Saturday, August 01, 2020

Mark 12 18 - 44

then come unto him the Sadducees, 

which say there is no resurrection; 
and they asked him, saying,
“Master, Moses wrote unto us, 
if a man's brother die, 
and leave his wife behind him, 
and leave no children, 
that his brother should take his wife, 
and raise up seed unto his brother.
now there were seven brethren: 
and the first took a wife, and dying left no seed.
and the second took her, and died, neither left he any seed: 
and the third likewise.
and the seven had her, and left no seed: 
last of all the woman died also.
in the resurrection therefore, 
when they shall rise, 
whose wife shall she be of them? 
for the seven had her to wife.”
and Jesus answering said unto them, 
“do ye not therefore err, 
because ye know not the scriptures, 
neither the power of God?
for when they shall rise from the dead, 
they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; 
but are as the angels which are in heaven.
and as touching the dead, that they rise: 
have ye not read in the book of Moses, 
how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, 
I am the God of Abraham, 
and the God of Isaac, 
and the God of Jacob?
he is not the God of the dead, 
but the God of the living: 
ye therefore do greatly err.”

The Pharisees go away, and along come the Sadducees with a trick question of their own.

The Sadducees are more textually and theologically conservative than the Pharisees. They don’t believe in life after death, because the Torah doesn’t mention it. That is why they were so sad, you see. (Very Old Joke.)

It goes the way discussions of the afterlife always do. The skeptic raises a practical question about how a purely materialistic afterlife would work. How old will your granny be in heaven? Will there be cricket in heaven? Will there be scones and jam and tea? In that case, will there be toilets? The believer says that these are silly questions and he doesn’t believe in a purely materialistic afterlife either. The skeptic says he’s avoiding the question and everyone goes home equally dissatisfied. Unless the believer is an old-fashioned spiritualist. They really did believe that there is tea and crumpets on the other side.

Granted that remarriage is permitted — and even, in some cases, mandated — and granted that polygamy is forbidden; what happens when a person who has been married several times pops up out of his grave at the end of the world — who are they married to? Ha ha, gotcha!

Jesus, true to form, says that this is a silly question.

Jesus seems to have rejected the idea of a singular Resurrection — a future day on which all the dead will come back to life. But it isn’t very helpful to say that the dead are “like the angels” because we don’t have the faintest idea what angels are like. They are mysterious, frightening and unknowable. But perhaps “the dead are mysterious, frightening and unknowable” is an improvement over “the dead are going to resume their lives and carry on as before.”

How many of us, when we were small, thought it was literally the Christian teaching that angels are the spirits of the virtuous dead? That when you died you became an angel? Unless you were naughty, in which case you turned into a devil? I suppose that happened because someone at some point had misunderstood this passage. Certainly the popular press think that children who die violent deaths literally become angels. Or stars.

The Sadducees thought that only the text of the Torah was authoritative; they rejected the Pharisees’ additional teachings. It is important, therefore, that Jesus demonstrates that life-after-death is taken for granted in the core Jewish scriptures. But his textual proof is not one that most of us find very congenial. God says to Moses “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”; not “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He would not have referred to three historical characters in the present tense if he regarded them as dead and gone. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still living when God spoke to Moses; therefore people continue to be alive after their deaths.

Jesus' conclusion is a lot more interesting to us than his textual game-playing. He does not tell the Sadducees that they are wrong because there is additional teaching that they don’t know. He says they are wrong because they haven’t read their own texts carefully enough.

And something else as well. They don’t understand the power of God. The dunamis of God.

"You’d understand what the Bible said if you’d actually read it. But you also need to be fully dosed up with God’s miracle-juice. Studying texts isn’t only an intellectual process."

and one of the scribes came, 
and having heard them reasoning together, 
and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, 
“which is the first commandment of all?”
and Jesus answered him, 
“the first of all the commandments is 
hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord
and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart 
and with all thy soul, 
and with all thy mind, 
and with all thy strength
this is the first commandment.
and the second is like, namely this 
thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself
there is none other commandment greater than these.”
and the scribe said unto him, 
“well, Master, thou hast said the truth
for there is one God
and there is none other but he
and to love him with all the heart
and with all the understanding
and with all the soul
and with all the strength
and to love his neighbour as himself, 
is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”
and when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly
he said unto him
“thou art not far from the kingdom of God.” 
and no man after that durst ask him any question

Next in line is another lawyer. Maybe one of the same lawyers who was trying to catch Jesus out at the beginning. Or maybe a different lawyer. But he is speaking on his own behalf because he’s impressed at the way Jesus has wriggled out of the traps that have been set for him so far today.

