Morning Musing: Mark 12:13-14

It is great to finally be back. My family had a fantastic and much needed several days away. I’m ready, though, to hit the ground running this morning. I’ve got the next few weeks through Mark sketched out and can’t wait to dig into Jesus’ final days with you. We’ll also look at some things going on in the culture around us that resonate with the Christian worldview in powerful ways. You won’t want to miss a single part of the journey that lies ahead of us. Thanks for reading and sharing.

“Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to trap him in his words. When they came, they said to him, ‘Teacher, we know you are truthful and don’t care what anyone thinks, nor do you show partiality but teach the way of God truthfully. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?'” (CSB – Read the chapter)

Have you ever had someone try and use your words against you? If you’re a parent, you’ve probably had that experience. You draw a line in the sand with one kid, and later, when another kid comes up against the same sort of experience and you’re considering letting them cross it for some reason, the other will loudly remind you of your words to make sure nothing unfair takes place. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve heard. In a larger sense, U.S. citizens have the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution to protect us from our words being unfairly used against us in a legal setting. The experience of having someone take words you’ve said and twist them around for their own ends ranges from frustrating to horrible. As the religious leaders kept trying to find some way to take Jesus down, they sent a group of Pharisees and Herodians to do this very thing.

When we last left our hero, Jesus had laid the rhetorical smackdown on the Jewish religious authorities. A group of them, including the chief priests themselves, had confronted Jesus and His posse in the temple and demanded publicly to know where He got the authority to do and say all the things He was doing. This was all in response to His making a scene of driving out the moneychangers and traders the day before.

Jesus had stared down this powerful and intimidating group and refused to play ball. He turned the tables on them and embarrassed them by exposing their own hypocrisy to the people. In other words, He did to them the very thing they had sought to do to Him. Then, to make matters worse, with everyone gathered around and watching this tense scene unfold, Jesus told a parable that clearly accused and indicted them of taking what God had given for the good of everyone and unjustly claiming it as their own. He even predicted their next move: to kill Him.

The religious leaders were absolutely enraged at all of this, but they were too politically savvy to act on their fury right then and there. Jesus had the people. Mark tells us a few verses later that the large crowd gathered there was listening to Him “with delight.” The people loved Jesus. They loved seeing Him take down the religious authorities they all knew were hypocritical, but could not do anything about it themselves. The priests and their ilk were not going to be able to follow this particular path any further. So, they regrouped and came back the next day with a new plan of attack.

Rather than challenging Jesus directly, they would engage Him in a series of political and theological conversations, each set up cleverly to allow them to take whatever answer He gave them and twist it around to publicly embarrass and discredit Him. The priests allowed each subgroup to come up with their own challenge so they were each ready to pounce from their particular area of strength.

The Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians and went first. They led with a dicey political and legal question that was sure to do the trick. They asked Him about taxes. We’ll get into His response to them tomorrow, but for now, I just want to quickly think through exactly what they were doing in coming after Him in this way.

From their introductory statement you can almost hear the insincerity dripping from their words. With the context of His confrontation with the chief priests either earlier that day or perhaps the day before fully in mind, consider the tone of their words. “Teacher, we know you are truthful and don’t care what anyone thinks, nor do you show partiality but teach the way of God truthfully.”

Really? That’s how they led? Can you hear the insult wrapped in flattery there? You don’t care what anyone thinks. Nowadays that’s a compliment. Then, caring what other people thought was absolutely central to the position of teacher. The whole approach teachers of the Law took was to study and cite the experts who came before them. You didn’t rely on your own wisdom and authority. The most respected and celebrated teachers were masters at taking what all the other masters before them had said, summarizing it, and adding their own thoughts to the bigger pile. Saying that Jesus didn’t care what anyone thought wasn’t a compliment. It was an accusation. Throughout His ministry, His constant refusal to care what anyone thought was what so infuriated His critics.

Then there’s the line about His lack of partiality. That sounds to us like part of the praise, but it wasn’t. Showing partiality was key to the righteousness of God as far as they were concerned. They regularly separated people out into different classes and treated them accordingly. There were the righteous on top of the pile (a group that, conveniently, didn’t include much beyond the religious elite). They deserved all the privileges and honors they received. After all, they were closer to God than anyone else. Then there were the average people. These were the ones who tried to keep the Law, but they could never get as close as the pros for a variety of reasons that unfortunately still sometimes separate clergy members from everyone else today. Below these folks were varying classes of sinners descending all the way down to the tax collectors (Matthew was standing there in this group) and Gentiles. All of these groups needed to be treated differently because they were different. God didn’t love them all the same. To refuse to show partiality was, to them, a character flaw.

Around all of this was wrapped the gauze of disingenuous praise about Jesus being truthful. We can’t see through it as easily as Jesus could, but the net effect was that they were calling Jesus a liar with a smile on their faces. Jesus and the crowd too could smell the rot in the middle of the flower patch. Jesus, we know you’re truthful. You reject our sacred traditions and play fast and loose with God’s Law, but at least you’re truthful. So, go ahead and be truthful with us now so we can pound you with it. What do you think about this hot button political issue that you can’t possibly answer in a way that avoids getting you neck deep in trouble?

There’s one other thing here we dare not miss. This first group of challengers was composed of some Pharisees and some Herodians. Politically speaking this was an odd couple to say the least. The best modern comparison I can think of was if AOC and Ted Cruz held hands and sang Kumbaya together so they could take down a common enemy. The Pharisees and Herodians were about as far apart politically as they could have been. One hated Rome, the other was so cozied up to Rome they were almost willing to throw their countrymen under the bus of Rome’s legions if it meant maintaining their cushy position. In other words, no matter how Jesus answered the question, this group of foes who hated each other was perfectly designed to respond from one direction or the other to take His words and beat Him about the head with them. They had laid out their trap and were just waiting for Him to walk into it.

So, what’s the point to all of this? The point is here: When the world comes after us, it isn’t going to play fair. Enemies will become united by their common hatred for us. They will appeal to us with disingenuous flattery. They will try and trap us. The Pharisees and Herodians had no real interest in Jesus’ thoughts on this matter. They only wanted to take His answer on this divisive political question and use it to ruin Him. The simple matter is that the world doesn’t play fair, and when that happens, we shouldn’t be surprised. Neither should we concede to playing its game. Jesus certainly didn’t, as we’ll see tomorrow. Instead, we should respond with love, patience, and wisdom. We should be shrewd, but kind. We should stand firmly on the truth and not get pulled down into squabbles about issues that don’t ultimately matter. This is no easy task, but when the world is on the attack, anything less than this will pull us off the Gospel track. If the world can do that, it doesn’t need to destroy us any further. We’ve already failed in our one job. Let’s stay focused on what matters most and keep the Gospel constantly in our sights.

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