December 9, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Debates in the temple

See Matthew 21:33-46 & 22:15-33, Mark 12:1-27, Luke 20:9-40

During the first few days of what we now know as Holy Week, Jesus spent the days in the eastern hall of the temple, where groups customarily gathered for discussions. He had debates there with Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians. He spoke openly despite the warrant that had been put out for his arrest.

As he had done in Galilee, Jesus continued to teach with parables. Matthew’s Gospel has three of them at this point, while Mark and Luke tell only one. That one, though, was a doozie. It was about a man who built a vineyard (in Is 5:7, the vineyard is defined as “the house of Israel”) and leased it to tenants. The tenants killed the owner’s servants and eventually his son. There could be no doubt that the servants in the parable stood for the Old Testament prophets sent by God, and Jesus was the son.

Then Jesus told the Jewish authorities directly that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them. Naturally, they wanted to arrest him, but the crowds flocking around him provided protection.

Then came the controversial debates. The episode with the Herodians came first. They were political supporters of Herod Antipas, who wanted the kingdom of his father, Herod the Great, restored to him. They asked what seemed like a simple question: Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?

In fact, it was a loaded question. The Zealots, the extremists among the Jews, were absolutely opposed to paying taxes to the Romans because some of their tax money might be used for idolatry. Others saw no problem with paying taxes since they went toward ensuring the stability of the Pax Romana. If Jesus replied that the Jews should not pay taxes, he could immediately have been handed over to Pontius Pilate.

We know, of course, how Jesus evaded the trap. He called for a coin that had Caesar’s head on it and proclaimed, “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” We have it, then, from the highest authority, that Caesar, i.e., the civil government, has rights. But so does religion.

Now the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, had a ridiculous question. Their ridicule, though, was directed against the Pharisees and the Essenes, who did believe in life after death, as much as against Jesus. If a woman was married to seven men in this lifetime, they asked, whose wife would she be after the resurrection?

In his reply, Jesus made it clear that, although the dead will rise again, their life after their resurrection will not just be a continuation of the life they had on earth. Rather, he said, they would be like the angels in heaven. Luke’s account seems to preserve this for “those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead.” He says nothing about those who are not deemed worthy. †


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