1 Samuel 1:4-20
This passage immediately follows the scene of the widow with her two coppers. (Last week's reading, Mark 12:28-34.) For a while now Jesus has been teaching in the temple, saying some provocative things. In Mark 11 he makes his not-too-subtle entry into Jerusalem, borrowing a colt for his purpose with hardly a "by your leave." ("The Lord needs it...," 11:3.) He curses the fig tree. ("May no one ever eat fruit from you again," 11:14.)
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He drives out those who are buying and selling in the temple, overturning the tables of the money changers, not allowing anyone to carry anything through the temple, 11:15-16. When he does finally start teaching, Jesus accuses those to whom he is speaking of turning what should be a house of prayer for all nations (gentiles and Jews) into a den of robbers.
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Jesus so angers the leadership with his words and deeds that they want to kill him. Perhaps Jesus is tailoring his message to the crowds (11:18), to provoke their leaders, but the message in private to his disciples is equally provocative (to Peter [11:21ff.], "believe!" and "forgive!"; in private [13:3], some will claim "I am he!"]). Jesus is blatantly confrontational, even combative, seeking to "divide and conquer" the leaders who come to question the authority for his words and actions. His question is designed to produce a civil war. Riddle me this: "Was John's baptism of human origin or was it from God?" And the question produces its desired effect. (11:27-33)
Jesus attacks the leaders obliquely, obscuring his meaning momentarily with parables, but they understand all too well that he is "telling the parable against them." (Mark 12:12) Again they want to arrest him, but put it off. They send instead some smart folks to try to trap him using his own methods, asking him a divisive question: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Should we pay them or should we not?"
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Jesus' answer to their question, based on an inspection of a denarius, punts the ball back to them: "Give to Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to God." After so deftly handling this dispute between the Pharisees and the Herodians, in which he leaves them bickering still about whether to pay taxes, Jesus is asked another litmus-test question by some Sadducees: which of seven brothers will have the barren wife on the day of resurrection? This time Jesus tells his questioners bluntly, not once but twice, that they are quite wrong--and ignorant of the Scriptures. (Mark 12:24, 27)
Another person, a professional, overhearing this dispute between Jesus and the Sadducees, brings to him yet another divisive question: "Which is the greatest commandment?" It so happens that this person agrees with Jesus' answer completely, verbatim. Yes, yes, Jesus, you are so right! And so what does Jesus say? Does he congratulate the man? No. Jesus says, "almost there! You are very near the Kingdom, not very far at all to go now." In other words, "close, but no cigar!" (Mark 12:34) That shut them all up.
Now Jesus, in the temple, turns his attention to the widow woman with two coppers making her way toward the offering plate. (See last week's Bible blog entry.) You might ask how Jesus could ever possibly make a controversial statement about a widow's offering, yet he does: "She has given more than all the rest," he says. (Mark 12:43)
Thankfully, time has now come to leave the temple, before Jesus can stir up even more animosity and trouble. That's where our reading today began.
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On their way out, the disciples remark on the edifice and the stones that went into it; and Jesus, unable to let their comment pass, says "Not one of these stones will be left standing on top of another. All of them will be thrown down flat on the ground." (13:2)
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Their shock at Jesus' words is evident in the way Peter, James, John, and Andrew huddle with Jesus, expressing their concern. Tell us when; what will be the sign that the things you have said are about to happen? But instead of telling them when it will happen, Jesus gives them a list of signs that the end has not yet happened. (Mark 13:7, 8) There are miles to go before we sleep. Jesus seems to be saying that until the end comes, conflict will be ubiquitous. Wherever we look in our relationships--between nations, between families (and within families!), with nature, in church (wherever!) there will be disagreement, conflict, strife, natural disasters, suffering, pain, and loss. These things will be with us, unavoidably, until the very end. If Jesus, the Son of Man, the Messiah, did not escape it or avoid it but endured it, persevered and even embraced it--where does that leave us, his disciples? If Jesus is headed toward the cross, perhaps his increasing assertiveness in these last few chapters of Mark in the face of those who oppose him is a model for how we are to live in these contentious times. Where and how are we called to account? Asked divisive questions. Pursued with malice because of the way we answer? And especially, where are these things true not just because that's the way life is, but because we follow a troublemaker who isn't willing to let the status quo ante (i.e., death) prevail?