5th Lenten Reading: The Last Week in Jerusalem.
Teaching in the Temple
The second morning we were back in Jerusalem, Jesus led us into the Temple precincts, and we settled in our familiar corner. Within minutes a small crowd had gathered, and a typical interchange began. People asked questions, and Jesus carefully and respectfully taught from these openings. An hour went by, and more stopped to listen, then to sit and take part.
Into this familiar and warm meeting of minds intruded a file of clergy. By their dress they appeared to be Temple Sadducees. I trouble, for they were not there to listen and learn. There was a lull in the conversation as they picked their way through the crowd and halted in front of Jesus. In the silence that followed, looks were exchanged between the clergy, as if to signal their leader to take the planned action.
[i]Their leader stepped forward and began, “Rabbi, we have heard you teach that there is a resurrection of the dead, and we would like to ask you to clarify just how the resurrection works.”
Jesus settled back against the wall and nodded. He looked from one to the other, and I noticed a very faint smile of anticipation flicker across his face. “I am sure you do have questions. What is your particular concern?”
The leader took a deep breath, looked at his compatriots, and began, “There was a man who had seven brothers. He was married but had no children. He died, and as is our custom and law, his brother married the widow to raise up children to his brother. He also died before there were children, and so the next brother married her. Each brother died in turn. Finally, after marrying all seven brothers, the woman also died. Our question is, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”
The young priest looked around at his friends with barely disguised glee. They all smiled in at Jesus’ humiliation. They should have known better.
Jesus said, “At the resurrection, she will be nobody’s wife. There will be no marriages. Women will stand before God on their own account. They will not need husbands or other relatives as mediators before our Heavenly Father.”
There was silence all around as the assertion sank in; then there was a hubbub of conversation as the significance of this became obvious. One of the young Sadducees started to ask a question, but Jesus silenced him with a slow shake of his head, saying, “Women will not need men to intercede for them. Sinners will not need you priests to intercede for them, nor will the people need you to declare them clean. They will all stand before the Almighty in their own right and not need your help.
“Everyone who understands this and takes their freedom in their own hands will be free. If anyone hears my voice and understands what I am saying, and lets it be so for them, that person will appear before our Heavenly Father on their own account, whether they are man or woman, sinner or righteous, rich or poor.” Then turning back to the file of clergy he continued, “Your sacrifices and precious rituals are not needed anymore.”
Incredulity darkened the priests’ faces at the full import of Jesus’ words. One of them strode purposely off toward the Temple offices. The rest, nonplussed, made their way through the crowd to its periphery. Smiles and gibes by people in the crowd grew to general laughter and derision at their discomfort.
[ii]Jesus sat surrounded by people. He said, “There was a man who built a vineyard from scratch—walls, terraces, tower, and wine press—then planted it with vines. He let it out to a company of men who would look after the vines, harvest the grapes, make the wine, and give him a fair return on his investment. Everything went fine until the third year when there was a good harvest. His servant returned empty-handed and reported a bunch of excuses from the company tenants for not making any payment. So the owner sent two others. They came back, having been beaten up. This went on for a while, and so finally he sent his son, thinking they would listen to him.
“The tenants said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him. Then we will inherit the place.’
“Any one of you can predict what the owner of the vineyard would do. He took a squad of his men, cleaned out that nest of dishonest and violent tenants, and found someone else whom he could trust to take over the lease.”
The Sadducees, who had withdrawn to the edge of the crowd, said, “He is talking about us. The Almighty would never take the Temple away from us. He cannot mean us. Surely not!”
Jesus said, “Yes, I am talking about you. You’ve heard the expression, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, that stone on which all else is aligned and leveled.’ Well, you’re looking at the new cornerstone.” With this Jesus spread his arms. The faces of the remaining Sadducees darkened with outrage and anger. The young clergy pulled away from the crowd and walked purposely towards the offices of the Temple. They disappeared one by one into the shadowed doorway of their hostel.
A couple of hours later, a delegation of Pharisees assembled before Jesus. Our friend Nicodemus was among them. I think they had heard about the rout of the Sadducees, and now they came with their own concerns. The senior of them made three attempts to get started and, finally, as if with an apology, asked, [iii]“Rabbi, we have this problem regarding taxes. We have to handle Roman money, and we have to collect the taxes for them. Our people are asked to acknowledge the over lordship of Caesar. The Romans even talk of Caesar as if he is a god, and they would love it if we would sacrifice to him as they do. We cannot and will not do that, but should we even be paying taxes to Caesar, especially with their idolatrous images on the coinage?”
There was silence in the crowd as everyone considered the possibilities and consequences. Jesus finally spoke, “Anyone have a denarius? Thank you. Now tell me, whose head is this on the coin? Yes, that’s right. It’s Caesar’s head. What I tell you and tell everyone, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is his.’”
Nicodemus stood there with a big smile, as if to say, “I told you so.” The rest took a moment to digest the idea, then, one after the other, began to smile. Finally the old Pharisee who had been their spokesman said in relief, “That is very good. You’ve spoken well.”
