Debates in the Temple audio
During my time at Ridley, one of the highlights was the debates. Sometimes there’d be big debates in class, as we tried to wrap our heads around big theological ideas. But the really great debates were the ones the student body organized. Two small teams of lecturers and students would be pitted against each other. They’d be locking horns over the really important questions, like ‘You can’t teach good theology through fiction,’ or ‘That theological students don’t need to learn Greek or Hebrew anymore!’ These debates were a bit of fun, actually they were lots of fun. But they were also a way for us to unpack ideas and to look at them theologically.
In the section of Mark that we’re looking at today, Jesus is involved in a series of debates. They’re all about important theological issues, but unlike those debates at Ridley, they’re no laughing matter. There’s a long list of opponents queuing up to take Jesus down. It was bad enough when he was causing a stir out in the Judean countryside, but now he’s arrived in Jerusalem! And remember Jesus didn’t come quietly, there were great crowds heralding his arrival in the city. What’s more, Jesus caused quite a commotion in the temple when he overturned the money-lenders tables. From as early as Mark 3:6, Jesus’ opponents began plotting how to destroy him, but now they’re really determined to put a stop to him. Jesus can’t be allowed to go on.
Round 1 – Whose Authority?
First up in verse 27, is a group from the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Jerusalem. Throughout Mark, we’ve seen the crowds recognize that Jesus taught with authority, not like the scribes. And now in Jerusalem he’s been doing things that suggest he’s an authoritative figure. The Sanhedrin want to know who’s given Jesus permission to do all these things. They certainly haven’t. In their minds, Jesus is nothing more than a country rabbi, a rabble-rouser with no official standing whatsoever. As far as they’re concerned he’s got no right to have a say in the affairs of Jerusalem and the Temple. They want to know who does Jesus think he is?
Jesus proves he’s just as good at turning tables in an argument, as he is in real life. He responds to their question with one of his own, ‘First tell me where John’s authority came from – earth or heaven?’ The implication is that Jesus’ authority comes from the same place as John’s. But the Sanhedrin aren’t prepared to accept that John, or Jesus, were divinely authorized figures. If they did, it would mean they’d have to listen to, and obey, Jesus. They’d much rather say that Jesus and John are doing things off their own bat. That neither of them are speaking with God’s authority. That’s the answer they’d like to give. But they can’t. They’re too afraid of the crowds, who regarded John as a true prophet. They’re stuck. They’re not willing to accept Jesus and they’re not willing to say what they really think about him. So they just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘We don’t know.’ As far as the debate goes, they’ve failed.
Round 2 – Who’s owed?
But that doesn’t stop Jesus’ opponents. Next up, in verse 13, they send some of the Pharisees and Herodians to give it their best shot. They begin by buttering Jesus up. They come to him and say, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” They’re laying it on thick, flattering Jesus in the hope of catching him out with their question, “Is it permitted for us to pay taxes or not?” They think they’ve laid the perfect trap for Jesus. No one likes paying taxes, but the one they’re referring to was incredibly unpopular in Judea. It was even more unpopular than teh Carbon Tax or the GST. The Roman emperor introduced it around 6AD and it had already been the cause of one failed uprising. If Jesus comes out in support of the tax, they know he’ll become unpopular with the crowds. They can say he’s sold out. But if Jesus comes out and says paying the tax isn’t permitted, they can have him denounced as a zealot and arrested by the Romans. As far as the Pharisees and Herodians are considered it’s a win-win scenario for them. They think there’s no way out for Jesus.
Except, once again Jesus outsmarts them. He’s not about to be trapped by their silly games. ‘Bring me a coin’ he says. Then he asks them, ‘Who’s image is on the coin, who’s name does it bear?’ Just like our coins have a picture of the Queen on them, their coin has a picture of Caesar on it. Jesus’ reply is perhaps best translated, “Well give back to Caesar what’s owed to him.”
He’s saying that they’ve not only accepted Roman coins, but also all the good things that Roman rule brings with it like sanitation and security. So in a sense they have a debt to the government, which they should pay! And speaking of debts, Jesus goes on to say we should “give to God what he’s due.” For now though he leaves it up to us to work out what God’s expects.
