Thursday, April 09, 2009

Reflections on Passion Week: Everything You Believe Is Wrong

During Passion Week, a number of pronouncement narratives are related (Mk 12:13-44 and parallels). You may have noticed that in many types of stories that the Gospels tell about Jesus (technically called "pericopes,") the story ends with Jesus making a final pronouncement. We never find out what the reaction to it was; the climax, and the point, of the story lies in Jesus' pronouncement. So one way of looking at an extended series of these stories and tying them together is by pulling out the significant pronouncements and setting them together. This is particularly useful in this case, since for most of us the stories are sufficiently familiar that merely citing the pronouncement brings to mind the entire context. So here goes:
  • "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
  • "When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.... He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!"
  • "The most important one is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."
  • "Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely."
  • "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything­­--all she had to live on."
What do we get when we put all these pronouncements together? It seems to me that Jesus is correcting a number of different misperceptions that either his opponents or the people themselves have. He's essentially saying, "Everything you believe is wrong."

For example, the Pharisees and the Herodians--otherwise bitter enemies--join forces in order to try to trap Jesus over the issue of taxation. Taxation here is representative of the whole relationship between the Jewish people and the Roman government, opposed by the Pharisees and supported by the Herodians. The real question is, should the people of God be in support of a hostile pagan government? Jesus here deals with the conundrum by essentially saying, "You're both wrong; you're conflating religious with political allegience. Don't get tied up in knots over the government; give them their due, but focus your true allegience upon God."

Similarly, when the Sadducees question Jesus about marriage and the resurrection, Jesus tells them that they're wrong in their presuppositions about both. While Jesus confounds the Sadducees' skepticism regarding a resurrection, he does so by also confounding what were probably the Pharisees' assumptions concerning the nature of the resurrection. Rather than thinking of the resurrection as a simple extension of earthly life, with aspects such as marriage being continued, Jesus affirms resurrection but asserts that it is a completely different mode of being, in which the categories of marriage do not apply.

In response to the question of the greatest commandment, Jesus responds with what would have been a perfectly acceptable answer from the Shema ("love the Lord your God"), but then extends it by adding Leviticus 19:18 as a second commandment that is "like" the first. Essentially, Jesus is saying, "You are wrong in your understanding of what it means to love God: it necessarily entails loving people as well."

Jesus moves on to challenge the nature of authority as popularly understood at the time: spiritual authority is not a means to receiving honor, preference, and prestige, and those who wield it for that purpose, instead of being blessed by God, will in fact be "punished most severely." Matthew 23 extends Mark's short denunciation and demonstrates how scathing Jesus' condemnation is. We miss the point, since we have come to view Jesus' opponents as the "bad guys" and his criticisms as rather obvious (Jesus' examples of the Pharisees' pomposity appear ridiculous largely because of the cultural distance between them and us). In reality, the Pharisees were relatively popular among the people at the time, and honor accorded to them was considered normal.

Finally, Jesus challenges the contemporary view of giving to God. Instead of focusing on the absolute value of gifts, Jesus focuses on what the gift means to the giver: the proportion of one's goods being given, and therefore the degree of faith required to give.

So, in essence, Jesus says: You're wrong about one's relationship to the government; you're wrong about the nature of marriage and the resurrection; you're wrong about what love of God entails; you're wrong about the nature of spiritual authority; and you're wrong about the value of gifts given to God. If you want to follow God as he wants to be followed, you're going to have to unlearn almost everything you think you know about God.

And we wonder why the crowds turned against him. How many of us would turn on anyone who challenged our preconceptions in that way? How many of us, in fact, do?


  1. Terrific Post--you could almost say everything you believe is wrong if you want to grasp and live the Kingdom of God.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Mich. Yes, we need to unlearn a lot of stuff.