• Rev. Izzy Harbin

27 Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him 28 and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” 31 They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Chapter 11 of the Book of Mark is critical to the plot that plays out at the end of Jesus’ life. It opens with Jesus coming into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey while onlookers sing Hosannah in the highest. Jesus cursed a fig tree, which feels contradictory to how we see Jesus. Then Jesus entered the Temple, flipped over the money-changer’s tables, and disrupted the commerce that was taking place in the common area—the area designated for all the nations as a house of prayer. Jesus left the city with his disciples and explained his reason for cursing the fig tree. But Jesus returned to the city in the morning and went straight back to the Temple, this time being confronted by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, who asked Jesus “by what authority are you doing these things?”

The religious leaders who approached Jesus want to know why he thinks he can get away with teaching, preaching, and disrupting the daily activities of the Temple. Jesus, recognizing the intentions of the religious leaders addressed them by asking a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it from human origin?”

The exchange between Jesus and the Temple leaders centered on everyone’s understanding of the word “authority.” The religious leaders believed that John was a holy man who had a divine mission to preach repentance, which was a common theme in Jewish history. John’s baptism, or ministry, however, operated outside of Jewish religious authority, as did Jesus’, and Jesus made it personal by acting out in the Temple.

So, who did have authority to teach, preach, and disrupt the temple?

Traditionally, religious authority was given to those who were descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. God specifically set the tribe of Levi apart from the other eleven tribes of Israel for the sole purpose of teaching the law and performing the ritual sacrifices in the temple. Jesus and John were not descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, but were both descendants of David in the line of Judah.

The religious leaders didn’t challenge John, who was heralding the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, because he didn’t bring his message into the Temple. Instead, he lived in the wilderness, preaching, and teaching outside of the city. Still, Jesus’ question puts the religious leaders in a bind. So, they do the next best thing, they say rather boldly, “We do not know.” This is probably the most honest statement any of them had ever made to Jesus.

In that single moment, Jesus accomplished two things. First, he challenged the authority of the religious leaders who taught the law but did not live it; and second, Jesus asked his followers to think more deeply about how they experienced their relationship with God.

We can ask or ourselves, “Are we willing to admit we just don’t know?”

Jesus tells us in this passage that we don’t have to know, but we do have to keep searching. John didn’t know who the Messiah was until Jesus showed up to be baptized. He was willing to walk in the unknown, to be drawn into the mystery of God, a God who defies religious traditionalism.

In this season of Lent, where we rethink our own relationship with God and how God works in and through us, we, too, are being invited to know the God who defies religious traditionalism. The historical faith of the Israelite people had always been steeped in mysticism, but they developed a kind of certainty about God that made them blind to the fullness of Jesus. We see the same kind of certainty blinding us today. Being able to say, “I don’t know,” is one way of setting us free from this trap. There isn’t anything about God that we can be certain of, not even God’s existence. It is our faith that calls us to make a commitment to the God of creation, the God who desires to know us and to be known by us. It is this God that we claim, but it is also this God that we can never fully comprehend or understand.

Finally, we come to believe that it is okay to say, “I don’t know,” even while stepping out on faith as if we do.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

15 Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16 and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

18 And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.

It is difficult for us to imagine what the Temple in Jerusalem must have looked like, even with the various models that experts have designed based off the remaining stone structures and the written descriptions found in the biblical text and the history of Josephus (a Jewish Historian working for the Roman Empire). In the context of this passage, we are looking at the Second Temple which included the original Temple Mount as well as the additions made to the Temple by Herod the Great around 19 B.C.E. Extensions to the Temple Mount included expanding the former complex on the northern, western, and southern sides of the mount.

One of the structures within the mount, added by Herod, was a colonnade called the Royal Stoa, designed for the purpose of selling sacred goods. This would include the selling of all manner of birds and beasts used in the various temple sacrifices. This designated area was intentionally set apart from other court areas of the Temple, most notably, a larger area known as the Court of the Gentiles. During high holidays, however, religious leaders, seeing an opportunity to make more money, would expand the area allotted for buying and selling, allowing it to spill over into the Court of Gentiles.