It’s pretty clear the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t see this one coming! They thought they’d trapped Jesus, but instead he’s pulled the rug out from under them. Jesus has undermined their assumption that God and the government are fundamentally opposed. And so they go away utterly amazed at him.
Round 3 – Resurrection = Ridiculous
But then the next attack comes. This time it’s from a group of Sadducees. These are the theological conservatives of Jesus’ day. They were extremely dedicated to the Pentateuch, that is the first five books of the Old Testament. But they thought everything else was a bit suspect. Among other things, they didn’t believe in the resurrection, as Mark says in verse 18. So they come to Jesus wanting to debate this issue with him. It’s not the sort of discussion that will get Jesus in trouble with the Romans. Instead they’re hoping to show that the kinds of things Jesus has been teaching are ridiculous.
Instead, the Sadducees end up with egg on their faces. They’d come to Jesus hoping to show the resurrection was unbelievable and inconsistent with the bible. But then, in front of all the people in the temple, Jesus tells them not once, but twice that they’re quite wrong! He shows them that there’s ample evidence for the resurrection, even in just the bits of the Bible they believed in. They’ve failed to understand who God is and how powerful he is! God makes an eternal covenant with his people and he’s not about to let death have the final word!
This is a great comfort for us, especially at a time like this. God is not the God of the dead, but the living. Even death cannot separate us from God’s love, and we can be confident that in Jesus we have eternal life, just as he says in John:
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” – John 10:28
We don’t even hear the Sadducees response. They slink away without a word, with ‘egg on their faces’. They’ve failed to trip Jesus up, to win their argument against him.
Round 4 – Which law?
When I was studying at Melbourne University, it always seemed unfair that the law students got to have open bok exams. Until one of them pointed out that there was so much case law to refer to, that no one could ever memorise it all. Well, in the Old Testament there were something like 617 laws and commandments. So for some time the rabbis and scribes had been trying to categorise them. They spent hours trying to work out which were heavy and which light. To determine if there was any order or ranking to the laws.
This is the question that is put to Jesus in the final debate. Out of the shadows comes a lone scribe has been watching the previous debates. Unlike all the others, this scribe seems genuine in his approach. He politely asks Jesus ‘Which law comes first?’ He wants to know what Jesus thinks is the greatest commandment. It’s a test to see how well Jesus knows his Old Testament.
We’re quite familiar with Jesus answer. In fact, we often repeat it at the start of our services. But Jesus was the first to bring these passages together, to summarize the law in this way. Jesus says, the whole of the law stems from God’s nature. God is one, there is no other beside him. And it is this one God that people should follow, worship and obey, with everything they have – heart, mind, soul and strength. And in doing so we should love our neighbors as ourselves, for they too are God’s children.
It’s such a good answer, that the scribe agrees with Jesus. And then scribe even goes one further. He says this is more important than all the sacrifices and burn offerings of the Old Testament! Jesus commends him for being so wise and tells him he’s not far from the Kingdom of God.
The debate’s not over
It has been quite a day for Jesus. His authority has been called into question. He’s been challenged on political, theological and even legal grounds. But in every challenge, in every debate, Jesus has been the victor. At the end of the day, Mark says, no one dared ask him any other questions.
Of course, there’s no shortage of people today ready to step up and have a go at Jesus, or to have a go at those who follow him. On one wall in Koorong this week I saw over a dozen DVDs of debates like this. All of people willing to challenge Christians, to challenge God. It’s not just in big public settings either. In our work places, in our gyms, in our classrooms, there are people ready to have a go at God. Mark tells us we shouldn’t be surprised or dismayed by this. They’re not the first, nor will they be the last. But we can be confident that at the end of the day, they too will be silenced.
For at the end of the day, these debates in Mark do more than teach us about the relationship between Church and state, the resurrection or the order of the commandments. They show us that Jesus is just who the Pharisees said he was, one who teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth. And while the Sanhedrin might not have been willing to admit it, Jesus’ authority comes from heaven, for he is the Son of the Living God. And so unlike all those who came to trap Jesus, to test him or discredit him, we must come and bow before him. We must submit to him, as the one who has authority over our lives. We must trust in him, even at times like this, when that might be difficult. We must remember he’s the God who has the power to raise the dead, who rules over the living and who calls us to love him with all our heart, mind and soul.