What a week it’s been. I’ve missed you and wish that we could gather in person, but I’m grateful for the opportunity we have to gather in spirit.
We’ll get to talking about this week. But first, a quick recap.
Last week, Sara talked about Jesus’ impending death. How he knew that his subversive nature was going to get him into trouble, but he didn’t shy away from his call. And in the weeks past, Sara and Katie talked about how Jesus healed people, even on the holy days when folks weren’t supposed to do any work, and about how Jesus’ life was predicted by John the Baptist, another radical.
Today, we’re continuing through the gospel of Mark. And we’re going to talk about two ways in which Jesus showed us an alternative to the way that things are. Specifically, he disrupted the failures of the institutions in which people trusted: the political system of his day and the religious system of his day. By his example, his disciples established a new and better way of being in community.
In the first of these two stories, in chapter 11, Jesus was walking into Jerusalem with his disciples. They’d been traveling, and they knew that Jesus wanted to enter the city of Jerusalem, a city of massive importance and influence. Jesus also knew that he would later be crucified there.
Earlier, before this chapter, people welcomed him into the city, putting palm leaves before him. This part usually gets read during Palm Sunday, which we commemorate a few weeks from now. But that’s not the story.
The story for today – well, one of them – is that Jesus enters a city of serious religious significance. And when he enters the temple, he is furious at what he sees.
See, people go to the temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices, which is a part of Jewish life. A lot of these people are poor. They’re there to offer to God a portion of what they have, and most of them don’t have much. But there are also “money-changers”: folks who have set up camp at the temple to make money off of the others. These folks are extortionists who are double-charging folks for religious observance.
People charging other people exorbitant prices for everyday life. Sound familiar?
In the second story, in chapter 12, two groups of people called Pharisees and Herodians came to ask Jesus a question. These were two groups of people who teamed up to harass Jesus, even though they didn’t get along well, themselves.
The Herodians would have called the Pharisees religious fundamentalists. The Pharisees would have called the Herodians complicit with their political overlords.
They asked Jesus, sweetly of course, “Teacher, we know that you’re genuine and you don’t worry about what people think. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay taxes or not?”
But Jesus saw through their deceit. And he asked, “Why are you testing me?” And he asks them to bring him a coin, which they do, and he asks them whose face is on it, and they say “Caesar’s.”
And Jesus weaves in between these two groups and says, “Then give to Caesar what’s Caesar’s and give to God what’s God’s.” So he gets away from their question about whether to commit tax fraud and defy the ruling power or whether to come off as a religious sell-out by conceding to the ruling power. And he says, “I know that’s not what you’re really asking.”
The Pharisees and Herodians didn’t like Jesus because he was a disruptor. He disrupted the way the economic and political systems worked, and he disrupted the way that religious observance worked.
Over 2,000 years later, we still need this call to disruption because – I don’t know if you’ve noticed – but things aren’t working as well as they could. Things could be better than they are now, right?
Right now, some people don’t trust a government that won’t take responsibility for its people’s health and well-being. And right now, some people don’t trust that American capitalism, an economic system of winners and losers, of making money off of our natural home and off of each other, really works.
If Jesus were here today, he’d see a lot of similarities between his time and ours. What our times have in common is that they’d both be threatened by Jesus. Jesus threatened the status quo because he and his followers lived outside the bounds of these systems, imagining and modeling different realities and beautiful possibilities.
Dr. John J. Vincent, author of the book Radical Jesus, said: “Jesus takes on the politico-religious system on its own terms, and exposes its falseness, presumption, and ridiculous anti-human values.”
After all, this is the same Jesus who asked his disciples to feed a crowd of thousands with just two loaves of bread and five fishes. And they did it. This is the same Jesus who asked an outcasted woman for water, saw her for who she was, and charged her to go and tell the good news. And this is the same Jesus who will heal the Roman guard who came to arrest him and who will forgive the crowd that called for his execution.
Jesus lives as though earth were already like heaven, and he invites us to do the same.
