THE STORY OF YESHUA
by miriam berg
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
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
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
And she answered respectfully, "No one, rabbi." So Yeshua
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.