Is it right to pay taxes? Is heaven an extension of our earthly life? How can the entire bible be summarized in two sentences? What caused Jesus to give an important lesson on giving? Find out in today’s reading.
Jesus Tells the Parable of the Evil Farmers / 12:1-12
12:1 Jesus’ stories, also called parables, always used something familiar to help people understand something new. This method of teaching compels listeners to discover truth for themselves. The moment Jesus spoke of a vineyard, the well-versed religious leaders surely recognized the correlation with Isaiah 5:1-7, where Isaiah described Israel as a vineyard. Isaiah’s parable described judgment on Israel; Jesus’ parable described judgment too. The situation pictured in this parable was by no means unusual. Galilee had many such estates with absentee owners who had hired tenant farmers to care for the fields and crops. The tenant farmers paid their “rent” by giving a portion of the crop to the landowner, who would send servants at harvesttime to collect it.
The main elements in this parable are (1) the man who planted the vineyard—God, (2) the vineyard—Israel, (3) the tenant farmers—the Jewish religious leaders, (4) the landowner’s servants—the prophets and priests who remained faithful to God and preached to Israel, (5) the son—Jesus, and (6) the others to whom the vineyard was given—the Gentiles.
Israel, pictured as a vineyard, was the nation that God had cultivated to bring salvation to the world. The religious leaders not only frustrated their nation’s purpose; they also killed those who were trying to fulfill it. They were so jealous and possessive that they ignored the welfare of the very people they were supposed to be bringing to God. By telling this story, Jesus exposed the religious leaders’ plot to kill him, and he warned them that their sins would be punished.
12:2-5 When the grape harvest came, the absentee landowner sent servants to collect the rent—generally this amounted to a quarter to a half of the crop. All of these servants were either beaten up or killed. In Jesus’ parable, the servants that were sent to the tenants refer to the prophets and priests whom God had sent over the years to the nation of Israel. Instead of listening to the prophets, the religious leadership had mistreated them and had stubbornly refused to listen.
12:6 With all the servants having been mistreated or killed, the landowner had only one messenger left—his beloved son. This son was sent to collect the fruit in hopes that the farmers would respect the son. This son refers to Jesus. This is the same description God used at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and at the Transfiguration (9:7). The son was sent to the stubborn and rebellious nation of Israel to win them back to God.
12:7-8 The tenants probably thought that the arrival of the son meant that his father (the landowner) had died. In Palestine at that time, “ownerless” or unclaimed land could be owned by whoever claimed it first. So they reasoned that if they murdered the son, they could get the estate for themselves.
12:9 What would the landowner do in this case? All agreed that the landowner would come, kill the tenants, and lease the vineyard to others who would care for it.
Over hundreds of years, Israel’s kings and religious leaders had rejected God’s prophets—beating, humiliating, and killing them. Most recently, John the Baptist had been rejected as a prophet by Israel’s leaders (11:30-33). Next Jesus, the beloved Son of God, already rejected by the religious leaders, would be killed. Jesus explained that the Jewish leaders would be accountable for his death because in rejecting the messengers and the Son, they had rejected God himself.
God’s judgment would be spiritual death and the transfer of the privileges of ownership to others, namely, the Gentiles (see Romans 11:25-32). In this parable Jesus spoke of the beginning of the Christian church among the Gentiles. God would not totally reject Israel; in ancient times he always preserved a remnant of faithful people.
12:10-11 Jesus quoted from Psalm 118:22-23. Like the son who was rejected and murdered by the tenant farmers, Jesus referred to himself as the stone rejected by the builders. The cornerstone is the most important stone in a building, used as the standard to make sure the other stones of the building are straight and level. Israel’s leadership, like the builders looking for an appropriate cornerstone, would toss Jesus aside because he didn’t seem to have the right qualifications. They wanted a political king, not a spiritual one. Yet God’s plans will not be thwarted. One day that rejected stone will indeed become a “cornerstone,” for Jesus will come as a king to inaugurate an unending Kingdom. And he had already begun a spiritual Kingdom as the cornerstone of a brand-new “building,” the Christian church (Acts 4:11-12; 1 Peter 2:7). Jesus’ life and teaching would be the church’s foundation.
