? Do you pay tax cheerfully, thanking God for the blessing of living in a country with free healthcare, good schools, safe roads, provision for the elderly, adequate street lighting, an incorrupt judiciary, and so on? Do you need help from God to make that step today?
Are you rendering to God what is God’s? For the blessings of this life, your creation, salvation, friends, work, enough to eat and drink, a home to live in, a church family… do you show your gratitude in worship, in giving, in serving? Do you need help from God to make that step today?
Like the Sadducees, would Jesus say of you, “You are in error because you don’t know the Scriptures”? Should you invest in your knowledge of God’s word this year? Why don’t you sign up for Theology for Everyone? Or join a Life Group?
Or would Jesus say of you, “You are in error because you don’t know the power of God”? Do you believe God has the power to change things – not just between earth and eternity, but as heaven breaking in now, bringing healing to broken bodies and restoration to troubled minds?
Let’s stand to pray…
Sermon preached at All Saints' Preston on Tees, 14 January 2018