Scripture Reading: Matthew 17, 21; Mark 8-12; Luke 9; John 7-8, 11-12
Significant Moments in The Story
The feeding of the 4000 – Mark 8
The woman caught in adultery – John 8
The Transfiguration – Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9
The healing of the epileptic boy – Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9
The raising of Lazarus – John 11
Mary anoints Jesus – John 12
Palm Sunday – Matthew 21, Mark 11, John 12
The divinity of Christ
Though each of the four gospels has their own unique way of telling Jesus’ story, all four are deeply concerned with conveying that Jesus was not just a dynamic teacher or inspirational leader. He is the Son of God, fully divine in every way. Centuries of theological reflection has been spent trying to explain the divinity and humanity of Christ as well as explore Christ’s divinity in relationship to the Father and Holy Spirit. Our understanding of the Trinity has been driven primarily by the claim that Jesus is the fully divine Son of God. Perhaps our own reflections should not start with the writings of theologians (but it can certainly include them). Instead, though, the question that we should perhaps begin with is this: why did the writers of the gospels believe it was so important that we understand Jesus as divine, as God incarnate? What impact would that message have for the early disciples, and what meaning does it have for us today?
Suffering on the horizon
In several places in our readings this week, Jesus explains the suffering that he is about to face to his disciples. Their responses range from silent befuddlement to outward rebuke and denial. This raises several interesting questions: What was so difficult for the disciples to understand? Why was Peter (Mark 8:31-33) so outwardly hostile to Jesus’ foretelling of his crucifixion? In light of the urgency with which the divinity of Christ is declared, how do we understand the declaration of his suffering? Would we have been any more accepting of this teaching than the disciples if we had seen and heard everything they had?
The Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36
This moment is where Peter, James, and John are permitted to see the full divine glory of Jesus. The significance of the presence of Moses and Elijah is twofold. One, their presence indicates that those who came before the birth of Jesus were not somehow prevented from sharing in the kingdom of God. Second, Moses and Elijah represent the law (Moses-the giver of the law) and the prophets (Elijah-considered by most the first and greatest of all the prophets). We are called back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount – “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). This moment also serves as a reaffirmation of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and as a voice that needs to be listened to.
The coming of Elijah – Matthew 17:10-13, Mark 9:11-13
In Malachi 4, the prophet Malachi says that the prophet Elijah will return before the day of the LORD, the day when God’s will is made manifest on earth. This return of Elijah will be accompanied by repentance in the people. Thus, the expectation of a Messiah became intertwined with the expectation that the prophet Elijah would come back. Matthew tells us that Jesus associated Elijah with John the Baptist.
The epileptic boy – Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, Luke 9:37-43
In ancient times, conditions such as epilepsy were often understood to be caused by demonic possession. Thus, this miracle of Jesus is often portrayed as an exorcism rather than just a healing.
The inability of Jesus’ disciples to heal this boy is an interesting moment in the story. Matthew’s account (Matthew 17:19-21) says that it is the disciples’ lack of faith (is it lack of faith in God or lack of faith in their ability to use the power Christ has given them?) that prevents them from casting out this demon. Mark (Mark 9:28-29), on the other hand, indicates that the issue is more about method – Jesus says they could not cast out the demon because “this kind can come out only through prayer (and fasting)”. Luke does not deal that much with the reason why the disciples are unable to cast out the demon.
The Temple tax – Matthew 17:24
The Temple tax was a tax paid every year by every Jewish male to insure the upkeep of the Temple.
Pharisees and Sadducees
For more information about these groups, check out the Background Information section of week 21.
The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod – Mark 8:15
Jesus’ warning to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod is indeed a somewhat difficult teaching to understand. What is Jesus trying to say by using the word “yeast”? Yeast is the active ingredient that causes dough to rise. At the same time, some believed that yeast worked by creating decay in the dough. The consumption of yeast or leaven was forbidden during Passover, and yeast was not allowed to be a part of any grain offering to God.
In the light of this story, the term “yeast” seems to be a reference to motivation or conviction. Herod seems to have been motivated by worldliness and power, while the Pharisees are condemned by Jesus for hypocrisy and a desire to prove themselves more righteous than others.
Paying taxes to Caesar – Mark 12:13-17
Jesus is asked about paying taxes to the Roman emperor. Likely, what is being referred to is the “poll tax”, a tax that every adult listed on the census had to pay to Rome. The tax could only be paid with a silver denarius from the imperial mint. On one side of the coin would have been stamped the emperor’s head, while the other side was stamped with a female figure wearing a crown and holding a scepter in one hand and an olive branch in the other. Such coins would not have been common currency for Jesus or other Jews, as they used coinage that bore no images.
Perhaps the trap that is trying to be laid here is a trap to see if Jesus will choose between breaking religious law or political law. If Jesus answers that yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, then it could be argued that Jesus is recognizing the claim of the emperor’s power ( and possibly the claim of the emperor’s divinity ) and is encouraging the use of currency that would have been seen as idolistic. This could have discredited Jesus with those who were looking for him to denounce Rome as well as those who saw him as completely obedient to the Torah. At the same time, if Jesus said it was not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, then Jesus’ opponents could denounce him before Rome as a revolutionary.
Jesus’ changes the conversation by making the issue about the coin used to pay the tax. The coin is stamped with the emperor’s image, meaning the emperor ultimately claims ownership of the coin. If so, then give it to him. However, this should not stop the individual from giving to God what belongs to God. Which, of course, raises an obvious question back to the Herodians – what belongs to God?
The Festival of Booths, or Festival of Tabernacles – John 7:2
The Festival of Booths was a weeklong festival that celebrated the harvest and was a time to remember Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness after the Exodus, when the people lived not in homes but simple tents or lean-tos. The Torah required all males to participate in this festival.
The woman caught in adultery – John 8:1-11
In your Bible, you may notice brackets around this passage. That is because the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel do not contain this story. Only later did the story become a part of John’s gospel. There is some evidence to indicate that the story may have originally been a part of the gospel of Luke, but over time and usage it was dropped out of Luke and included here in John.
Greeks – John 12:20
Probably this term is used here to refer to Gentiles.