12:12 When the Jewish leaders realized that they were the wicked farmers in Jesus’ parable, they wanted to arrest him. But the presence of all those people, hanging on Jesus’ every word, caused these religious leaders to fear a riot if they were to forcibly take Jesus away. There was nothing to do but go away somewhere to gather new ideas and think of new questions to try to trap Jesus.
Religious Leaders Question Jesus about Paying Taxes / 12:13-17
12:13 The Jewish leaders would not be put off because they were so intent on killing Jesus. The Pharisees were a religious group opposed to the Roman occupation of Palestine. The supporters of Herod were a political party that supported the Herods and the policies instituted by Rome. These groups with diametrically opposed beliefs usually had nothing to do with each other. But these two groups found a common enemy in Jesus. Despite Jesus’ solemn warning to the Jewish leaders in his previous parable, they didn’t let up. More delegates arrived whose intent was to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested.
12:14 The men in this delegation, pretending to be honest men, flattered Jesus before asking him their trick question, hoping to catch him off guard. They asked, “Is it right to pay taxes to the Roman government or not?” Judea had been a Roman province since 63 b.c., but the Jews had fairly recently been forced to pay taxes or tribute to Caesar. This was a hot topic in Palestine. The Pharisees were against these taxes on religious grounds; the Herodians supported taxation on political grounds. The Jewish people hated to pay taxes to Rome because the money supported their oppressors and symbolized their subjection. This was a valid (and loaded) question, and the crowd around Jesus certainly waited expectantly for his answer. For Jesus, either a yes or a no could lead to trouble. If Jesus agreed that it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees would say he was opposed to God and the people would turn against him. If Jesus said the taxes should not be paid, the Herodians could hand him over to Herod on the charge of rebellion.
12:15-16 Jesus knew this was a trap. These leaders didn’t care about Jesus’ opinion; this was merely a trick question. But Jesus would answer. He asked someone to give him a Roman coin, probably a denarius, the usual day’s wage for a laborer. It was a silver coin with Caesar’s picture and title on it. The tax paid to Rome was paid in these coins.
12:17 Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to him”—that is, the coin bearing the emperor’s image should be given to the emperor. In their question, the religious leaders used the word didomi, meaning “to give.” Jesus responded with the word apodidomi, meaning “to pay a debt.” In other words, having a coin meant being part of that country, so citizens should acknowledge the authority of Caesar and pay for the benefits accorded to them by his empire. The Jews may not have been happy about the situation, but God had placed Caesar on the throne and Judea under his rule. The Pharisees and Herodians tried to make it appear that it was incompatible to be a Jew and pay taxes to a pagan emperor who claimed to be divine. But Jesus explained that no such incompatibility existed because God was ultimately in control. They would lose much and gain little if they refused to pay Caesar’s taxes (see Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
However, paying the taxes did not have to mean submission to the divinity claimed by the emperor. The words on the coins were incorrect. Caesar had the right to claim their tax money, but he had no claim on their souls. The Jews had a responsibility to remember that everything that belongs to God must be given to God. While they lived in the Roman world, the Jews had to face the dual reality of subjection to Rome and responsibility to God. Jesus explained that they could do both if they kept their priorities straight. The tax would be paid as long as Rome held sway over Judea, but God has rights on people’s souls. To Jesus, this was the crucial issue. Were they giving to God their lives? Were they loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (12:30)? These Jews (and especially the self-righteous Pharisees) claimed to be God’s chosen people. But were they even “rendering” to God what truly belonged to him—themselves?
Religious Leaders Question Jesus about the Resurrection / 12:18-27
No sooner had one delegation withdrawn from Jesus (in amazement) than another appeared to take up the cause. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They thought they had a thorny problem from God’s word that would make the very idea of life beyond death ludicrous. This was probably a standard challenge posed by the Sadducees to those who believed in the resurrection, such as the Pharisees.
12:18 The Sadducees were at odds theologically with the Pharisees (the other major group of Jewish leaders) because they honored only the Pentateuch—Genesis through Deuteronomy—as Scripture, and because they rejected most of the Pharisees’ traditions, rules, and regulations. The Sadducees said there is no resurrection after death because they could find no mention of it in the Pentateuch. Apparently, the Pharisees had never been able to come up with a convincing argument from the Pentateuch for the resurrection, and the Sadducees thought they had trapped Jesus for sure. But Jesus was about to show them otherwise.