Dr. Vincent also said: “Within that small community, Jesus works at developing a new world of relationships in which common family, common privations, common disciplines, common residence, common work and common cash are the rule. The alternative political reality is being built up, even while the old ones are still in control. Its first form is the disciple group. Its second form is the post-resurrection church.”
This week, we’ve seen incredible examples of disruption: of ways that people are working outside the status quo, to make earth more like heaven. To be that post-resurrection church. People saw systems that didn’t work, and they decided to be the kind of nation they wished really existed, with or without their government’s help.
- A landlord in South Portland shared that he wouldn’t collect rent from his tenants for April because their hours at work were slashed. He inspired many other landlords to do the same, Hayli and me included, and his creative compassion was even picked up by Newsweek.
- Operas, symphonies, musicians, teachers, and museums all over the world have made their work free to the public online.
- Kamasouptra in Portland donated 1,000 bowls of soup to a local food bank.
- Someone’s bar mitzvah was canceled, but his family kept the catering contract with a small Hmong-owned business, thereby helping the business get by while also feeding their loved ones in isolation.
- Many non-Asian Mainers are supporting Asian-owned businesses during a time of increased fear and discrimination.
- Canadian First Nations teachers are volunteering to teach K-8 school lessons to kids for free online during school closures.
- U-Haul is providing 30 days of free self-storage for students leaving college campuses in this moment.
- Mainers have created massive online networks of people giving and receiving help from one another, often in creative ways because of lockdown and self-isolation.
- Stay-at-home parents are offering free childcare to others in their community.
- States are refusing to collect student loan payments this month.
- Liquor distilleries are making hand sanitizer.
These are dazzling, creative, and sometimes very simple ways to accomplish things that Jesus championed: sacrificial community, unusual courage, and active hope.
My hope is that we are inspired by the ways in which we’re subverting these broken systems, and that this, which is so much closer to the kin-dom of God, is what we carry with us into the future.
I hope we remember that we are gifted with love and connection and power, and maybe it shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to exercise our holy creative willpower. I hope we remember all the ways in which God showed up in this time through our collective compassion. I hope we remember how good it feels to flex these muscles of the heart, to keep subverting the system with radical kindness, radical generosity, and radical risk-taking.
“It is in your hands.”
There are some who read Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians as Jesus offering them a choice: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
They’re trying to catch him in a sound bite and make him look like a fool — catch him red-handed. It might be easy to think this is a story about paying taxes and obeying the government, but as we heard earlier, it’s more complicated than that.
The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to know what kind of religious or political person Jesus was. But Jesus came to be a spiritual and human person. Like us.
Jesus says to the Pharisees and Herodians: you tell me. Who do you say it belongs to? The choice is yours. What belongs to God? What do we do about something as common but as meaningful as our money? We have so many choices, and we get to decide what belongs to God.
There’s a story that the great author and Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison wrote that echoes this.
In this story, there’s a woman who knows everything. Her town depends on her wisdom. She’s the daughter of African American enslaved people, and she’s blind. Two boys try to trick her, to show that she’s a fraud who isn’t all that wise, by approaching her with a bird in one of the boy’s hands.
They try to trick her by asking her a question to which they know the answer but she does not. They say to her, “I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”
But the woman understands their mean and petty motive, and after some time, she answers, “I don’t know. I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
And then Toni Morrison goes on to explain herself: Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility. The young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for their act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims.
So the boys think they’re pulling a fast one on their elder, but she has a different message for them altogether – something more important than their foolish game. The same way Jesus had a more important message for the Pharisees and Herodians who plotted together to trap him.
Both Jesus and the woman in Morrison’s story say to those who try and trap them with these lesser questions: what you want to do about this is in your hands. The choice is yours. And that choice, which stokes the imagination and the heart, is Jesus’ offering to us today, too.
In this time when we are both afraid and courageous, both closer to death and acutely alive, the choice about how we are going to respond – how we are going to face this specter together – is in our hands. Are we going to uphold the status quo and give in to despair? Or are we going to live like Jesus, establishing community in radical ways, bringing hope, and being Christ today in the hour of our need?