Friday, July 24, 2020

Mark 11 27-33 + Mark 12 1-17

and they come again to Jerusalem:
and as he was walking in the temple
there come to him the chief priests,
and the scribes, and the elders,
and say unto him,
“by what authority doest thou these things?
and who gave thee this authority to do these things?”
and Jesus answered and said unto them,
“I will also ask of you one question,
and answer me,
and I will tell you by what authority I do these things
the baptism of John,
was it from heaven, or of men?
answer me.”

and they reasoned with themselves, saying,
"if we shall say,
from heaven; he will say,
why then did ye not believe him?
but if we shall say, of men...”"
they feared the people
for all men counted John,
that he was a prophet indeed.
and they answered and said unto Jesus,
“we cannot tell”
and Jesus answering saith unto them,
“neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things”

It’s Tuesday morning. For the third time since he arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the temple. Three different sets of religious leaders come and try to trap him. The story is now unambiguously about Jesus versus the Priests — God against Religion — and it is rushing towards its terrible climax.

First come the temple authorities: the chief priests, the scribes and the elders: the interpretors of the law, and the custodians of the temple cult. They challenge Jesus on the question which has been bugging them since that first Saturday in Capernaum. What right does Jesus have to ride into Jerusalem proclaiming himself the true successor to David? What right does he have to suspend the normal running of the temple? Who does he think he is?

They ask him the same question twice in different words “By what authority these things are you doing and who gave you the authority these things you should do?” People don’t talk in poetic parallelism in real life any more than they talk in rhyming couplets. Mark is recounting events that have already taken on the form of a story.

Jesus won’t give them a straight answer. He uses the same kind of “heads I win, tails you lose” trick that the Pharisees played on him last week. The Pharisees tried to put Jesus in a position where he had to either criticise the King or antagonise the people. Jesus invites the Priests to either accept the authority of John the Baptist, or reject it.

But John is still an incendiary figure. Practically everyone in town went and got baptised by him; practically everyone still believes he was a prophet. Lots of people think that Jesus himself is John. Deny John’s baptism, and you insult the whole of Jerusalem. Affirm it, and you are more or less calling the King a murderer.

They won’t give Jesus an answer; he won’t give them an answer. Stalemate.

We know the pattern. Having deftly avoided the first trap, Jesus voluntarily walks into a much bigger one.

“If you won’t answer my question” he says “I won’t answer yours. I will tell you a story instead. Once upon a time, there was a vineyard….”

and he began to speak unto them by parables
“a certain man planted a vineyard
and set an hedge about it
and digged a place for the winefat
and built a tower
and let it out to husbandmen
and went into a far country.
and at the season he sent to the husbandmen a servant,
that he might receive from the husbandmen of the fruit of the vineyard.
and they caught him,
and beat him,
and sent him away empty.
and again he sent unto them another servant;
and at him they cast stones,
and wounded him in the head,
and sent him away shamefully handled.
and again he sent another;
and him they killed,
and many others;
beating some,
and killing some.
having yet therefore one son,
his wellbeloved,
he sent him also last unto them, saying,
they will reverence my son.
but those husbandmen said among themselves,
this is the heir; come, let us kill him,
and the inheritance shall be ours
and they took him,
and killed him,
and cast him out of the vineyard.
what shall therefore the lord of the vineyard do?
he will come and destroy the husbandmen,
and will give the vineyard unto others.
and have ye not read this scripture;
the stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner:
this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?"

and they sought to lay hold on him,
but feared the people:
for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them:
and they left him,
and went their way.

Mark has told us that Jesus’ parables are deliberately cryptic, and that even the disciples often miss the point. But this one is crystal-clear. Most of the parables are analogies which illustrate a single precept. This one (like the parable of the foolish sower) is a full-on allegory. The vineyard is Israel. The owner of the vineyard is God. The tenants are the priests. The messengers are the prophets. The owner’s son is… Well, perhaps you can work that bit out for yourself?

There is an element of plausible deniability in the story. Jesus doesn’t say in so many words that the priesthood is going to be destroyed. He has merely asked what you would expect a landlord to do to tenants who murder the rent collectors.

Some people persist in saying that Mark’s Jesus is simply a reforming Rabbi who wants to encourage the Jews of his day to be a bit better at Jewing. But that removes the whole force of the story. Jesus sets himself against the Priests and against the Temple. He hasn’t been in the temple five minutes before he begins breaking things. When the Priests ask him what he thinks he is doing, he tells them that they only have power because God has leant it to them. He tells them that Prophets are to Priests as messengers from the landlord are to the rent-paying tenants. He tells them that he himself is to the Prophets as the landlord’s son is to the rent-collectors. And he says that the whole system is going to end. The landlord is taking back the vineyard. The fig tree is going to wither. No more temple. No more priests.

“The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all”. This is very similar to what he was telling the disciples about authority in Perea. The last is first, the servant is boss, the children are grown ups, the degraded one is king. The vital part of the building was the bit that was retrieved from the rubbish dump. You don’t think I’m anything very special? That’s proof that I’m the boss.