The people in the crowd turned to each other and exchanged comments. A noisy hubbub arose, and the tension among the people diminished. There were smiles and nods. They understood.
However, noticeable among them were some individuals who were clearly upset at the idea of giving anything to Caesar. A knot of men looked anything but pleased. One of them asked when the Messiah would come and lead everyone in to the war that would bring this age to completion and introduce a new kingdom.
Jesus said, “Listen, you go on looking for that day, and it will come. I told my disciples this yesterday. Look around you, and all that you see will be thrown down because of the stupidity and hardness of heart of religious bigots. There are those among you who will see it. When that day comes, you don’t want to hang around. Leave! There are those among you who long for that day. Give it up. Those who want war will bring it upon themselves. There will be such suffering that it will be worse than when the Babylonians destroyed the city. There will not be a stone left on another.
[iv]“There is no Messiah coming that will lead you in battle. There is no day of reckoning for the other nations. There is only the hardness of heart of those who would lead our nation into temptation, into suffering and destruction. The kingdom of God is not of this world. How many more ways do I have to say it? Violent and dogmatic men will try to wrest the kingdom of God out of your hands. There are people like the Essenes who have already drawn up the battle lines for the wars they fondly imagine will usher in their ideas. There are plenty of other hotheaded young men just waiting for the excuse to pick up stones and begin the violence. It’s no good talking to them, for they hear but will not listen. The Essenes in particular read the prophets and use them to buttress their own desires. They think that if they make a big enough mess, God will justify them and come to their aid. God will not! Listen to the prophet Amos. ‘You want the day of the Lord? Well, you will get it, but it will be a day of darkness, of deep darkness and not light.’ I beg you, put these hopes far from you.”
The knot of men began to withdraw, pushing their way silently through the crowd. Jesus glanced in their direction and sorrowfully shook his head. “How often do you think your Heavenly Father has sought to bring you home to himself? Always some stiff-necked religious zealot leads everyone in the opposite direction. When someone comes claiming he is the Messiah, don’t believe him. If someone says the Messiah is in the house or over there, don’t believe it. Many will come who think they are the Messiah, and they will try to convince everyone else that they are. Don’t follow them!”
Later that night we withdrew to Bethany. I alone accompanied Jesus as he went out onto the dark hillside for his usual meditation time. He said to me, “You know, John, people don’t want war. They don’t want rebellion. Did you see how those crowds reacted today as I responded to the Pharisees’ question? These people have suffered enough. Our people have suffered enough. The people don’t care whether they have to handle Roman coins. I doubt whether many of them would mind taking some oath of loyalty to Caesar. What matters to them is that they have peace and can see their children grow up.
“The real enemies are those who want to ignite the passions of our people and then manipulate them. The crowds are easily frightened, angered, and led to take actions that cannot be undone. The consequences pile on consequences until circumstances crush the people once more.
“Within your lifetime, all that”—and he waved his hand toward the Temple silhouetted on the horizon—“will be swept away. There are ideologues and intemperate people who think they know how everything should be, and they will lead the people into suffering the consequences of their stupidity.
“Oh, John, I am crushed by what I see coming. I am their one chance for peace and a new beginning, but they will not listen. The various leaders and factions will bring upon themselves destruction and suffering worse than anything Israel has seen before.
“As for me, I must be eliminated. I told you my death was necessary. Now you can see how their rejection of me is a demonstration of the blindness that afflicts these people. They will not listen! I cannot be different than I am. Like the waves battering a headland, these various contingents of religious ideologues are going to try to overwhelm me. They will, for a moment; but like the rock emerging from the waves, I will rise once again.”
Silence gathered in the darkness, and I looked out over the Kidron Valley toward Jerusalem, which sprawled over that historic mountain. Beside me Jesus muttered, “I am the cornerstone they will stumble over, the rocky headland that breaks the waves into wild spray. I am the light, I am truth, and I am like the paschal lamb of Passover—my blood marking the gateway to freedom, the doorway out of this perpetual nightmare people are forced to re-live over and over.”
“But—” I began.
“No buts, John! Yes, they will kill me, but I will be back. They will kill many who follow in my footsteps down the years, but all those will be mine too; they will be mine forever. Now I must pray. Sit here and watch for me.”
With that he turned away, found a flat space between some rocks, knelt and began his nightly prayers.
So this was what Annas saw when he met Jesus! In Annas’ diary these encounters that I remember so well were witnessed by Annas. If he had had doubts about Jesus’ intent before, then he could not have any after hanging about on the edges of the crowd around Jesus. I turned the page and read on. I smiled to myself at the memories of Jesus running rings around those sent to argue against him.
[i] Matthew 22:23 -33, Mark 12:18-27 and Luke 20:27-41. The Sadducees ask Jesus about the resurrection.
[ii] Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19 Parable of the Vineyard.
[iii] Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-28 Paying taxes to Caesar
[iv] Matthew 24:4-8, Mark 13:5-8 and Luke 21:8-11. Warning about hoping for war and rebellion.