Mark 12:21

and the second married his widow, and died without family; and so did the third.

if at first you don’t succeed
there is no guarantee
that any x-number of tries
will bring satisfaction
in a task well-done

all that’s available
is the comfort of a work
for its own weird sake
whether appreciated or not
it is quite enough

should work arrive
under a condition of profit
it turns suddenly thin
a mere shadow
lived under domination

Premise: A man’s property is to be passed on to his son(s). In this story, the man is dead, gone, period. At question is how to honor his memory (justifying the keeping of everything— property—in the hands of men). It becomes the responsibility of his closest representative to stand in to see that there is a proper path for his property to be passed on. With the familial, tribal structure this became the duty of his brother or father.

In this particular, a brother “invests” further in the “woman” by marrying her and attempting to bring forth a son.

Given a clue earlier that the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection, we can see their sense of resurrection as something that takes place in this world—brother resurrecting brother. A part of the irony here is that resurrection in this world, this Paradise, is very much a good place for the kind of renewal Baptizer John spoke about. People did not come to the Jordan for some eternal reward, but a very present challenge of meaning in their present context.

A wilderness reflection on baptism will be revealed in a final response about living now, not sometime later.

At any rate, we have now gone through three of the seven brothers and still no heir.

When seen through the eyes of the unnamed woman, we can hear the echo of what has recently been claimed, “Me, too!” Is a woman’s uterus her value? Is her virginity an added value? Is property anywhere near a proper valuing of an image of G*D?

Such a devaluing of women also devalues men. Is siring a child for my brother my value in this family? (Am I my brother’s penis?) In terms of an earlier construction (3:27)—procreation was created for humans; humans weren’t created for procreation.

Mark 12:20

There were once seven brothers. The eldest married, but died and left no family;

brothers are connected
blood thick

one commits all
all back-up one

compulsion beats desire
first constrains last

limits another’s self

knowing one’s place
decides one’s pace

until only shadows remain
casting their pall over all

Seven brothers. This is going to be a long story, perhaps even shaggy.

As soon as the first line is uttered, those familiar with Jesus’ religious heritage could see a line of argument being set in place.

As soon as the last phrase is spoken, there is an inevitability to the next verses. It would be interesting to combine this story with the pattern of “The House that Jack Built” to get a feel for the nested connections between individuals, family, tribe, and additional levels of cultural and economic relationships.

Instrumentally, marriage here is a family relationship expressing ownership. Marriage for kings is an expression of political alliance, which has a large economic component. For those who are under the sway of a king, marriage is also commoditized through dowries and other customs of who lives where. In both cases, it keeps power with the male of the species simply on the basis of a particular gender expression of biology. As much as anything, male succession is an economic construct.

While the text talks of “children” it should be noted that we are primarily talking about a son. There are some exceptions for daughters to inherit (see Numbers 27:1–11), but the Sadducees, like all interpreters, are capable of selecting which stories to emphasize and which to conveniently overlook.

When marriage as ownership and power-over enters to claim universality, there needs to be a process for what to do when the assumptions do not pan out as planned. This Deuteronomic story asserts a right to complete an original intention to pass on the eldest son’s property within the family. This keeps the property of a “wife/son” in the husband’s family. Thus the economic value of the “marriage” is brought to completion and all remains as it “should be”.

Mark 12:19

“Teacher, in our scriptures Moses decreed that, should a man’s brother die, leaving a widow but no child, the man should take the widow as his wife, and raise up a family for his brother.

there is not much more ironic
than using a disbelief
as a values test of someone else

we are now in the realm
of pure speculation unbounded
by protocols of engagement

control of the past
is a perk of the present
to trap any other future

if we start there
if we apply here
if we end anywhere

our ifs are not
ifs freed of wilderness
but lead us deeper

once begun in test
there is no end
but an end of learning

It may be helpful to remember the Mosaic legislation regarding a childless widow and any brothers of her deceased husband as found in Deuteronomy 25:5–10. In doing so it can be noted that the concern was with the maintaining of property within the family.

It is easy to read “trap” here even if it is not specifically stated because the reference has been dramatically changed from present property to future resurrectional relationships that are implicitly denied by the questioners.