He asks Jesus a very straight question, and Jesus gives him a very straight answer.

It's not a hard or a controversial question. I wonder if the Scribe is testing Jesus’s orthodoxy: asking him the one question a good Jew would never get wrong. A bit like asking a witch to recite the Lord’s Prayer. A good Jew recites the shema several times a day and hopes to repeat it on his death bed. Deuteronomy 6:

“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 strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

Jesus puts this alongside a quote from that horrible book of Leviticus that some people want to rip out of the Bible:

“You must not hate your brother in your heart. You must surely reprove your fellow citizen so that you do not incur sin on account of him. You must not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you must love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”

The Scribe seems to take this as a perfectly orthodox answer. But still, there is apparently something troubling about it, because it brings the conversation to an end.

Jesus is in the temple. The temple is where sacrifices happen. Sacrifices are good. Moses told everyone to make sacrifices. In three days the biggest sacrifice of the year will happen.

And Jesus and the Scribe are in agreement. The temple is good. Loving your neighbour is better. Loving God is best of all.

Perhaps the lawyer is a bit relieved. Before, when people were trying to catch him out, Jesus was on the defensive. But when he is asked a sincere question about what he believes there is nothing frightening about him at all.

And so of course Jesus pulls the rug out from under him.

— You’ve been talking against the Priests and the Temple. What do you think is the most important law?

— Yes: I agree with the implication of your question. The most important law is the one which tells us to love God. But you forgot to ask me what the second most important law is. And the second most important law is to love everyone else in the whole wide world. Have you ultra-religious people been forgetting that?

— Not at all. As a professional Torah interpreter I fully agree with you. Hold onto Monotheism above all; and then be kind to everyone else in the universe. That is the main thing. The temple is only secondary to that.

— Well done. You have almost understood it.

It is the “almost” which is the sucker punch. Jesus told the rich man who had perfectly kept the ten commandments that he still lacked something. Now he is telling the sincere legal interpretor that he is pretty close to the kingdom of God; but he isn’t in there yet.

Jesus is systematically alienating absolutely everyone; with, I suspect, an infuriating twinkle in his eyes.

and Jesus answered 
and said, while he taught in the temple, 
“How say the scribes that Christ is the Son of David? 
For David himself said by the Holy Ghost,
The Lord said to my Lord
Sit thou on my right hand
till I make thine enemies thy footstool
David therefore himself calleth him Lord 
and whence is he then his son?” 
and the common people heard him gladly. 

Jesus now starts answering questions which no-one has thought to ask him. The text almost literally says this. “After the conversation with the lawyer, no-one dared asked Jesus any more questions. And so he replied….”

Having had what seems to be an amiable and sensible exchange with the Scribe, he proceeds to pick a fight with him over a very obscure bit of textual word-play.

The Old Testament uses two words for God. Jehovah is God’s actual personal name and can only be used in holy contexts. Adonai just means Lord or Boss or Master and can be used more casually. Our Bible, slightly confusingly, represents the divine name as the upper case LORD.

Psalm 113 in English says “The LORD says to my Lord, sit here at my right hand….” — “Jehovah said to Adonai.” Christians would love this to mean “God asked God to sit down next to him” because that would mean that the idea of the Holy Trinity already existed a thousand years before they made it up. But it probably means no more than “God said to the Boss….” The Psalm was originally a coronation hymn, sung by a choir to David or one of his successors. “The LORD (i.e God) said to my Lord (i.e the King): sit down next to me.” But it was often taken as being David himself talking about a King who would arise in the future — the Messiah. Jehovah said to Adonai, take the seat of honour. God said to the Messiah, sit at my right hand.

It’s easy enough to see how Jesus’s word-play works, although it doesn’t go very well into modern English. David is calling the Messiah “my Lord”. Official teaching is that the Messiah is David’s “son”. Son means “descendent” but it could be taken to mean “follower”. How can the Messiah be David’s follower if David calls him Lord? “The Messiah can’t be 'Sir' and also 'Sonny-boy', can he?”

It would be hard to derive a general rule or law from this. There are, after all, lots of examples in scripture of sons who are more impressive than their parents. You wouldn’t say that David can’t literally have been the son of Jesse because Jesse was a nobody and David was King. You might just as well say that Jacob can’t be the founder of Israel because his father Isaac was such a minor figure. But we are told that Jesus’ legal fireworks play well with the crowd.

Why does Jesus make this particular argument at this time? Is Jesus trying to take a step back from the crowds shouting “Son of David!” at him. "Oh, but Son of David doesn’t necessarily mean Messiah — let me demonstrate…" Or is he trying to focus everyone’s mind on the primary source of his authority? "Yes, twenty eight generations back, I do have royal blood in me. But that’s not what gives me the right to overturn the temple."

