Mark 12:16

And, when they had brought it, he asked, “Whose head and title are these?”

you ask after Law
you ask before Caesar

which ascends
which bows

in a zero-sum game
there must be a loser

in naming one
the other will bite

have you stopped
beating your spouse

all Cretans are liars
except for me

being shown Caesar
we are asked to say Law

Big Brother couldn’t have laid
a better test of hate love

Jesus’ pedagogical strategy is to break the spell of credulity that the social order casts over its subjects and so to force a crisis of faith. He engages the disciple-reader with disturbing and disrupting quandaries that animate toward change, rather than with logically satisfying answers that pacify. Might this suggest that the church’s own theological discourse should be less declarative and more interrogatory?

This quote from Myers155 raises an important question about the difference between our seeking answers that quiet or investigating our responses to situations and more actively engage life. Use of a Socratic methodology grows disciples who can stand on their own as opposed to sycophants who are always looking back to their teacher looking to see if they got it right. Being able to deal with what is in front of us is more healthy for ourselves and helpful for others than carrying the past along as though it were a Procrustean Bed forcing every today and tomorrow into its shape and size.

Beyond looking at the image of the coin with a head and inscription (“Tiberius Augustus Caesar, son of the divine Augustus”) a Jewish Jesus would also be reflecting on “image” as it has come to us from Genesis. Sabin1163 notes: “Mark is working with the intersection of all these traditions when he shows Jesus to be, at one and the same time, ben ’adam—common humanity—and the very likeness of God.”

It is helpful to carry this image question with us outside our reading. Mark helps us make this an everyday question of who is trying to shape our image into theirs and has political implications.

Mark 12:15

Knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a coin to look at.”

when caught betwixt
takes your eye off
both shiny objects

refocus from always
to a teensy moment
mundanely grounded

no taking a long view
immersed in grimy details
seek an example

now we can be real
between tesseracted rooms
possibilities bloom

for such a time as this
and this and this and this
we live beyond tests

Which is the stronger word: “deceit” or “hypocrisy”? Both indicate a separation between what comes out of the mouth and what is hidden from view. In today’s world, lying is perhaps stronger than either.

Is the test of an ability to deal with the tax question or to see through the lie about what the questioners were doing?

The story could continue quite well without the “testing” question. It is as if this were an internal aside while in an internal wilderness. In this there is connection between what Matthew and Luke spell out as testing questions in the wilderness. Here in Mark they are scattered through the tale.

Mann470 translates “deceit” as “casuistry” and notes:

Few things have been more destructive of an understanding of Jesus’ critics than the translation of hupokrisis by “hypocrisy” and the corresponding hupokritēs as “hypocrite,” with all the underlying assumptions of deliberate playacting. Originally, the word…meant a hypercritical attitude, niggling, pettifogging…. It is also important to remember, for all the obloquy that has attached to the word, that there is an entirely legitimate place for casuistry, concerned as it is with the bearing of the law on some particular case. To all outward appearance, there was a legitimate (and, at that time, burning) concern about handling tax money with a portrayal of a human figure on it.

If the question were not labeled as mean-spirited [Mark, ὑπόκρισις (hypokrisis, hypocrisy); Matthew, πονηρία (ponēria, malice); and Luke πανουργία (panourgia, cunning)], we would more likely read it through the cultural realities of the time. This makes reading more difficult but also adds better texture to our wrestling with the text.

Mark 12:14

These men came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are an honest man, and are not afraid of anyone, for you pay no regard to a person’s position, but teach the way of God honestly; are we right in paying taxes to the Emperor, or not? Should we pay, or should we not pay?”

if at first
flattery doesn’t work
pile it on

hearing virtue
stacked upon virtue

side-tracked from content
affected ego preens
all wise

a considered response
is lost with only
an answer

a needed provisional
stumbles carrying eternity

Three lines of imputed integrity and morality are followed by a legal question and a religious one. If the first question doesn’t get you the next one will and there is an unending line of questions.

Here in the Temple, hearing all these accolades, even second-hand about someone else, raises my desire to come up with a definitive response. This raises a tendency to double-down and risk every previous truth-telling by saying just a little more than is needed and making one clear statement intended to stand every test of time.

This is a wilderness moment in a setting that attempts to ban all wilderness doubt and rely only on an assertive certainty.

When we have lived long enough in a wilderness we begin to have a quicker apprehension of what questions are our questions and which questions belong to someone else.