12:19 Obviously, since the Sadducees recognized only the books attributed to Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy), their question came from Moses’ writings. In the law, Moses had written that when a man died without a son, his unmarried brother (or nearest male relative) should marry the widow and produce children. The first son of this marriage was considered the heir of the dead man (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). The main purpose of the instruction was to produce an heir and guarantee that the family would not lose their land. The book of Ruth gives us an example of this law in operation (Ruth 3:1–4:12; see also Genesis 38:1-26). This law, called levirate marriage, protected the widow (in that culture widows usually had no means to support themselves) and allowed the family line to continue.
12:20-23 The Sadducees took their hypothetical situation to a rather ridiculous length as they tried to show the absurdity of believing in the resurrection. The book of Tobit (an apocryphal book not accepted by Protestants as part of the Old Testament canon but highly regarded by Jewish scholars at that time) includes the story of a woman who was married to seven men successively without ever having children. In Tobit the men are not brothers.
The woman in the situation they described had been married seven times to seven different men, all according to the law. The Sadducees reasoned that since this was in the law, there could not be a resurrection. When all eight of them were resurrected (the seven brothers and the woman), “Whose wife will she be?” The Sadducees erroneously assumed that if people were resurrected, it would be back to a continuation of life on earth—and that would be too confusing to be possible. They were incapable of understanding that God could both raise the dead and make new lives for his people, lives that would be different than what they had known on earth. The Sadducees had brought God down to their level. Because they could not conceive of a resurrection life, they decided that God couldn’t raise the dead. And Moses hadn’t written about it, so they considered the “case closed.”
12:24 Jesus wasted no time trying to deal with their hypothetical situation, but went directly to their underlying assumption that resurrection of the dead was impossible. Jesus clearly stated that they were wrong about the resurrection for two reasons: (1) They didn’t know the Scriptures (if they did, they would believe in the resurrection because it is taught in Scripture), and (2) they didn’t know the power of God (if they did, they would believe in the resurrection because God’s power makes it possible, even necessary). Ignorance on these two counts was inexcusable for these religious leaders.
12:25 Furthermore, Jesus said, when the dead rise (not “if” but when), they will not rise to an extension of their earthly lives. Instead, life in heaven will be different. Believers will be like the angels in heaven regarding marriage. Believers do not become angels, for angels were created by God for a special purpose. Angels do not marry or propagate; neither will glorified human beings. On earth where death reigns, marriage and childbearing are important, but bearing children will not be necessary in the resurrection life because people will be raised up to glorify God forever—there will be no more death. Those in heaven will no longer be governed by physical laws but will be “like the angels”; that is, believers will share the immortal nature of angels.
Jesus’ statement did not mean that people will not recognize their partners in heaven. Jesus was not dissolving the eternal aspect of marriage, doing away with sexual differences, or teaching that we will be asexual beings after death. We cannot tell very much about sex and marriage in heaven from this one statement by Jesus. He simply meant that we must not think of heaven as an extension of life as we now know it. Our relationships in this life are limited by time, death, and sin. We don’t know everything about our resurrection life, but Jesus affirmed that relationships will be different from what we are used to here and now. The same physical and natural rules won’t apply.
12:26-27 Because the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch as God’s divine word, Jesus answered them from the book of Exodus (3:6). God would not have said, “I am the God of your ancestors” if he thought of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as dead (he would have said, “I was their God”). So, from God’s perspective, they are alive. This evidence would have been acceptable in any rabbinic debate because it applied a grammatical argument: God’s use of the present tense in speaking of his relationship to the great patriarchs who had been long dead by the time God spoke these words to Moses. God had a continuing relationship with these men because of the truth of the resurrection. Therefore, the Sadducees had made a serious error in their assumption about the resurrection.
Religious Leaders Question Jesus about the Greatest Commandment / 12:28-34
Several defined groups had taken their best shot at Jesus. As each antagonist engaged him in debate, the others apparently looked on with mixed emotions. On one hand, they had a common purpose in destroying Jesus. On the other, each group wanted to claim supremacy by being the one who eliminated the troublemaker.
Matthew hints at the background tension (Matthew 22:34). He provides a brief account of this exchange between Jesus and the teacher. He reported only the original question and Jesus’ response. Mark’s version fills in the picture and adds a positive note to the conflict. Jesus’ responses did not always antagonize his opponents. Often they expressed amazement (12:17) and even agreement (12:32). Jesus was looking for greater commitment from people, not that they merely knew the right answers. Jesus told this teacher that he had the truth but had not yet expressed his trust. Knowing God’s requirement of wholehearted faith and surrendering ourselves to him are separate steps of entering into the Kingdom.