Matthew and Luke, of course, tell stories in which Jesus is literally descended from David, through his earth-father Joseph. But Mark doesn’t know any stories about Jesus’ ancestry. Or if he does he doesn’t think they are worth retelling. The people of Nazareth are surprised that Jesus is preaching and performing miracles. His family think he has gone crazy. They say “Isn’t this this carpenter’s son?” They don’t say “All that royal blood has gone to his head.”

So it seems to me that Mark is countering a potential objection to his thesis.

“You say that Jesus is the Messiah” says the sceptical reader “But he can’t be, because he doesn’t have the right pedigree.”

“But it doesn’t go by who your Dad was” replies Mark. “Jesus said that himself.”

and he said unto them in his doctrine, 
“beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, 
and love salutations in the marketplaces, 
and the chief seats in the synagogues, 
and the uppermost rooms at feasts 
which devour widows' houses, 
and for a pretence make long prayers 
these shall receive greater damnation”
and Jesus sat over against the treasury, 
and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: 
and many that were rich cast in much. 
and there came a certain poor widow, 
and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. 
and he called unto him his disciples 
and saith unto them 
“verily I say unto you, 
that this poor widow hath cast more in, 
than all they which have cast into the treasury: 
for all they did cast in of their abundance; 
but she of her want did cast in all that she had, 
even all her living”

Everyone knows this story. It is a sweet story. It is a story with a perfectly obvious meaning. It is the mirror-image of the story about the rich man and the camel. The rich man couldn’t get into heaven unless he gave all his possessions to the poor. Well, here is a poor person: and she really has given away everything she has. So she is definitely going to get into the kingdom.

When Eliza Doolittle says that she will pay a shilling for elocution lessons, Prof Higgins says that her offer is the equivalent of hundreds of pounds from one of his millionarie clients.

So, what does this prove? That it’s easier to give stuff away if you haven’t got very much? But if it’s easy for the poor, why is it virtuous for them?

All right then: perhaps it was just as hard for the woman to put all her money in the pot than it would have been for the rich man to put all his millions in? So why does she get the brownie points and he doesn’t?

Okay: so Jesus must be saying that charity is valuable as a spiritual practice. Putting two farthings in the collection tray is good, not because it will enrich the recipient, but because it will impoverish the donor. It would make more economic sense for the widow to hang onto the money and use it to feed her children. And it would have been possible for her to do this precisely because the rich were supporting the temple with money that they could perfectly well afford. The temple didn’t need her quarter of a penny. So the message is that we should not envisage charity as being an economic transaction.

Did Jesus think that it was the duty of the rich to take care of the poor? Then he was a socialist, or worse, a liberal.

Did Jesus think that we needed to change society so there weren’t any more poor people? Then he was a revolutionary socialist.

Did Jesus think that we should imagine no possessions, all things in common, all people one? Then he was a communist

But perhaps Jesus was neither a liberal, nor a socialist, nor a communist. Perhaps he thought that Christians should stay out of politics. The question about whether or not Jesus preached a social message is a core fault line of the culture wars. You can read this passage which ever way you like.

What would happen if we turned our attention away from the poor widow, and looked at the rich people instead? What would happen if Jesus didn’t mean “The widows copper coins are worth much more than the rich people’s silver and gold.” What if he meant “The rich people’s fifty pound notes are even more worthless than the old lady’s loose change?”

A big gift from a rich person is worth much less than a small gift from a rich person. Even Henry Higgins could see that. Jesus is using an everyday example to demonstrate a general principle.

“Remember what I said about small things being big? There is a concrete example that will help you visualize it. Losers are winners. Children are grown ups. Servants are bosses. And small gifts are big ones. The times they are a changin’”


I am just about old enough to remember the older English currency, with shillings, pennies and hapennies, but I never saw a farthing, which was worth one quarter of a penny. It had a picture of a wren on it, because it was the smallest coin. If a mite is worth half a farthing then it is very small change indeed. One eighth of a penny, a bit more than one two-thousandth part of an old pound.

It’s not actually quite as bad as that. The coin the old lady puts in the collection was actually a lepton.

The basic unit of currency is an aes; a denarius was originally ten aes — but was actually worth sixteen. A quadran was a quarter of an aes; a lepton was half a quadran. Thus by a simple arithmetical process you’ll easily discover that there are a hundred and twenty eight leptons in a denarius; and that two leptons is worth one sixty fourth part of a day’s pay.

About a pound in todays money. Which is what I generally put in the collection plate myself.

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