While we live in a world not of our constructing, that attempts to shape us in its own image by giving one no-win situation after another until we are conformed, an appreciation of wilderness  brings an openness to additional responses beyond the expected.

In a palin-esque way, we can even return to the widow and her half-pennies. In his chapter on “Postcolonial Criticism” in Anderson226 Tat-Siong Benny Liew refers to Seong Hee Kim’s “dialogical imagination” to see the widow respond to these same questions and pay her tax, “giving everything back to the imperial power”. Liew has reservations about this interpretation but still it pushes him to “return to re-read and reassess Mark”. May these questions so push every Reader.

Mark 12:13

Afterward they sent to Jesus some of the Pharisees and Herodians, to set a trap for him in the course of conversation.

soon and very soon
a trap will be sprung
system lackeys
come with an oh so cute
weighted wager
heads I win
tails you lose

no matter what is said
it will be turned about
an affirmation
turns condemnation
every hopeful slogan
condensed wisdom
is thrown back cursed

the trap is in our stars
lovingly constellated
to reflect another
wisdom story
other figures
checkmate mine

Fake news is as old as the hills. When you can’t win your way by everyday reality, simpler truth, it is time to ensnare and spin a story that captures a popular imagination with just enough possibility that it is accurate and more than enough fudging to persuade.

An example of this trapping is found in a creation story: Genesis 2:17, 3:1–5. Let’s see how Jesus does with Pharisees and Herodians as a variant on Eve and a Snake.

Lest we subtly stumble into an all too easy anti-Semitism that has such a long and inglorious heritage within Christendom, it is important to note this is only the first of four questions. Each can be seen as part of a tradition that appreciates argument as a way to explore meaning, including meaning of scripture.

This first question is openly described as antagonistic. The second does not carry that threat. The third question is asked respectfully and the fourth is asked by Jesus.

The very characters involved give a hint about the coming question. The Pharisees were interested in keeping the Torah alive and pertinent in the lives of the people through the observation and guarding of their tradition. The Herodians had thrown their lot in with the Romans and were, at best, accommodating the demands of Rome to keep as many Israelites alive as possible in a time of militant occupation. Between them we have representatives of what we now call Church and State. It does need noting that this division was not along strict party lines. These two realities in their lives interwove and were not easily distinguished.

What is being looked for is self-incrimination. This will greatly assist in being rid of Jesus without being responsible his death.


Mark 12:12

After this his enemies were eager to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd; for they saw that it was at them that he had aimed the parable. So they left him alone, and went away.

ouch I’ve been parablized
and I don’t like it

told and not told all at once
it’s easy to hear the worst

when told off in no certain term
we look around to see who heard

with set jaw and steely eye
we turn upon our dignity and walk

we’ll be back as soon as
we perfect a perfect rejoinder

Deep in our reptilian brain, who wouldn’t want to do in those who are making life difficult for us. It doesn’t make any difference if they claim to be a loyal opposition assisting us in clarifying the import of our actions or if they mean to do us in by setting up alternative structures and exerting coercive power on our decision-making processes.

If it is a choice between fleeing, freezing, or fighting, we’ll take fighting.

There is a slyness here that retreats to fight another day. Fighting to our death today is not as good as regrouping to fight to their death tomorrow. When the neo-cortex conspires with our crocodile to make our fighting more efficient or effective, it is never a good sign.

Remembering that this parable of the Landowner and Tenants runs counter to a previous parable of Sower and Seed, this is a good time to revisit them both as antagonists. Swanson241 approaches the gospels through the lens of drama:

Since this parable and the parable of the Sower provide the two trajectories that the story might follow, you might try performing them competitively. Divide your company into two groups, and have them each tell their assigned parable over the top of the other. Let them figure out what it will take to get the audience to buy their construal of how the story is going. If this proves interesting, you might have each team ransack Mark’s story looking for evidence to support its contention that one parable best explains the course of the action.

The church is still battling over these parables. The Reader is asked to also “ransack” Mark to see what confirms and what undermines their typical response to life swirling around them. What remains hopeful; what only leads to more cornerstones and chaos?