The term “Gentile” in this context meant anyone who was not Jewish. As we can see in this passage, Jesus clearly states that this area of the Temple that the moneychangers have invaded is “a house of prayer for all the nations.” Jesus understands the significance of the Court of Gentiles and refuses to allow commerce to usurp the prayer space. For Jesus, this scene is an inclusion issue.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day struggled with many of the same issues we struggle with in our own country. We perceive that the “other” is taking over space that we feel does not belong to them. This encroachment into our world can feel uncomfortable and dislodging. What Jesus does, however, is make clear that the displacement of the Gentiles (through the expanding of the area of selling and buying goods) is counter to God’s plan for how we live in community along-side one another. This space, made available to all people, cannot be summarily replaced by the desire for revenue; or, in our case, a desire to remain homogenous.

Jesus’ bold assertion and his flipping over of tables causes a complete disruption of the selling of animals for the Passover sacrifices, and Jesus doesn’t care one iota about the consequences. Jesus doesn’t care that his actions might cause an uproar in the city, that he might incite the high council to act against him, or that the Roman Empire might send soldiers in to squelch the disorder. Jesus was acting on his conscience. There was no question in Jesus’ mind about right or wrong because everyone is allowed in the Temple for prayer. Jesus’ call for inclusion in the Temple, especially the area known as the Court of the Gentiles, is one of the reasons he is ultimately labeled an insurrectionist which led to his death.

Jesus demonstrates in this powerful story how welcoming we are to be to all people. We are to offer space for all to come in, unencumbered by our legalistic, moralistic piety. We are never to erect walls where there should be none. Nor are we to keep out those whom God has invited in. God’s kingdom is open to all, and it is not in our purview to change that which God ordains.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus gets asked this question on three separate occasions—two involving the man in our passage (once in Mark 10 and once in Luke 18), and one involving a lawyer in Luke 10 (better known as the story of the Good Samaritan).

If ever there was a time for Jesus to spell out in no uncertain terms what we must actually do in our lives to inherit eternal life, this is that moment. But Jesus’ response reorients us to a different reality, an unfolding kingdom of God that we are invited into in this moment. Jesus’ understanding of eternal life is a call to be present in “the here and the now,” not for some unknown heaven that feels inaccessible while still living.

Let’s start with the more familiar story of the Good Samaritan.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, an attorney asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds to the attorney with a question, “What does the law say?” The attorney states, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (The answer given by the attorney mirrors the answer given by Pharisees in Matthew 22). Jesus agrees with the man stating, “You have spoken rightly.” But then the attorney gets cheeky with Jesus and asks, “Yes, but who is my neighbor?” To this question, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In the end, we have our formula for inheriting eternal life: love God, love neighbor, love self, and show mercy.

Now let’s look at the story of the rich man in both Mark 10 and Luke 18.

In both the Mark and the Luke passages, we are confronted by a man (In Mark, just a man; in Luke, a ruler; in both, wealthy) who asks Jesus the all-important question regarding the inheritance of eternal life. This time Jesus points to the law. Jesus doesn’t really ask the man if he has kept the commandments, but instead makes a declarative statement about the commandments, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” The man in both accounts does not miss a beat; he immediately states, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” I don’t know of many people who could boldly state that with any confidence, believing that it is actually true.

In these passages (the Good Samaritan and the Rich Man), there is a harkening-back to the law—either to the letter of the law: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother,” or to the spirit of the law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is drawing our attention back to our behavior; back to how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis.

What the “rich man” struggles with in our passage isn’t that he doesn’t understand the law—both letter and spirit—but he wants to hold on to all that the world has afforded him. Jesus is asking this guy to go one step further; not just live the law in its most basic form, but to examine his heart, see where the world is keeping him trapped, and to let all that stuff go. For this guy, his wealth was his barrier to following Jesus.

We, too, must ask ourselves this question. What binds us to the world? What prevents us from being fully invested in God’s kingdom? This second question also gets played-out in this passage, even though it isn’t clearly stated in Mark 10. Luke 18 spells it out: “24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” For Jesus, the kingdom of God was a present-day reality. It was unfolding in front of them. Jesus invited the rich man to sell everything and join Jesus; to enter into the kingdom of God in a way that required self-sacrifice, but the man could not let go of what bound him to the material world to which he had grown accustomed. Are we able to join in God’s unfolding kingdom, to be fully present with God now? What binds you to this world? What do you need to give up in order to fully enter into God’s unfolding kingdom?

May God continue to bring about change and transformation in your life, may you take time during this Lenten Season to self-reflect and determine those things which bind you to this world. May we enter into God’s unfolding kingdom NOW, and enjoy a life of service, one to another.

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Last Updated: 5 September 2020

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