Challenges to Jesus, his Disciples and today’s Readers of Mark rise to protect the property and finances of a ruling class. Challenges follow questions that are raised about domination by those currently in power. Jesus and his followers reveal the vanity of any status quo that requires harm be done in order to be maintained.

It is most likely that the question here comes from another story about Judah, his sons Er and Onan, and Tamar (Genesis 38). As an aside, Tamar’s story and Levirate marriage are only two places that throw into huge question any idea of what is currently meant by “traditional” family values and reveal it as cover for other agendas.

From whichever source the challenge arises, it is shaped to turn into a dualistic question limited to a “Yes” or a “No”. In that limitation, whether 4,000 years ago, or 2,000, or today, there seems to be no way out of a Gordian Knot of details and assumptions so interwoven that any direct response will be subject to “Gottcha!” It is often best to wait and listen for an earlier and deeper return question.

Mark 12:18

Next came some Sadducees – the men who maintain that there is no resurrection. Their question was this –

there are not 10 rounds
in everyday life
some never make it
to the struggle
when we do
we are trapped
by rope and cage
into win or lose
round by round
stage by stage
we value each
in its turn
knowing each
lives on in
dreams nightmares
constraining opening
boundaries journeys
vanquished victorious
we exit to
everyday eternities
rued cherished
breathing beyond
a new venue

Information about the Sadducees is not the clearest. Suffice it to say they “maintained a literalist reading, while the Pharisees fostered the tradition of an oral interpretation—the ‘Oral Torah’” (Sabin193. It might be said the Sadducees were a social class of priests who were able to work with whomever was in political and military control of Palestine—from the Hasmoneans to the Romans.

The Sadducean denial of resurrection also included angels and other spirits. Their focus was on Torah and Temple in their most conservative forms (literal and physical). They saw resurrection and angels as recent liberal speculations from late writings by Daniel and others, as well as foreign religious influences.

The Sadducees were basically in charge of the Temple through the High Priesthood and lost their authority and presence after the Temple was destroyed. After the fall of the Temple, the Pharisees developed into an ongoing rabbi and synagogue combination.

The Acts of the Apostles 22:30–23:10 gives another glimpse into the differences between Sadducees and Pharisees and the importance of resurrection which brings images of G*D into play for Jesus, Disciples and Readers. At stake is a theological point—if G*D can create an image of G*D, can or will G*D re-create and/or re-partner with that image in the present and future?

Religious opponents come toward Jesus with questions that would either trap or in some way discredit him. When their political frontal attack of a taxation question brought by the Pharisees failed, the Sadducees enter with a flanking theological challenge regarding resurrection. This is a significant one-two punch.

Mark 12:17

“The Emperor’s,” they said; 17 and Jesus replied, “Pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and to God what belongs to God.” And they wondered at him.

in the premise
is our conclusion

until a sacred jujitsu
uses a premise
against itself

a simple conclusion
holds a constructed premise

until jujitsu sacra
concludes a conclusion
in a different frame

premised conclusions
conclude premises

By the time Mark is writing, the Maccabean revolt has come and the Roman retaliation destroyed the temple. The revolt was brought to a head by the image of Caesar in the temple. This brought a strong enough remembrance of Daniel and his “abomination of desolation” that revolt turned to war. That war was victorious for a moment and then disastrous beyond forced occupation.

It is understandable that the interpretation of this story by the early church obligated Christians to pay the tax. It has ensnared the church in state affairs to this day with the perk of tax exemption in the United States that in effect quiets any concern the church has about actions by the state.

The Jesus Seminar has voted this saying as an authentic statement by Jesus.

A fragment from the Egerton Gospel (one of the oldest found) shifts the story at this point by reporting:

Jesus knew what they were up to, and became indignant. Then he said to them, “Why do you pay me lip service as a teacher, but not [do] what I say? How accurately Isaiah prophesied about you when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me; their worship of me is empty, [because they insist on teachings that are human] commandments.’”

Whether Jesus gives his enigmatic response or calls the religious leaders on their attempt to trick him, we can imagine the result is the evocative word, “dumbfounded” (The Scholars Bible), which has overtones of awe and wonder, but in a confused manner. The choice behind the choice to pay or not is to pay attention to one’s values and this can be quite confounding. Likewise it is being caught with one’s motivations hanging out for all to see.

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?