Mark 12:11

this corner-stone has come from the Lord, and is marvelous in our eyes.’”

left to our own devices
there would be no new
basic building blocks

reuse of old brinks
chipped and dinged
will lead askew

smaller and smaller
buildings will result
until poof we’re gone

fortunately there are
new-to-us reorientations
just under our old fears

“This” is a culmination of a whole series of references Mark has made in re-mythologizing the Hebrew background of Jesus. Sabin190 explains:

It makes a difference to one’s reading if one sees Mark’s scriptural references as a connected exegesis. Linking them, one sees that Mark has constructed a midrashic lexicon of passages that give image to this Jewish hope. He describes Jesus entering Jerusalem like Zechariah’s peacemaking king and cleansing the Temple like Simon Maccabeus. He dramatizes Jesus reenacting the Genesis curse on the fig tree and then telling his disciples that faith and prayer will reverse it. In a later chapter he quotes Jesus promising that indeed, the fig tree will bloom again. He complements the parable of the Vineyard in which the landlord is away with the parable of the Householder who comes home from his trip. From Scripture to Scripture, and from image to image, Mark takes his readers on an exegetical journey that reinterprets the recent disaster in Jerusalem in the light of the biblical experience of God’s will to restore all things.

As we look at church history we know that seeing a will to “restore all things” is not universal among those who claim to follow Jesus. There are many who would prefer to link another series of scripture references together in the next chapter to see a will to destroy all that is to set up a new and purer system with a limited number of people incorporated into that—only those who hew to this vision.

That history includes the current day where debates still continue about restitution or institution, partnership or hierarchy.

In Mark’s community this parable as well as Chapter 13 and the loss of the Temple all appear to have been predicted by a foreknowing Jesus. Everything after Jericho can be seen as an accurate anticipation of suffering and death that was all around them—the destruction of the Temple, the scattering of religious leaders away from Jerusalem, the overwhelming destructive response of Rome, and the world, in general, falling apart around them.

Mark 12:10

“Have you never read this passage of scripture? – ‘The stone which the builders despised has now itself become the corner-stone;

surprise it’s opposite day
the one ejected
returns to save the day

in turn the rejecters
become the glue
to heal inequity

what a mysterious end
just when we thought kill
a new way rises builds

And we come now to the reason given for the killing of the tenants who have killed servants and son of an absent landowner. It is a scriptural reference to Psalm 118.

As always, it is helpful to remember this parable is being remembered after the destruction of the temple and the attempts at rebuilding which end in finding a new way of synagogues without a stable temple. This story needs to speak to Mark’s first readers, not just to Readers so many generations later. [As a side note there are suggestions that the Coliseum in Rome was built from the spoils taken from the Jerusalem Temple—killing and capital punishment as entertainment continues.]

Carrington259 connects,

…the foundation-stone of Isaiah xxviii. 16, which Peter identifies with the rejected stone of Psalm cxviii and the stone of stumbling of Isaiah viii. 14 (see I Pet. ii. 6 ff.), an identification which was probably traditional, since it seems to be known to Paul (see Rom. ix. 33).

Carrington goes on to note that the imagery of doves, fish, seed, mountains, fig trees, vineyards, stones, etc. cannot be forced into Western systematic theology but needs to be “accepted and enjoyed as it is in its own idiom” and cannot be de-mythologized.

Given the way we continue to sidestep common good as practiced in partnership with one another, we may need to consider what it will take for us to re-mythologize the stories, such as Mark’s, which have come down to us in such a solid way as being “scripture”, unchangeable and eternal.

Without re-mythologization this killing and stone that alternating forces stumble over in their fatalistic ebb and flow of competitive power will continue elevating difference into destruction.

The stone in Psalm 118 is recognized through thanks that a gate has been opened where once there was only stuckness and desert. Can there be an Exodus image without the killing of Caananites?

Mark 12:9

What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and put the tenants to death, and he will let the vineyard to others.

it’s always easiest
if I can set myself up
with a ready response
to any open-ended question

what to do about
greedy intolerance
be greedy and intolerant

an eye for an eye
re-escalates any problem

kill kill kill

And we come to what the landowner will ultimately do—collect what is due, plus additional pounds of flesh and redistribute the land to tenants more likely to pay their tribute without a hassle.

The presumption is that the landowner, now out of servants and sons will, like Job, miraculously get more. Of course there is an ever present caveat that this is not an analogy and can’t be take too literally.

It must be asked about the violence here. Is this a part of a model of suffering, death, and resurrection (restoration) or is it suffering, death, and more death. Is there any redemption going on here? If so, for whom?—the religious leaders of our day who co-opted the roles of the religious leaders after the destruction of the Temple?

