Mark 12: Whose stuff is it?

The religious leaders in Jesus’s day get a lot of grief from us modern church folks, and for good reason. But I will give them one thing: they were generally pretty self-aware. When Jesus ripped into them, even obliquely in a parable, they generally picked up on it.

Maybe we should take a lesson.

Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

~Mark 12:1-12

So there’s a lot going on here. A couple things to keep in mind:

  1. We’ve just finished several passages about where Jesus’s authority comes from. It would be dumb for us not recognize that this is another story at least in part about his authority.
  2. Jesus doesn’t just speak in parables because stories are memorable and they make good analogies. He also speaks in parables to obscure the targets of his barbs, so as not get himself killed prematurely.
  3. That … that last part didn’t really work out this time.

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him

Hey, +1 for self-awareness, which is more than most of us manage.

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Unlike those biblical scribes and Pharisees and Temple leaders, we don’t do introspection. At least not when Jesus is talking.

No, we are really good at seeing how other people need to get their act together. We can see all their foibles, all their blind spots, and laugh at how oblivious they are. Snark is practically the official American Evangelical language.

But when is the last time you read Jesus’s words and said: “Oh crap. I think Jesus is talking about me!”

No, we’re much more likely to condemn somebody else when we read the words of Jesus than we are to do any sort of introspection.

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Or is that just me?

So why exactly were these folks so mad at Jesus in the first place? At least in part because Jesus reminded them that were just tenants, and not the landowners they liked to think they were. That they had used their power poorly, and that there was a reckoning coming for that.

Really, it’s the same reason we think Jesus is talking to other people when he’s really talking to us. Only, unlike those folks, we’ve internalized our denial to the point that we honestly believe we’re in charge. We think all this stuff is ours.

A second story follows that is ostensibly about taxation, but if you look deeper, it’s really about the same thing: just whose stuff is it anyway?

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.

Mark 12:14-17

The Pharisees and Herodians start off with flattery, so you know right away that…

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But Jesus is wise to them! He asks for a coin, notes that Caesar’s head is on it, and says those immortal words: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed!

Because, really, that sounds pretty dang pithy. Even 2000 years later, even reading it in whole ‘nother language, you can tell that’s a solid snap-back.

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But here’s the thing: what does it even mean???

Let’s break it down:

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…

Well, that’s obvious. Jesus is holding in his hand a coin with Caesar’s head on it. Now, I like to think of him saying it with a dismissive sneer, practically spitting the words. Maybe you see him being all thoughtful and reflective. But either way, he’s obviously saying to pay your taxes, no matter how you feel about Caesar. Right?

…and to God what is God’s.

And that’s just as obviously about giving your ten percent to the church, right? And then you can do whatever you want with whatever is left over. Easy peasy.

Or is it???

Hold on, Hector. Is there any place else in Scriptures where you actually find this kind of godfather God? Who says “I am the LORD, do what you want after I get my cut?”

And does that sound even remotely like the sort of all-in, take-up-your-cross-and-follow-me thinking Jesus generally engaged in?

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So lemme just proof-text for a minute:

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;

Psalm 24:1

No, no, my friends; God doesn’t ask for a tenth. It is ALL HIS. All of it.

What you give away is His. What you keep is His. What you live on is His and what you throw away is His.

Oh, and what you give to Caesar? (Or what Caesar takes, depending on your viewpoint.) That’s His too.

Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear: this Kingdom that Jesus is building isn’t ours either. It isn’t white or black, or conservative or progressive. Heck, it’s not even American. It’s His Kingdom, and we aren’t the gatekeepers.

We are tenants.

Now, there are some benefits to being tenants. You can hold things less tightly. Yes, you still take care of things as best as you can, because, hey, you still gotta live here. You still advocate as the Spirit calls you, to defend what is right and good and just, because that’s what we’re here for. But you can also trust that, ultimately, the landlord bears responsibility. And if the landlord is a good landlord (and He is), he’s going to make things right.

So maybe we (I) should hold our stuff a little less tightly. Maybe we (I) should be less concerned in defending our own rights, and more concerned about defending the people Jesus tells us care about.

Is there anything in particular that makes you angry when Jesus starts poking around at it? What is the stuff you think you own that has in actuality only been entrusted to you for the time being?

I’m not talking about some mythical person in the other political party. Not “kids today” or “parents today” or your significant other.



Render it to God.


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