As holy week progresses, Jesus’ conflict with the religious and political authorities increases, like a pot about to boil over. In our passage, Mark 12.1-27, Jesus engages in three rounds of verbal sparring with various groups of religious and political leaders about the nature of his authority.
In verses 1-12, Jesus tells the Parable of the Vineyard to a group of chief priests, elders, and scribes who have just asked him where his authority comes from. This parable would have been familiar to Jewish ears: God is the owner of the vineyard, and the vineyard represents God’s people, Israel. The tenants working the vineyard are the religious leaders, the slaves who are sent to check on the vineyard are the prophets, and the son of the owner is Jesus. Jesus condemns the religious leaders and the Temple system through this parable, foretelling his own death and promising them that the “stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone” (a quote from Psalm 118).
In verses 13-17, two new groups of people come to test Jesus: the Pharisees, a Jewish group focused on faithful living; and the Herodians, representatives of the Roman authorities. These two groups ask Jesus whether paying taxes is lawful. Jesus responds by asking the Pharisees to show him a denarius, a silver Roman coin worth about a day’s wages (and the amount of an individual’s census or poll tax).
On the front of the coin is a side profile of the Emperor Tiberius with the words, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus.” The coin itself proclaims that the Emperor is the son of God, and Jesus catches the Pharisees with one in their pockets. Jesus cunningly skirts the question by saying, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And in verses 18-27, a final round of people comes to test Jesus: the Sadducees, a Jewish group connected with the priests; and the Sanhedrin, who don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. They present a test case to Jesus: a woman has married a man who dies, and then she marries his brother according to the law of Moses - six times.Their question is, “So whose wife will she be in the resurrection?”
The Sadducees attempt to present Jesus with a reductio ad absurdum argument: they begin with the opposite position to the one they believe, and then take it to its logical and absurd conclusion, thereby showing the initial position to be false. In response, Jesus uses the Scriptures to show that God is the God of the living—and therefore that the Sadducees are wrong in their understanding of the Scriptures and God’s power.
Jesus challenges the authority of each religious and political group he meets. In the first section, the Parable of the Vineyard, Jesus challenges the chief priests, scribes, and elders—those involved with the Temple and its sacrificial system. Jesus says to them, “I have authority over the Temple and all who serve there because I am the cornerstone.” Jesus condemns their violence towards the prophets, himself, and anyone offering a corrective voice to the religious system.
In the second section, the question about taxes, Jesus challenges the Pharisees and the Herodians. Jesus says to the Herodians, “I have authority over all earthly governments, because I, not Tiberius, am the Son of God.” Jesus says to the Pharisees, “I am the one you should live faithfully for; all things come from me and will return to me.” Jesus condemns the Pharisees and the Herodians for confusing earthly authority with eternal authority.
In the third section, the question about the resurrection, Jesus challenges the Sadducees. He says to them, “I have authority over God’s law and all of the Scriptures—and I use God’s word to give life to all people.” Jesus condemns their use of the law to maintain their own power through patrilineal property rights.
If you are reading or hearing this, you are probably a religious insider yourself. In this passage, Jesus warns us against three things:
1. Giving too much power and authority to church leadership
2. Focusing too much on “right” behavior
3. Using Scriptures to promote our own agendas
We can use church structures, behavioral norms, and the Scriptures themselves as weapons against others. They were certainly all used that way against Jesus.
Instead, Jesus invites us to loosen our grip on the religious tools of church leadership, holy living, and the Scriptures—for the power of each of these comes from God and not from us. If we loosen our grip, then we can stop wielding them with our earthly power over others and invite God to wield them with divine power to transform us.