by miriam berg
Chapter XXIII

The next day, when Yeshua and his disciples returned to the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came out angrily. They had heard about this preacher roaming around the cities of Galilee, but here in Jerusalem? and they wanted to stop him. So they demanded truculently, "By what authority do you do these things? and who gave you this authority?" Yeshua looked them straight in the eye and said:
I will also ask you one simple question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.
     The authority of Yohanan: was it from God, or was it from men?
Touche'! The instant he asked the question, the chief priests knew he had them. If they said, From God; he would ask, Then why didn't you believe him? if they said, From men; they were afraid of the crowd, because everyone there considered Yohanan to be a prophet of God. So they answered, "We don't know." So Yeshua shrugged his shoulders and told them,
Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
All right, he says. You didn't answer my question. I won't answer yours either. How simple! and how crushing!

But we cannot help but see that this incident proves that he never claimed any special authority for himself. If he believed he was sent by God, this was his chance to have said so. If he even believed that he was the "son of God", this was the moment to have said so. But in any case the polytheistic concept of a "son" of God is not one Yeshua could have held, since the Jews were strict monotheists, and had been so for nearly two thousand years.

Now he began to tell parables which were directed against the priests and elders in particular. The question for us is why; we have seen that he is expecting a disaster to come upon the city, and probably also the country. But while he has won the hearts of the people, he has not yet given his message to the religious leaders themselves. The first parable here is called the parable of the two sons:
So what do you think? There was a man who had two sons; and he said to the first, Son, go work today in the vineyard. And his son answered and said, I will not; but afterward he repented himself, and went.
     Then the man came to the second son, and told him the same thing. And that son said, I go, sir; but he didn't go at all.
     Now I ask you: Which of the two sons did the will of his father?
What could they answer? "The first," they said. Then Yeshua said to them, nailing them for their disbelief of Yohanan:
Is it not so then, that the tax-gatherers and the harlots shall reach the kingdom of God before you do? For Yohanan came to you teaching the ways of righteousness, but you did not believe him; but these others did so; and you, after you saw that, still did not try to understand the truths of which Yohanan spoke.
Here he is answering the question he posed to them earlier: the authority of Yohanan was indeed from God, Yeshua tells them.

Then he told them another parable. He took as a starting point an image from the book of Isaiah, chapter 5, where that prophet is describing Israel as a vineyard belonging to God which the renters, the Israelites, have not taken care of, and God tells what he will do to punish them. This is called the parable of the wicked tenants:
A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the winepress, and built a tower, and rented it to some tenants, and went into another country.
      And when the grapes should have been ripe he sent a servant to the renters to collect the fruit of the vineyard, which belonged to him. But the renters took the servant, and beat him, and sent him away empty.
      So the owner sent another servant; and they beat him and wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. He sent yet another servant; and the renters killed him; and he sent still others, all of whom were beaten and some were killed.
      Then finally the owner sent his own son, whom he loved, thinking, They will certainly respect my son. But the renters said to themselves, This is the heir; let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours. So they grabbed him, and killed him, and cast him out of the vineyard.
      What then will the lord of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants, and will give the vineyard to others.
Yeshua is hitting them hard: he compares them to tenants who are treating the messengers from God violently. He is also pronouncing their fate: they will lose the nation because of their behavior. He quotes from the 118th Psalm:
The stone which the builders rejected, the same has become the head of the corner.
Then the elders were even more enraged, for they could see that he spoke the parable against them; but they were still afraid of the crowd, so they left him, and went away.

But it is our task to figure out what he really means to be saying. No longer are his parables the idyllic pictures of farmers planting seeds which grow in quiet and mustard seeds which grow large enough to shelter the birds. They have taken on the thundering quality of Yohanan in predicting the "wrath to come" and the axe laid to the root of the trees. Clearly he is criticizing the priests and scribes; but for what exactly, and what is he asking them to do? We can imagine the more open-minded among them asking these same questions. And we shall perhaps hear some of his answers in his indictment of them the next day.

However, this day was not yet over. That afternoon, some of the Pharisees, after having gotten together with some of the Herodians, came to Yeshua with another trick question. Their preamble certainly told anyone having eyes and ears that they were up to something. They said flatteringly, "Master, we know that you are a truthful person, and that you bow and scrape to no one; for you are not influenced by any man, but you follow and teach the way of God. So we should like to know: is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? shall we give, or not give?" Very clever; if he said yes, he would probably lose his popular following; if he said no, they could have him arrested by the Romans.

But Yeshua was not fooled by that. He asked them why they were trying to ensnare him, and told them to bring him a coin, so that he could see it. And when they brought it to him, he held it up so they all could see it, and asked:
Whose is this image and name on this coin?
The picture was of Tiberius, the Roman emperor; so they answered, "Caesar's." Then he said to them,
Therefore render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.
And the report is that they were amazed at his cleverness in turning aside their ploy. But is this really an answer? It is perhaps Yeshua's most famous riposte; but it can be interpreted either way: as supporting the payment of tribute, or as denying the payment of tribute, on the grounds that all belongs to God.

