Yesterday, we looked at Jesus’s response to Jerusalem, today we look at the reverse, Jerusalem’s reaction to Jesus. (NB. My deliberate contrast between ‘respond’ and ‘react’.)
Today’s reflection covers the whole of Luke 20. I won’t copy it here, but grab a Bible and read it through.
The chapter is a series of encounters between Jesus and the Religious leaders in Jerusalem.
Here are the sections:
V1-8 – Religious leaders challenge Jesus’ authority (their first ‘trap’ question)
V9-18 – Jesus tells parable of tenants in vineyard (to define their reaction to him)
V19-26 – The religious leaders’ 2nd trap question – paying tax to Caesar
V27-40 – 3rd trap question – marriage at the resurrection
V41-44 – Jesus responds with a theological challenge.
V45-47 – Jesus warns the crowds about hollow religion.
To grasp what these encounters are about, we need to understand a bit about Jewish culture. For centuries Jewish Rabbis have debated theology, in a pattern of one Rabbi countering another’s argument with; question – riposte – question… These are core to their exploration of their understanding of God. A close parallel in our culture would be the legal system of precedent, if a court case has been determined one way previously, that sets the benchmark for future cases of similar scenarios. Rabbinical debate is a pillar of Jewish learning.
This helps us see what Luke is doing here in placing these conversations together. He is pointing out that Jesus is a Rabbi, not merely on equal footing with the learned ‘national experts’ in Jerusalem, but he defeats them every time they attempt to humiliate him.
Personally, I have big questions about the place of theological debate. The nature of debating is that it often becomes about emotions, power-dynamics and all sorts of factors other than the shared search for the truth. That’s very clear here in this chapter, the Rabbis aren’t seeking to learn with Jesus, they are seeking to trap him, mock him and assert power over him. When this doesn’t work, sadly we know that they resort to devious and immoral means to shut him up. , Jesus joins in the debate, not to score ego points, but as a basis to challenge their corruption and rejection of him as the Son of God.
Each of their questions is an attempt to trap him. They ask ‘by whose authority are you teaching? – They are claiming power over Jesus, based on social position. This links back to the crowd’s response to Jesus in Luke 4, and at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. They were amazed at his authority, different from the teachers of the law. Jesus had authority, not just from his miracles, but both because of the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the authenticity and integrity of his life and teaching. Jesus responds by trapping them, knowing full well that they are people pleasers and won’t argue against him in a way that alienates the crowd. They aren’t looking to listen to him, they’re playing the crowd. Jesus turns it on them.
Jesus 1:0 Religious Leaders
Jesus then takes it up a level of confrontation, by telling a parable about them. He uses the ancient Hebrew image of God’s people as a vineyard (Isaiah 5) and then talks of how they ignored the prophets, God sends his son and they reject him. He is prophesying, he’s claiming to be God’s son and he’s doing it by story-telling. He tells a story to simplify and symbolise the truth and to reveal that they are rebelling against God, by rejecting him.
His story provokes them further, they are emotionally charged beyond rational conversation and come at him with a second trap question. A political motivated one, to get the crowd back on their side. They know the crowd hate paying tax to Caesar, but they know if Jesus says they should, he’ll alienate the crowd, if he says they shouldn’t, he’ll get himself in trouble with the Romans. He twists it with another piece of wisdom to out flank them. The coins have a picture of Caesar, Jews hate images of faces, based on the 2nd commandment. He’s highlighting that the coins are blasphemy against God, driving a wedge between the Religious leaders’ greed for money and their legalism. In doing so, he highlights that the answer is to pledge loyalty to God and not money.
Jesus 2:0 Religious leaders.
Another group of religious leaders, the Sadducees step in, seeing that their political opponents are floundering. They come up with what was probably a well rehearsed riddle for their agenda of denying life after death. (The Sadducees didn’t believe in life after death, they were basically materialists, believing only in this world, and like the Dawkins-brigade of today, they arrogantly mocked and sneered at others. – If you deny God, you end up denying moral decency and humility.) They come up with a contrived ‘Reductio ad absurdum’, taking an argument to ridiculous extremes to score a point. They didn’t bank on Jesus being the eternal son of God, who knows the reality of heaven and eternity. Jesus gives a clear Biblical and heavenly revealed answer.
Jesus 3:0 Religious leaders
They give up!
Jesus, then turns the table. He throws a question at them, based on Psalm 110.1. In which he throws a theological riddle to them, which only makes sense if he is the Son of God.
He then speaks to the crowd and slams hollow religion in 4 ways.
- Their long robes and desire to be honoured
- Their flaunting of position, using it for themselves, not to serve. (counter to Jewish teaching on leadership).
- Their greed and the corrupt injustice it causes.
- Their false religion, long prayers which are hollow.
In this final week of his earthly ministry, in the capital, at Passover. Jesus, knowing the danger it causes him, chooses to boldly confront religion. This is high drama and it is a key part of his purpose.
Yesterday I wrote of praying that this season of dramatic change leads to a new move of the Spirit and the shrivelling up of hollow religion. How might Jesus provoke and challenge us to live more fully for him?
- His authority came from the anointing of the Spirit & his authenticity not position or status. For all of us, investment in time with God in this season, will enrich us and enable us to bear more fruit in sharing God’s love and truth in the years to come.
- Render unto Caesar what is Caesars. The radical upheaval of our economy right now, causes all of us to look at our own finances afresh. How will you change how you manage your money in the light of this time?
- The Sadducees mocking question of eternity. Jesus was clear, there is life beyond death, there is intimacy with God the other side of the grave. As we prepare to celebrate Easter, we are reminded that as followers of Jesus, we no longer need to fear death, and that enables us to be more fully alive now.