12:28 This discussion continued within the Temple courts. Jesus and the disciples were surrounded by a crowd of people, while various groups of religious leaders came and went with their questions. This time, however, a teacher (a Pharisee, Matthew 22:34-35) brought a sincere question: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
The reference to “the commandments” focused on a popular debate about the “more important” and “less important” of the hundreds of laws the Jews had accumulated. The Pharisees had classified over six hundred laws and spent much time discussing which laws were weightier than others. As a Pharisee himself, the man had in mind the debates over the relative importance of ritual, ethical, moral, and ceremonial laws, as well as the positive versus negative laws. Jesus’ definitive answer about the resurrection caused this man to hope he might also have the final answer about all these laws. He wouldn’t be disappointed.
12:29-30 Among all the Gospel writers, only Mark recorded Jesus’ quote from Deuteronomy 6:4, which is the first part of what the Jews know as the Shema (referring to the opening word of the sentence in Hebrew). The Shema is made up from Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41 and is the major creed of Judaism that was recited twice daily (morning and evening) by devout Jews. The teachers of the law could debate all they wanted, but Jesus brought them back to the basics by giving new life to the oft-repeated words, The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. What mattered were not laws and their relative importance; what mattered was a relationship with the one true God.
Jesus then answered the man’s question by explaining what those words should mean in the daily lives of the Jews. Because they believed that there was one God (as opposed to other religions, such as the Romans with their pantheon of gods), they ought to love the one true God with every part of their being: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength” (see also Deuteronomy 6:5). A person’s total being must be involved in loving God. To love God in this way is to fulfill completely all the commandments regarding one’s “vertical” relationship.
12:31 In addition to the law quoted in 12:30, there is a second and equally important law. This law focuses on “horizontal” relationships—our dealings with fellow human beings. A person cannot maintain a good vertical relationship with God (loving God) without also caring for his or her neighbor. For this second law, Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The word “neighbor” refers to fellow human beings in general. The love a person has for himself or herself (in the sense of looking out for oneself, caring about best interests, etc.) should be continued, but it should also be directed toward others.
The Ten Commandments and all the other Old Testament laws are summarized in these two laws. By fulfilling these two commands to love God totally and love others as oneself, a person will keep all the other commands.
12:32-33 The man commended Jesus for his true and insightful answer. The man realized that after all the Pharisees’ wrangling about the laws, the answer had been amazingly simple. The man reaffirmed the Shema (12:29) quoted from Deuteronomy, saying, “There is only one God.” He then added, “and no other,” echoing Deuteronomy 4:35 (see also Exodus 8:10; Isaiah 45:21). This man understood that the laws of love for God and love for neighbor were more important than all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law. In other words, love was more important than all the ritual and ceremonial laws. This man, one of the few among the Pharisees, was able to see that loving God with all one’s heart, understanding (substituted for “mind”), and strength, and to love one’s neighbors revealed a level of love and obedience that went far beyond the offering of sacrifices.
12:34 Jesus was pleased by the man’s response and told him that he was not far from the Kingdom of God. This man had caught the intent of God’s law as it is so often stressed in the Old Testament—that true obedience comes from the heart. Because the Old Testament commands lead to Christ, the man’s next step toward obtaining God’s Kingdom was faith in Jesus himself. This, however, was the most difficult step to take.
The questions ended, for no one dared to ask any more. But this did not end the opposition. The leaders continued in their plot to kill Jesus.
Religious Leaders Cannot Answer Jesus’ Question / 12:35-37
Jesus did not settle for a silent, seething truce with the religious leaders. He continued to teach. He demonstrated that God’s word had not been fully examined regarding the identity of the Messiah. His provocative questions brought delight to the crowds, thoughtfulness to the attentive, and continued anger to his enemies.
12:35 This was still Tuesday of Jesus’ final week, and he was teaching in the Temple. The Pharisees expected a Messiah (the Christ, the Anointed One), but they erroneously thought he would be only a human ruler who would reign on King David’s throne, deliver them from Gentile domination by establishing God’s rule on earth, and restore Israel’s greatness as in the days of David and Solomon. They knew that the Messiah would be a son (descendant) of David, but they did not understand that he would be more than a human descendant—he would be God in the flesh.
