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Jesus’s Teaching During Holy Week – Part 1 (Controversies in Jerusalem)

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This Sunday kicks off what is known in the Christian tradition as Holy Week. It begins with Jesus’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and culminates with his death and resurrection celebrated on Good Friday and Easter Sunday (for a summary of what happens on each day of Holy Week, see this post from the past). Over the years, I’ve noticed that many – including myself – tend to focus on the events that happen at the beginning and the end of the week but give less attention to what occurs in the middle of the week. But in between these key events at the start and end of this week, there are some important teachings from Jesus that I want to draw our attention to this Easter season. These teachings essentially fall into two different segments: first, a series of confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders and second, Jesus’s teaching about the destruction of Jerusalem and his return. In this post, I’ll examine these confrontations and then next week I’ll look at Jesus’s teaching that follows. For both posts, I’ll focus on the Gospel of Mark since it offers us the “day by day” account of Holy Week and features discussions that also appear in Matthew and Luke (who include some additional material), with this post focusing on Mark 11:27-12:40.

What We See
Mark 11:27 notes that a day after overturning tables and driving out those who are buying and selling in the temple, Jesus decided to return to the temple. Those actions had upset the religious leaders and caused them to want to destroy him (11:18-19). The strategy we see them employ is to cause Jesus to make statements that could lead the crowds to turn on him and then bring accusations against him. Not only does Jesus evade their traps, he is able to turn the tables on them and show the people that these religious leaders – not he – are the ones who pose a danger to them. Four different questions are given to Jesus in this section. 

The first questions what authority Jesus has to do what he is doing (11:28). Jesus responds by asking a question about where they thought John the Baptist received his authority (11:29-30). Sensing that they were now trapped – as they didn’t want to deny John the Baptist’s divine commission because he was respected by the people nor say that he had divine authority because Jesus would then be able to make a likewise claim – the leaders refused to respond (11:31-33). Since they refused to answer Jesus’s question, he refused to answer theirs (11:33), and then proceeds to tell a parable against them and in which he connects them to servants in a vineyard who decide to kill the son of the owner when he is sent to get the fruit of the harvest; this points to the way that they are rejecting God’s son (12:1-12). The religious leaders did not like this, however, it did not cause them to change their minds about Jesus or change their strategy. 

A second trapping question is whether one should pay taxes to Rome (12:14). This question comes from the Herodians (who supported paying taxes) and the Pharisees (who resented taxes), so it seems that Jesus will have to ally himself with one group and then alienate the other. Jesus sees through the question (12:15), however, and amazes the people  by telling them to pay to Rome what is Rome’s but to God what is God’s (12:17). Rather than being lumped into a political faction, Jesus is able to remind us of our ultimate loyalty resting with God and His kingdom while living as good citizens even in our lives here on earth.

The third question comes from the Sadducees, who denied there is a resurrection, asking about who a woman would be married to when she was raised if she had multiple remarriages following the death of multiple husbands (12:18-23). In some ways, the Sadducess here are trying to offer a ridiculous scenario. Once again, Jesus recognizes what they are trying to do and only indirectly answers the question, pointing instead to the reality of resurrection and the fact that there is no marriage in that age (12:24-27). Jesus can use a question intended to make him appear foolish and bring out important ideas while also showing the ill motives of his questioners.

A fourth question does not come from this alliance of trappers but from a particular scribe (teacher of God’s law) who was listening and now wanted to have Jesus weigh in on a big question (12:28) – what is the most important commandment? Here is where Jesus gives his famous answer – to love God and love others (12:29-31), an answer that is pleasing to the scribe (12:31-33) who Jesus says is not far from the kingdom of God (12:34). With these words, Jesus shows that knowing the right answer to what is the most important law is not sufficient to enter the kingdom of heaven – one needs to trust and worship Jesus.

When the religious leaders stop asking questions (12:34), Jesus starts by asking them how the Messiah can be the Son of David if David calls him “Lord” (12:35-37, quoting Psalm 110). Implied in this question is that this Messiah is more than a human, he is greater than the greatest king in Israel. It is an allusion to Jesus’s divine nature, in some ways circling back to the opening question about Jesus’s authority. When the religious leaders aren’t able (or willing) to answer this question, the crowds grow in respect for Jesus (12:37), which allows Jesus to turn the tables on the religious leaders. He pointed out their hypocrisy in exalting themselves in the eyes of the people (12:38-39) and hurting rather than helping widows such as the one who gave all she had (12:40-44); they fail to love God and love others. This widow, rather than the religious leaders, stands as the example of true faith, trusting in God rather than seeking her own agenda or desires.

What We Learn
We can glean particular insights out of each of these confrontations concerning a variety of theological and practical issues (some of which I noted above), but rather than focus on each individually I want to ponder what the section as a whole shows us about Jesus. It is a reminder that Jesus is opposed by a variety of forces and viewpoints in this world (he makes many mad as he is a threat to them), but that he will not be defeated by them. In fact, rather than being defeated by the attacks against them, it is through them that he comes out victorious, previewing the cross which is not a defeat but rather the pathway to victory. Jesus stands as the undefeated one. 

There may even be implications here for how we are to approach various attempts to discredit Christianity; many of these questions come not from people who are genuinely interested in the answers, but who have already made up their minds about who Jesus is. Perhaps we can find ways to address the real issues or show the real motives in these conversations, but even if we do, we need to remember that Jesus’s answers did not always convince his opponents to believe in him. Our goal is not to convince others, but to believe in Jesus and to guard against falling into the hypocritical practices of Jesus’s opponents – who were viewed as religious people even though their hearts were far away from God. We need to trust Jesus’s answers as he is the Son who has the true authority to speak. May we be amazed by his words.

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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