He has buffaloed the priests and elders, and stumped the Pharisees and Herodians, in their attempts to trap him into some kind of inflammatory statement for which he can be arrested. Now certain of the Sadducees, who were also of the priestly class, came to him with a riddle, hoping to obfuscate and frustrate his popularity. The doctrine of an afterlife was very much in the air at that time; the Pharisees taught that yes, there was life after death, Sheol was not just a burial place for souls as well as bodies. But the Sadducees denounced the belief, saying that there was no ground for it in scripture. And they were also very clever; they posed to Yeshua one of their paradoxes which were intended to refute the belief in the resurrection. It was:
Moses wrote to us, If a man die, and leave a wife behind him, but no children, that man's brother should marry the wife, so that the man's line may be continued with his brother's progeny.
      Now once there were seven brothers; and the first took a wife, but died without issue; and the second took her to wife, but also died, leaving no children; then the third; and the rest; and none of them left any seed. Finally the woman herself died, having been wife to all the seven brothers.
      Now we ask you, in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of them?
Probably they were giggling behind their beards; to them it was a conundrum making fun of the belief in an afterlife. But Yeshua shook his head and sighed and said:
Is not this the reason that you make such an error, that you do not know your own scriptures, nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.
      And have you not read in the book of Moses, how God spoke to him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac; and the God of Jacob? See, he is not the God of the dead, but of the living; so you are in error in your approach to the question.
His reasoning regarding the absence of marriage in an afterlife may not be convincing to us, but it is his reference to the fact that it is we, the living, who need to be concerned with how we live and love, which is of importance. And there was a scribe who understood this, for he asked Yeshua, "What is the most important commandment?" This was a question that many rabbis had given many answers to; Yeshua responded with the same answer that the lawyer had given in Samaria on the occasion of the parable of the Samaritan, but which cannot be too often repeated:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.
And the second is, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
Yeshua adds a superlative to this summary, saying:
There is no other commandment greater than these.
There is no other commandment greater than these. He said it, so we can guess he meant it: not sacrifices, nor fasting, nor sabbath rules, nor handwashing, nor cupwashing, nor tithing, nor even following him, were as important as these two rules from the books of Moses, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Numbers 19:18. And the scribe agreed:
Master, you have well said; for to practice these commandments is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
Yeshua commended him in these words:
You are not far from the reign of God.
Mark sums up the interchange by saying that after that there was no one who had the nerve to ask him any question.

Now Yeshua turns on his attackers, and confronts them with his own riddle. To us it may sound like a sophistry. He asks them about the concept of the messiah, which was the term for the expected king who would liberate the nation. It was also said that the coming king would be a descendant of David, because of a verse in the book of the Kings which said that David's descendants would rule perpetually over Judah. So he asks them,
How can you say that the messiah is the son of David? Doesn't David himself say in the Psalms,
     The Lord said unto my Lord,
     Please sit upon my right hand,
     Till I make your enemies
     The footstool of your feet.
Thus David calls the coming king, My Lord; how can he then be his son?
No response from the religious leaders is reported; but perhaps Solomon himself couldn't have unravelled this riddle. The first "Lord" refers to Yahweh, and rabbinic teachings have construed the second "Lord" to mean either David himself or the coming messiah. But even if an ancestor couldn't refer to a descendant as "my Lord", it is not clear that this proves anything at all. Perhaps he is proclaiming that any person might be a messiah, not merely a descendant of David. Indeed, Mark reports that the common people heard him gladly. He was offending the leaders, but he had won the hearts of the people for standing up against the rigidity of the Pharisees and the unconcern of the priests with their welfare.

There is one powerful episode in the gospel of John which we want to tell here. This episode is not found in most of the ancient manuscripts of John; in some ancient texts it is found in the gospel of Luke instead. Nor do the manuscripts agree among themselves in the telling of this episode. It is the story of the woman taken in adultery and brought to Yeshua by the scribes and Pharisees. They said, "Master, this woman was taken in adultery; she was caught in the very act. Now Moses commanded that we should stone to death anyone who was guilty of such a sin. What do you say?" Some scholars think that this couldn't have happened, because death by stoning had been abolished by the time of Roman occupation. Nevertheless, Yeshua did not answer immediately, but stooped down and wrote upon the ground with his finger. They went on demanding his judgment, and finally he stood up and said:
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
That got them; who among them could claim to be free of some kind of transgression against even their own law? How could any of them have condemned the woman to death when they had themselves been guilty of lust, and taken advantage of a woman whenever they had the chance? He stooped down again, and one by one the men left, the text says beginning with the eldest, and continuing until the last. Finally when Yeshua was left alone with the woman, he rose again, and asked her:
Woman, where are your accusers? Didn't anyone condemn you?
And she answered respectfully, "No one, rabbi." So Yeshua told her:
Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not fall prey to their lust anymore.
Once again he has hoisted them with their own petard, and they were forced to back down; and he shows his own forgiveness for technical sins of the flesh. This episode was probably handed down by word of mouth for two centuries after Yeshua's death; and some of the scribes who made copies of the gospels added the tale because they had heard it and it sounded authentic to them, as it must surely sound to us.

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