Law, Love and God’s Way…
Remember the fig tree, accursed and left for dead because it didn’t bear fruit (even if it was out of season?)? Well, we pass it again this morning and yes, it is dead! It was withered by the road and Peter remembered. Jesus utters strange words about faith and moving mountains and about forgiveness – strange words. But then again, it is Mark who placed this story together and perhaps he means to say something using metaphor. The fig tree and the Temple, both judged on the same day and both because they do not bear fruit – in or out of season? The Temple fails in its fundamental charge and function before God so perhaps the barren fig tree is a metaphor about the Temple’s state and future? Jump forward a generation or two, about 40 years to Mark’s world and the Jewish uprising in Jerusalem and the war that raged until they destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. Gone, withered, dead – Jesus’ words and Mark’s experience merge into a story, prophetic and real, stretching history and morphing imagination, inviting us to ponder the fruit-bearing life of person and church and God’s call for justice and love. The image has stood for 2000 years, a broken wall is all that remains and there they go to pray, deep and passionate, prayers of hope and longing before this broken place and a broken God who picks up messages in a wall. Has this mountain, the Zion hill of the Temple mount, been thrown into the sea by faith-filled pray-ers or pagan overlords at the bidding of Caesar? Is there a difference?
They walk back to the Temple, once again restored to its ‘right’ order, and into the broad expanse of courts of the outer Temple. This long day is spent in conflict between Jesus and the temple leaders laying traps for young players in the blind hope of trapping this wily one and leaving him exposed and compromised – just like them! ‘You do these things, these vile things, that have a pretence of Divine approval – by whose authority do you act?’ Can Jesus point to where his approval comes? How does God fit into this – whose side is God on? The devoted families who have ordered and tended the temple affairs forever or this pretender with a sharp tongue and quick wit? Who endorses his lampooning march or his upending of Temple furniture? He plays the convoluted game of ‘I’ll answer you if you answer me’ and then poses an equally awkward and irrelevant question to keep them at bay. It is a stalemate. So Jesus ups the ante and brings the ordinary people into the fun – he tells a story. Well it isn’t really a story but filled with a parabolic explosive charge set to ignite the passions and fuel the anger. This is the peacemaker, the Prince of Peace, who stirs up the crowd and agitates everyone until they are willing to at least look or listen – a bit of stirring and conflict is good to get the juices flowing. The story is about a wealthy owner who entrusts vineyard and produce to tenants in his absence. When he wants to make claim they refuse and kill, even the son of the owner is cast aside by the greed and the lust that drives these men. The crowd got into this story-time fun and laughed at the reality they knew and they knew. It was hollow laughter, release from the anger that built up inside and had nowhere to go. Further afield the leaders turned red, with fury, embarrassment and hatred turned deep. They would take out the knife and jab right there but the people, the people, could not be turned. They needed these people, this cowardly mob; they were like sheep but provided the cash. No, we wait. He’ll make a mistake – we’ll push him some more.
Some other leaders came by to enquire of his wise understanding and to gently lead him to the edge and watch him fall over. ‘Good teacher, tell us should we pay tax to Rome or not?’ He smiled that inscrutable, knowing smile, shook his head and barged right in. The trap they thought turned quickly around when he asked for a coin as he had none. They produced the head of Caesar punched into metal, a reminder of who ruled in this world. He asked them whose title was written thereon and suggested they give him his due. Give also to God all that is God’s and they were left puzzled and impressed. Everything is God’s, if you read the Scriptures, so how do we give to the Lord what is hisand give something to Caesar as well? His was a question loaded with challenge to the heart of a system unjust and oppressive, where foreigners reigned over God’s people and made claim to the wealth. The elite were go-betweens who maintained this system, ignoring the laws and people’s needs to ‘maintain a peace’ and keep up the wealth. They possessed these foreign coins that reminded them all of who really was boss. What else could they do?
