Jesus has come to claim you as his, so don’t look for excuses to reject him (Mark 12:13–17)

Leading up to the recent midterm elections here in the U.S., a vocal movement known as the Tea Party began demanding a reduced role for the federal government. The central idea behind this movement was (and is) that the American government is too large and is meddling with the autonomy of its citizens. The government should reduce its role, lowering taxes and cutting back its services.

Now, even the most radical Tea Party activists wouldn’t have held a candle to the Zealots of Jesus’ day. These insurgents hated the Roman empire and its authority over the Jewish state. They longed to see the Romans driven out so that Israel could be restored once again to an independent status, just as it was in its heyday. They believed that to submit to Rome was to reject the Lord God as Israel’s King.

So the big political question among Jesus’ contemporaries was whether one should serve Rome (as a collaborator) or serve the Lord (as a Zealot). The people’s sympathy lay with the zealots, and even paying taxes to Rome seemed like a betrayal of their Jewish heritage.

The Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, were familiar with this situation, and now they were ready to use it to set a trap for Jesus, who had become a thorn in their sides.

The Pharisees represent the popular resentment of Rome, while the Herodians support Rome and its appointed ruler, Herod. Also, they both hate Jesus. So these unlikely bedfellows try to trap him on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus could say that no, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar; this would have earned him popular support but probably landed him in a Roman jail. On the other hand, Jesus could say that yes, it is right to pay taxes—and at once the crowds surrounding him would vanish. Either way, the Jesus problem is solved. So his opponents don’t mind a little bit of sarcastic flattery, telling Jesus, “You are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.”

They’re about to wish they hadn’t said that.

Jesus knows they’re trying to trap him. He knows that they’re hypocrites, mere actors. They aren’t asking him the question because they want to know the answer. They aren’t interested in finding out how to live a life pleasing to God. No, they’re looking for an excuse to reject Jesus.

Of course, Jesus is too smart for them. He asks for a denarius, the Roman coin used to pay the tax (but rarely used in local commerce). The irony is that Jesus doesn’t have one, but his questioners do—he deftly reveals to the crowd that the Jewish leaders have bought into the Roman oppression, not he! And then he asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Puzzled, they give the obvious answer: “Caesar’s.” And then, with a simple reply—Jesus answers, undermines, and exposes his enemies. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he tells them, “and to God the things that are God’s.”

What does this mean? Well, obviously, “the things that are Caesar’s” refers to the coin with his inscription. Jesus is acknowledging that the Roman government has the right to tax the people. There is no essential conflict between human government and divine sovereignty. But he chooses to place his emphasis on “the things that are God’s.” Caesar has stamped his image on the money, but he can never stamp his image on the hearts of the people. That is something God alone has done (Genesis 1:26–27). “Let Caesar have his money,” Jesus is saying, “but you give your self to God.”

That’s something the Pharisees have refused to do. Remember, they’re questioning Jesus about the crucial political issue of their time—an issue that will eventually lead to a Jewish rebellion and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So on the surface, they seem wise in asking him about it. But Jesus knows they are hypocrites. They don’t care about giving themselves over to God. They just want to get rid of this troublesome teacher who is undermining their authority by claiming it for himself.

You may be worried about Obama’s health care plan or tax breaks. You may be worried about whether the government has the right to take what you deem to be yours. But don’t get caught up in the small stuff. The government is demanding your money; Jesus is demanding your life. And if you would rather rely on the government to take care of your needs and wants, perhaps it’s time to place full confidence in Jesus to provide security for you. After all, he has claimed the title of Messiah, the anointed King over all the world.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:7)

Jesus has come to reject those who won’t make him central, so shape your life around him (Mark 12:1–12)

Ever since my sophomore year in college, I’ve lived in houses which I’ve rented from several different landlords. I’m familiar with what it’s like to be a tenant. It’s only in the last few months, however, that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be a landlord. I’ve been working for an apartment management company, and while most of our tenants are well behaved, it’s the 10 percent that misbehave who give us 90 percent of our headaches. Nearly every day, I come home with new stories about irresponsible or clueless tenants.

But it’s tough to complain when you read about tenants like these.

It’s not hard to see who Jesus is pointing the finger at. His opponents, the religious leaders of Israel, recognize themselves right away as the tenants. After all, the prophet Isaiah had also compared Israel to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–7), and they saw themselves as tenants of that vineyard. Speaking through Isaiah, the Lord had condemned Israel for its rebellion, and now Jesus specifically condemns the religious leaders who have opposed him.

The tenants in the parable are traitors. They have been given great responsibility to care for the landlord’s vineyard and produce a crop for him. However, they don’t want to serve him; they want the vineyard for themselves. So they humiliate and beat and kill the messengers he has sent, just as the religious leaders of Israel have rejected the prophets whom God has sent, all the way up to John the Baptist. And when he sends his only son, whom he dearly loves—an act of mercy and madness!—they kill him, too, hoping that his inheritance would end up as their own.

Jesus is shredding the righteous disguise of his opponents. They appear to be doing the work of God, but in reality they are opposing his Messiah, the anointed King he has sent to rule Israel. They want control; they want to rule God’s kingdom for themselves.

Even though these leaders have been trained in the Old Testament scriptures from childhood, Jesus challenges them, “Have you not read this Scripture?” He quotes Psalm 118:22–23:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Why would the builders of a palace or temple reject a stone carved out of a quarry? Obviously, it’s because they see some sort of defect in it. It doesn’t fit into their blueprint for how the structure should look. The Psalmist felt like such a stone; he was rejected by his enemies as unfit to be one of them. Yet he and his allies marveled as the Lord delivered him, turning the rejection upside down and giving him victory over his enemies.

Jesus is the culmination of this pattern of deliverance. He is to be rejected, betrayed, and crucified by the powerful and influential men of his day. Then, despite their best efforts to destroy him, the almighty God will raise him from the dead and give him “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).

Jesus doesn’t fit into the plans of the religious leaders. He is a threat to their positions of power. If he is put in charge, they can no longer have authority over Israel; they can no longer demand that people follow their traditions; they can no longer run their lives the way they want to.

When the rejected stone is made the cornerstone of the building, then the blueprint must be changed, and the building plans must be altered to fit the new cornerstone. This means that Jesus will not “fit in” to our pre-existing lifestyle. No, Jesus demands thorough and foundational change from you and me. He will not be added as an extra ingredient in your life to make you feel spiritually fulfilled. He insists on being your foundation; he insists that you reorder your dreams and goals and values and morals around him. You must shape your life around him as the center. If you and I do this, his triumph will be “marvelous in our eyes.”

If you and I will not do that, then we appear in this parable as the wicked tenants, attempting to kill Jesus so that we may usurp his throne. But “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35)—the Lord will bring about a great reversal, our kingdoms will be flattened, and his eternal kingdom will be built over their ruins, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.

So are you a faithful tenant of the Landlord? Or will you oppose him until he comes, inevitably, to reject you?