12:36 The Jews and early Christians knew the Old Testament was inspired by God, bearing his authority in its teachings. Jesus quoted Psalm 110:1 to show that David, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understood the Messiah to be his Lord (that is, one who had authority over him), not just his descendant. The Messiah would be a human descendant of David, but he would also be God’s divine Son. That he sits at God’s right hand means the Messiah will sit in the place of highest honor and authority in God’s coming Kingdom. In ancient royal courts, the right side of the king’s throne was reserved for the person who could act in the king’s place. The picture of enemies humbled beneath his feet describes the final conquering of sin and evil.
12:37 If the great King David himself called the coming Messiah his Lord in Psalm 110:1, then how could he be merely David’s son (meaning “descendant”) at the same time? David himself didn’t think the Messiah would be just a descendant; instead, David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, realized that the Messiah would be God in human form and would deserve due respect and honor.
Jesus Warns against the Religious Leaders / 12:38-40
12:38-39 This denunciation of the religious leaders (specifically the teachers of religious law) probably occurred right in the Temple and was spoken to the surrounding crowd that had been “listening to him with great interest” (12:37). Matthew has an entire chapter of such denunciations—seven “woes” to the teachers of religious law and Pharisees whom Jesus unhesitatingly called “hypocrites” (Matthew 23). Mark recorded a shortened version, signaling Jesus’ final break with the religious leaders.
Having silenced the questioning of the religious leaders, Jesus turned to the crowd and told them to beware of these men. While they had education and authority, Jesus denounced their conduct. Their actions revealed their desire for attention and honor. They had lost sight of their priority as teachers of religious law and were enjoying their position merely because of the “perks” it offered. Jesus condemned this attitude.
12:40 Not only did the teachers walk around expecting perks and honor, they also actively abused their position. Because they received no pay, they depended on the hospitality of devout Jews. It was considered an act of piety for people to help these teachers. That they cheat widows out of their property was a vivid picture of these religious men using their position to defraud the gullible. Some people would even go so far as to place all their finances in the teacher’s control (especially widows who trusted them). As the nation’s lawyers, these men were often employed in handling the money a widow received from her father’s dowry. Some abused their trusted positions by unethically obtaining the dowry for the Temple and then keeping it themselves. They were in a position to exploit people, cheating the poor out of everything they had and taking advantage of the rich. How could they deserve anything but punishment!
A Poor Widow Gives All She Has / 12:41-44
Almost unheard in the clash of ideas and the noisy crowd, the ring of the widow’s small coins became an eloquent example of truth. Her act sharply contrasted with the much more obvious giving of others and with the teachers who cheated widows such as she (12:40). But it also represented an alternative to business-as-usual in the Temple. All around her were large examples of meaningless worship, shallow honor given to God, frivolous giving, and downright evil. But this woman’s act of sacrifice spoke volumes about herself and her faith.
12:41 Jesus completed his teaching and sat in the area of the Temple called the Court of Women. The treasury was located there or in an adjoining walkway. In this area were seven collection boxes in which worshipers could deposit their Temple tax and six boxes for freewill offerings. From his vantage point, Jesus watched as the crowds dropped in their money. A lot of money came into the Temple treasury during Passover; the increased crowds meant increased money amounts in the coffers. Surely the large amounts from the rich people clattered loudly into the boxes.
12:42 In contrast, a poor widow came with a freewill offering (that is, she was not paying a required tax, but rather giving a gift). As a widow, she had few resources for making money. If a widow in New Testament times had no sons, no protector, and remained unmarried, she was often destitute. Since there was no social security or public aid for widows, a widow would often be without financial support. This widow’s offering totaled only two pennies. Her small gift was a sacrifice, but she gave it willingly.
12:43-44 Jesus seized the opportunity to teach his disciples an important lesson in giving. In Jesus’ eyes, the poor widow had given more than all the others—even the rich people who had contributed large amounts to the treasury. Though her gift was by far the smallest in monetary value, it was the greatest in sacrifice. The value of a gift is not determined by its amount, but by the spirit in which it is given. The rich had given a tiny part of their surplus, but she had given everything, trusting God to care for her. Jesus wanted the disciples to see this lesson in total surrender of self, commitment to God, and willingness to trust in his provision.
Chapter 13 is tomorrow. That you will GROW to be like Jesus, is my prayer for you,
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