The attacks kept coming from right and from left, and he deflected them with deftness and skill. Who will be married to who in the afterlife realm in a family convoluted, confused and sad. ‘It is the living not the dead over whom God reigns and God wants to change this world so it becomes what it should be in the vision of God.’
Another concerned with law and rightness saw Jesus’ wisdom and asked which law was truest and first. The fullest expression on which all else depends is to love God with one’s whole being and to love neighbour as self. Do this and everything, everything else falls into place and the law is fulfilled! Is this not a wonderful statement that brings down regimes of division and hatred and creates communities of love and inclusion? As we love one another and all that which is God’s (everything??!) there is no room for bitter jealousies or fear or keeping up with them down the road or across the ditch, unless it is a keeping up of love and justice! Can we out-love each other, not in a competitive sense but in giving-receiving-love kind of way? This scribal dude, who asks the wise, isn’t far from the Kingdom space of God because it is in his heart – he’s not yet in it because you have to step out and live it to be in it!
Jesus takes the initiative and drives home the point that Davidic rule and reign is different. It is below the one of which he speaks – God’s Reign in the world where love and justice kiss. The crowd drew this in, loved it, delighted by the imperative of love, a word of hope. He ridiculed the Scribal class who liked public displays and their holiness observed. They make great shows and pray long and deep whilst the ordinary watch on in awe, feeling meek. Despite their spiritual show and legal recourse, they abuse the widow and orphan, the poor and the weak. They institute tax law and real estate rules that confiscate property in favour of the few. ‘See that widow,’ says Jesus, ‘The one over there. Watch as she offers the last of her coins – on what will she now live? Do they care for her? No, the system expected to care for the poor and offer them a place and food and shelter, places a great bondage upon them and asks for their bread.’
As they leave for the village beyond the city walls, they wonder at the Temple’s beauty and size. It towers over the cityscape a statement of awe and they ask Jesus when this massive structure will fall. As the fig tree lay withered and dead, so the Temple but when will it be? Mark and his readers know full well that in the year, their year, of 70 the Temple fell. It’s a time of war and the skies grow dark as Rome in its might draws closer, ever closer and soldiers march in and swarm all around. The enemy comes and the food is short. Desolation fills the air and leaders arise to make claim on the people and lead them astray and the suffering is deeper than anyone’s known. There’s cosmic disorder and where is God? The sun and moon disappear, darkness covers the earth and hope fades, fades, fades.
There’s a sacrilege that desecrates the people’s world, on the Temple ruins, the Romans worship the Emperor-God who rules the land, all powerful Caesar, the God-man. The words of Jesus in the time of Mark, a story blended across time and space, of hope in the darkness despite cosmic unrest and light shining through until God’s Reign is revealed in lives that are lived in justice and love.
Caesar will come and Caesar will go, who knows his name or the words that he spoke. He told them he was God and what to believe, a power to powerful to ignore or avoid. But human he was and his time came to an end and another arose to violate humanity in oppressive violence and greed. Who were these men and who are they now? Who are they now? God still shines through human darkness in passion and hope, through people alive to the Spirit’s power, believing in justice and love. There are many who come and say, ‘Follow me.’ These voices abound but where do they lead? Follow them, where; follow them, why? Remember the song and the words and tune. Sing it low and deep; sing it loud and clear; sing and dance and cheer for the One who loves hopelessly, lavishing abundant grace on a world created in love. Follow this song!
What song of Love and Justice can you sing/draw/write… this week? How does it sound and feel when you watch the news or the latest movie or have that conversation over current affairs?
Some Questions to help you Reflect…
- As you read through the passage of Mark’s Story what parts of the story leaped out at you? Are there any parts that you want to explore more or that speak fresh thoughts to you?
- What in the reflection made you feel positive, hopeful – what was good for you?
What in the reflection caused you concern, anxiety or confusion – what was less good to/for you?
- Do you have any curiosity questions’ questions of wonder you might explore?
- What next for you?