It is another quote from Psalm 114, the Psalm about the king and the sacrifice coming into the city through the gates and everyone shouting “Hosana” at them. That hymn is still in everyone’s mind.

and they send unto him certain of the Pharisees
and of the Herodians
to catch him in his words.
and when they were come,
they say unto him,
“Master, we know that thou art true,
and carest for no man:
for thou regardest not the person of men,
but teachest the way of God in truth:
is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?
shall we give, or shall we not give?”
but he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them,
“Why tempt ye me?
bring me a penny,
that I may see it.
and they brought it.
and he saith unto them,
whose is this image and superscription?

and they said unto him, Caesar’s.”
and Jesus answering said unto them,
“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,
and to God the things that are God’s.”

And they marvelled at him.

Pharisees and Herodians are members of political and religious factions outside the priesthood. Both groups are actively hoping for a Messiah, which they take to mean a restored Jewish monarchy. The Pharisees want a literal descendent of David on the throne; the Herodians more realistically want Big Herod’s descendents in charge of a reunited kingdom. Niether of them think much of the emperor.

Our Bible uses “penny” to mean “coin”: back in chapter 6 we were told that it would take more than two hundred pennies to cater for a crowd of five thousand. A “penny” is actually a Roman denarius. It’s a silver coin worth about a day’s wages and it has a picture of Augustus on it. Very probably this is why there were money changers in the temple to start with: good Jews weren’t supposed to put idolatrous currency in the collection plate.

So the Priest’s messenger boys think they have Jesus trapped. “We know you always give straight answers to straight questions. And here we are in God’s actual house. So tell us straight. What do you think of Ceasar?”

It’s a great trick question. Accept the Emperor’s authority and become an idolator in the eyes of your more pious compatriots. Or reject it and become a rebel in the eyes of Rome.

Everyone remembers Jesus’ answer: “Render unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar’s; render unto God the things which are God’s.”

The word “render” is apo-didomi, “give back”. Our translators have to add a lot of words to get the saying to fit into English. “Ta Kaisaros” means “the of-Ceasar”. Give back Ceasar’s to Ceasar; give back God’s to God.

People have a lovely time over-interpreting this passage. Jesus is making a very subtle distinction between church and state. He is giving us a template which will allow us to answer hard questions, like whether Christians should be conscientious objectors in a period of conscription, and whether the Church ought to lobby the government to make shopkeepers observe the sabbath.

Well, maybe. But we should be very careful of making “render unto Ceasar” a slogan to justify whichever political stance we were going to take in any case. The point of the story is that Jesus wouldn’t engage in a debate about the emperor’s authority. Who you pay taxes to has nothing to do with the case. It’s Ceasar’s own money anyway.

When the Priests challenge Jesus authority, he lets rip with a parable which insinuates that the Priesthood and the Temple are going to come to an end. When the Heroidans ask him about who should be King, he more or less says “I am not going to answer that. It is a silly question.”

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So; that’s the very long role-playing essay. Come back in six months and maybe we’ll do the second very long roleplaying essay, tentatively entitled Aslan #16: The Return.

Thank you to everyone who said nice things; and thank you to everyone who isn’t interested in RPGs for putting up with it.

So: what next?

I am likely to remain furloughed for at least another month and while there are an awful lot of superhero films on Netfux and an awful lot of Shakespeare plays on YouTube that still gives me quite a lot of time to write. I haz a lovely big new shiny computer and everything. 


Starting this week, there are going to be three different streams of Rilstonian Material for you to enjoy; and (you knew we were coming to this) new ways of supporting them.


I am going to start releasing the final sections of my ridiculously long and frankly rather hubristic walk-through the Gospel According to Saint Mark. We left Jesus shortly after Palm Sunday, so we’re coming to the hardest and most famous section of the story. The End Times. Judas. The Naked Fugitive. Son-of-His-Daddy. Mary "Who'd She?" Magdalene. The False Ending. Maybe even a word or two about the very mysterious lost chapter. There are probably about ten essays to come, of different lengths, and the whole thing should morph into a book almost immediately. I know some people find this kind of thing more interesting than others, so bare with me. 


Once I've finished with the Bible (as it were!) I've got a ton of other material ready to roll out or in progress. So I am going to give my lovely, lovely Patreon followers early access to it. There should be one Patreons-only essay a week for the Foreseeable future: political comedy, Mr A, and Bob Dylan to start with.

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If you don’t want to join Patreon, then just sit tight; all this stuff will eventually show up on the blog. But if you like what I am doing then Patreon is kind of like standing on your doorstep and giving me a round of applause. Only with less moral pressure and political sub-text. 


I started my Going Out In Bristol Blog at more or less exact moment that Going Out stopped being a thing that people could do. I am keeping it going for ad-hoc, off the top of my head kinds of reviews and comments: the sort of thing where I say “It was a nice movie, I liked it” rather than do a 4,000 word commentary of the opening credits. (Patreons are not charged for this, but people who make use of the tip jar create Happy Bloggers.) 

Ongoing series here; early access to miscellaneous pop culture stuff on Patreon Page; random arty stuff on arts page. Simples. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Thursday, July 09, 2020

I now have to own up to a guilty secret.  I don't like comic books all that much. 

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

We used to go on holiday to Brighton, in the years before the oceans drank the West Pier.

Monday, July 06, 2020

I liked pirates before Pirates of the Caribbean made them briefly fashionable

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

I went to a Games Convention: it may have been Dragonmeet or Games Day.