Mark 12:13-27, NRSV
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’
Preached Sunday, February 25, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
There are three ways I get through long flight when I’m traveling by myself and sitting by someone I don’t know. The first is the earbud method. You know it, maybe you’ve done it. You board the plane, sit down, pop in those earbuds and send a clear signal to whoever sits down next to you that you’re not a talker. The second is to, when someone sits and asks what you do, to lie. Well, not really lie. Mostly just reframe my vocation. “Oh, so what do you do?” “Oh, you know, I’m in sales…fundraising…maintenance…marketing…counseling…event coordination…public speaking…” None of those are untrue.
But my favorite way of handling those flights is also the biggest gamble: I pull out my Bible and start reading. I’d say 8 times out of ten, people sit, glance over then they’re the ones to put in their earbuds. Really, their uncertainty about who they’re siting next to is delicious in and of itself. But every once and a while, you get the one person who’s going to engage you, who wants to ask questions. And sometimes, those questions are real ones, ones they’ve been struggling with—it’s always been curious to me how God can use any of us in any place to minister to one another. But other times, a question is asked and I try to give some brief answer that isn’t an hour of mind-numbing theological exercise, and what I get in return is a lecture about how I’m wrong followed by the question they probably should’ve asked first. “What is it you do?” That’s when, I lay it out—“I’m pastor”
I suspect it rubs all of us a bit wrong when someone we perceive as knowing less than us about the topic at hand pushes their opinion through, or worse corrects us when we know we’re right. One of my colleagues posted a picture of her new favorite coffee mug. Across it, it says, “Please don’t confuse your google search with my theology degree.” I can’t imagine this is the only profession that mug could apply to. I can imagine it grinds teachers when parents walk into the classroom and comment on their teaching style. Likewise, I don’t sit at the Hair Cuttery in Killingly and tell my stylist she’s doing it wrong. Pro tip: better not to correct people with sharp objects in their hands.
The worst though, is when that person you, in all your humility, think you know more than turns out to know more than you. And that’s exactly what happens when Jesus is chatting with or, more accurately, schooling, the religious authorities in our passage this morning. Jesus is back in Jerusalem, and is doing his best to upset the religious authorities. All through Mark, this has been a common theme: Jesus performs some miracle or healing and the religious authorities get their feathers ruffled. And as the story progresses, those ruffled feathers come closer and closer to action—as in getting Jesus arrested. In chapter 12, we’re only four chapters from the end of Mark, we’re nearly there. And as we get closer, the energy—the momentum—increases.
And now, rather than just bearing witness to his miracles, the Pharisees and Sadducees have come to him in an effort to corner him—to catch him breaking the law of God or going against tradition or anything that might undermine Jesus and his ministry. So they ask him a series of questions—that’s largely what Mark 12 is, a series of questions trying to corner Jesus and of Jesus being a boss not letting them.
The first question we encounter today is one about money—at least on the surface. But really, it’s a question about loyalty. Should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not? Put another, should we support the Empire that occupies us or the establishment of religion. But rather than identifying either of those boxes as the right one, Jesus tells them its a false dichotomy, that it’s not either empire or religion, that the choice is manmade or God. And so, he tells them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, and not to confuse the two.
And then comes the question of resurrection. Now, we should make an important dissection between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They’re both considered religious authorities, but they have significant theological difference. Put simply, the Pharisees believe in life after death and the Sadducees don’t. And it’s the sadducees who start asking Jesus questions about the resurrection, or life after death. And the tactic they use is to ask an absolutely absurd question about the fulfillment of ancient Mosaic law regarding marriage and children. So they posit this story about a man who’s married and dies childless, so the wife marries the husband’s brother. The same happens, so she marries the next brother. Then same, happens and she marries the next. This happens through seven brothers. And finally, the Sadducees go in for the kill. You can almost hear the smirk, “Who’s wife will she be?”
The answer, in their minds at least, is that she’ll be no one’s wife because she’s dead and dead people aren’t married. But Jesus isn’t having, and comes back with what might be one of the sassiest lines in all of the gospels: “Is not this the reason you’re wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” In the South, we’d call those fighting words. And I suspect, if they would’ve had one, the Sadducees would’ve subtly pulled out a coffee mug with “Please don’t confuse your google search with my theology degree” across it.
Jesus isn’t through, though. In less time than it took for the Sadducees to ask the question, he answers it so completely that they just can’t argue with it. And in his answer, he does something brilliant, he references a key story in the life of Moses who established the law the Sadducees were inquiring about in the first place. And all of it centers on verb tense. Who knew that grammar mattered?!
When Moses goes to the burning bush—a bush that is engulfed in flames yet not destroyed—God speaks to him and starts off by identifying himself. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Now, it’s a little detail, one we usually blow by, but it’s an important one—one the entirety of Jesus’ argument hinges on. You see, by the time God is talking to Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are dead. Like dead dead. Like dead for centuries dead. So, if they’re dead to both humanity and to God, then God would say I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But instead God says, I am the God of your forefathers. Present tense—currently acting as—I am.
It’s a story the Sadducees knew all too well. And when Jesus said it, they knew he’d won—which, frankly, pissed them off even more. But then Jesus says the one of the single lines in all the gospels that gives me such hope: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.”
Listen, I don’t know how it all works. I don’t understand it. And some days, it’s more than I can think of and comprehend. And on those days, I cling to those two words: I am not I was. And I find my own inner Sadducee—the one that wants all the answers, the one that wants to be right, the one who is suspicious and vindictive—melting away. And I feel the warmth of God’s promise the same way Moses did as he stood on that holy ground so many millennia ago.