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Rising Above

Posted on 28 Feb 2016

February 28, 2016

Mark 12:13-17

Psalm 86:8-13

Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman


“Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

Thus begins Romeo and Juliet, which the Hartford Stage is performing for the next month. Romeo and Juliet, the story of two young lovers, whose relationship is ill-fated due to their family’s long standing feud.

The word feud dates back to the 1300’s however feuding is much in the news these days. The headline of last weekend’s USA Today was “Trump’s Five Feuds”. Perhaps your reaction was similar to mine – only five? The headline was misleading though because it was only Trump’s “most bitter feuds” and they actually listed six quarrels, the ones with Megyn Kelly, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, John McCann, and of course his latest with the Pope, of all people.

Donald Trump is not the only one feuding with others, although he does seem to have a certain inclination for it. On the campaign trail, the presidential candidates are all attacking one another, although I guess not Ben Carson, who Thursday night at the Republican debate, asked if someone could attack him, please.

The feuding continues in Washington D. C. and even down to our local politics. The Mayor’s race last fall seemed to focus more on maligning candidates than hearing what they stood for and how they would govern, and every week, the Bristol Observer is filled with letters to the editor about Councilor Calvin Brown’s residency issues.

Debate is good. Conflict even is healthy however that’s not what these things are. They are feuds. There is a bitterness, a hostility, and a sense that no matter what one side says, the other side is going to vehemently disagree. And unlike feuds of old, the division does not seem to have its roots in “ancient grudges”, instead it has its roots in the desire for power.

People are attacking others, slandering their characters, all to gain power, as if pushing others down is the only way to succeed.

Unfortunately, this is not a new issue. This kind of backbiting political game playing is exactly what is happening in our passage from the gospel of Mark.

Let me set the stage for you. Jesus is teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the seat of religion and the seat of political power. All of Israel is occupied by the Roman Empire however it must have been keenly felt by the residents of Jerusalem with a Roman governor in residence and legions of Roman soldiers walking the streets.

The Israelites are not without some autonomy, and there are still those seeking to gain whatever power they can.

There are the Herodians, a political group that supported Rome’s puppet, King Herod. There are the Sadducees, a group made up of Temple priests and aristocrats, and there are the Pharisees, another religious sect.

Unlike the Herodians, the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not start out seeking power for personal gain. They each held deeply religious beliefs. They felt responsible for keeping their people faithful to God, pure from foreign religions. The Pharisees and the Sadducees might not have started out manipulating people and circumstances to gain power, but they quickly learn they need to play the game. The ends justify the means?

And into Jerusalem, into this hot bed of political wrestling and power seeking, comes Jesus, riding on a donkey, garbed in all of the symbolism of the long-awaited Messiah. The people are stirred up. The status quo is disturbed.

And then Jesus “cleanses” the Temple, throwing out the money changers, and disturbing the corrupt economic ways of those in power. When the chief priests, scribes, and elders attempt to demean Jesus, questioning his authority, asking, ‘Who does he think he is?! By what power does he act?’, it doesn’t work. Jesus is not intimidated. Jesus is not out witted. Jesus does not back down.

The powers that be are not ready to give up though. Remember, this is about power, the most seductive drug of all, and they are not about to let this upstart from the country come into Jerusalem and upset the status quo that benefits them enormously. So they send some Pharisees and Herodians to “trap” Jesus. For fear of the crowds, they cannot slander or attack him, but they hope to set Jesus up to fall on his own sword. With absolute insincerity, they flatter Jesus, simpering that they know how great he is, how he shows deference to no one; “for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.” (Mark 12:14).

Fake smiles on their fake faces, their voices dripping with false sweetness. Jesus is not fooled. He knows their minds are not open to hearing the word of God. He knows they do not really respect him and his teaching. Jesus knows they have an agenda.

So he waits for their question, waits for the trap – and here it comes, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” (Mark 12:14-15)

The Pharisees and Herodians think they have him. If Jesus says yes, it is legal to pay taxes to the Emperor, then the people, who are burdened under the harsh, unfair taxes of Rome, will rise up against Jesus. If Jesus says no, then they can hand him over to the Romans as a traitor.

I am pretty sure I would have been trapped. Unlike Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback who walked away from a post-Super Bowl press conference before he said something he regretted, I am pretty sure I would not have been so wise.

And it happens all too often. When we feel like we are being attacked, when we feel like we are being insulted, demeaned, even slandered, the anxiety inside of us begins to build, and we say something we should not.

But as someone once said, “when you get down in the slop with the pigs, you just get muddy.” Two wrongs do not make a right. Trading insults might not lead to death like in Romeo and Juliet, but they never make us feel better, and they certainly do not build the kingdom of God.

So what are we to do when we find ourselves in such a situation?

Follow Jesus and do as he does. Jesus does not ignore their behavior. He does not call them names, but he does call out their unhealthy behavior. And then he focuses the Pharisees and the Herodians and everyone else who is listening, on what is really important – God. Reminds us to ask ‘what belongs to God? What does God really want?’

So what are we to do when we find ourselves in such a situation? Change the conversation. Rise above. Focus on God.

Someone sent me this a while ago, ‘The eagle does not fight the snake on the ground. It picks it up into the sky and changes the battleground. Unlike on the ground where it is powerful, wise, and deadly, in the sky, the snake has no stamina, no power, and no balance. Take your fight into the spiritual realm by praying and let God take charge through your earnest prayer.’ (source unknown, on many sites on the internet)

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we do not follow the ways of the world. We follow the ways of God. We love in the face of hate. We choose unity in the face of division. When others want to feud with us, when they use lies, slander, any means to win, we change the conversation. We take it to the spiritual realm. We rise above. We ask in earnest prayer what does God want. And we seek always to build God’s kingdom on earth.