Of major interest is how a hoped-for story of good news keeps running into repetitive cycles of history that seem to show no learning of how to live partnered lives. It seems we are so tied to a top-down model of relationship that there is no room for very long at any inn for a weak G*D. [You might be interested in the work of John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God, The Insistence of God, The Folly of God.]

One of the thought experiments that might go on here is to wonder about those to whom the vineyard is next offered. Suppose, for a moment, that you are the recipient of this fine position of tenant. What do you know about yourself that would lead you to repeat an eventual desire to have more control over your circumstance. Will it be enough to be at a table where what percentage of the crop will be fair to both landowner and tenant is decided? Is there really a “fair” position in a situation of unequal power? How long do you think you would hold out before needing to bring some direct action against the landowner for what is becoming an ever-more tenuous situation with your costs versus return? Is there anything you have at your disposal other than what has been ineffectual thoughts and prayers?

Mark 12:8

So they seized him, and killed him, and threw his body outside the vineyard.

and so god was thrown out
of god’s own creation

the chicken of absence
laid an empty egg

from start to finish
respect lost to ownership

a partnership dissolved
before it was founded

desolation remains
desecration abounds

You really aren’t valued, even for fertilizer, when they throw your dead body away. No courtesy for any value you’ve added to the community or appreciation of nutrients for the soil and a next season of grapes.

Our beliefs and rituals to implement them can get very topsy-turvy. In thinking we are defending our faith we set the stage for its dismissal.

Case in point, at the Transfiguration Jesus is named as beloved. He interacts with Moses and Elijah. In a sense he is the living embodiment of them. These ancestral anchors of Judaism connects Jesus with the tradition of the Torah trying to remain alive in a setting of occupation and all the accommodation thought to be required in such a setting. How is it the chief priests cannot stand as firm in their own land as Daniel did in a foreign land?

Keeping the transfiguration scene in mind makes it difficult to see Jesus in opposition to traditional Judaism. Yet, here the religious leaders are the villains and the one thrown away is the hero. Here the “son” is connected with the servants and the supposed servants of religious leaders are but usurping tenants—not really connected with the landowner’s household as are servants and son.

The crowd is undoubtedly getting a big kick out of this story and can hardly wait for Jesus to loose a big kick of the religious leaders into the trash heap of Gehenna. The public always seems to get a vicarious thrill when leaders are threatened. These moments are usually short-lived as the leaders find a way to turn the tables, once again, and come out on top. They really will kill and throw away anything that gets in their way. And the public eventually colludes with them to justify their own continued entrapment by the conditions of the day.

Here it is the tenants who are alienated from their very own tradition and will try, by hook or crook, to continue their perceived right to inheritance or ownership of the tradition.

Mark 12:7

But those tenants said to one another ‘Here is the heir! Come, let us kill him, and his inheritance will be ours.’

finally it comes
a last resort
a show down

stakes are high
on both sides
negotiation fails

how can they not accede
how can we stop now
hearts hardened

in a pattern well attested
power repeats
repetitive failure

By this time in the parable, everyone in the crowd as well as the chief priest (land owners through their position with the Romans), legal experts, and elders knew this parable was about these religious leaders. They were no longer representatives of the “landowner” but were reduced to tenants of a larger land owner/occupier than Rome—G*D.

Did you hear the increased suppressed laughter that has been building as the discomfort of the religious leaders increases.

We are now at the third step of a pseudo-fairy tale where the impasse is about to break open and the guilty have acted for a third time and are about to meet their comeuppance. The crowd is jostling from foot to foot in anticipation that those who have held them down for so long will find the table turned. There may even be those who joined in the Hosanna of several days ago who are feeling that rise in them again.

Over against this sense of jubilation, of a beginning of a long-awaited rebellion, there is an echo of suffering and death in the word kill. For most, though, this is an anticipation of a clear-cut confrontation and overthrow of the principalities and powers that had ruled so strongly for so long.

In moving through this extended insult to the powers that be, careful Readers are caught between simply following this story and finding awkward comparisons with their current lived reality. Would they have the courage to beard their lion in its own den? Would they risk more than some deniable encouragement of those more willing to participate in direct action?

That mere thought of “kill” can be oh so casual. It can be as mindless as habitual swearing. It can mean no more than a rote repetition of “I love you”. It can be gruesome and intend eternal misery beginning with torture in the present…with simply the thought we are back with Cain and our concern to be ranked number one.