Part of the reason this is so important is that we have to understand the mind set of the ancient Jewish culture. We have to wrap our heads around the ancient Jewish belief system. We have to grapple with how they viewed the world in order to see what Jesus is getting at when He begins asking questions in the temple. We need to see just how much the Jewish religious folks hated idolatry. You see, for the Jews, there was either God or not God. There was no in between. If you remember the Roman gods, you know they were based upon Greek mythology, so you had the gods coming down and having sex with men and women. When the gods had children by these encounters, you had demi-gods: half men; half gods. For the Jew, there was no such thing. There were supernatural beings like angels and demons, but these entities were not gods. They were far lesser than God. God was one and alone in His majesty. We need to keep in mind just how strict they were in adhering to this.
Two things will hopefully suffice. First, if you remember just a couple of weeks back, I preached on the Pharisees and Herodians coming to Jesus and asking Him a question about paying taxes to Rome. Jesus’ responded by asking for a denarius. I described that coin in my sermon as being a total and complete abomination to the Jews. The coin had the image of the Roman Emperor Tiberias stamped on it. It also had the words, "Tiberias son of the divine Agustus" printed on it. On the back, it labeled the Emperor "High priest." This coin was so offensive to many Jews that they would not touch it; they refused to look at it; and when it came time to pay the taxes they tried to use other currency to pay it. Such was their disgust for what was on that coin. They could not stand graven images. They could not stand anyone claiming any sort of divinity apart from God.
The second way I would like to get this in your head is by reading a portion of Paul Maier’s Pontius Pilate. Maier is a noted scholar and historian who has written numerous works of historical fiction. In these books, he takes known facts and fills in the blanks to compose a novel. The work is quite good and informative, and Maier paints a brilliant picture of what happened in Israel.
It all began when an elderly Jew left the north portico of the temple after morning sacrifice and pronounced his daily malediction on the Tower Antonia, the Roman fortress growing out of the northwestern wall of the temple precinct like some incongruous tumor. Then he noticed the new set of standards fluttering from its battlements and squinted for sharper vision. Widening his eyes in disbelief, he scurried back into the temple enclave and climbed a wall for a better vantage point from which to confirm his horrifying discovery. There the unhallowed sight was unmistakable: several spears, standing on a dias, had crossbars from which wreaths and golden disks were hanging. And embossed on the disks in bas-relief were the effigies of human heads!
Compounding the horror of the aged Jew was the fact that just in front of the special shrine in which the ensigns were housed, two Roman centurions were burning insense or doing some mode of sacrifice to these standards. The old Israelite quivered with rage. His eyes ran with tears. The sacrilege! The idolatry! And directly overlooking the holy temple! Turning about, he shouted at the top of his frail lungs: "Thoaivoh ne-estho be-yisorel ubi-yerusholaim! An abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem!" "Abomination! Abomination!
A cluster of early worshipers, priests, and temple guardsmen quickly surrounded the scandalized elder, all eyes toward the Tower Antonia. "Idolatry! Sacrilege!" they joined in the outcry, and hurried throughout the enclave to summon further witnesses. The trickle of news became a spreading torrent. Within an hour it has swept over Jerusalem in a riptide of fury, and Antonia was besieged by an immense throng which now broke into an angry chant: "Abomination! Remove the idols! Profanation! Remove the idols!"
While Maier’s book takes some historical liberties, this is not one of them. The Jews felt this passionately about idolatry. They felt this passionately about their belief in the One God. They felt this passionately about anything which challenged them deeply about their belief system. In a Roman world which was fairly tolerant of other religions and other gods, the Jews showed none of that tolerance. Idolatry and worship of false deities was strictly forbidden.
I set this background up so that it informs your reading of today’s gospel lesson from Mark chapter 12. Jesus has managed to answer all the questions thrown at him by the Sanhedrin and by the crowd. He has established Himself as one full of wisdom and authority. He is now in the driver’s seat, and so it is His turn to throw down the gauntlet. And He chooses a very interesting way to do so.
Jesus turns to the crowd around and says, "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, "The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ " 37David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?"
Now, I have to admit, for the longest time, this question made little sense to me. It generally left me scratching my head, and by the time I am done here, I hope that I am not causing you to scratch your head. Instead, I hope I can clear this question up for you and then deal with the implications of it.
Jesus is tapping into the deeply held belief that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. For those of you who know the Old Testament, you will know that David is the second king of Israel. He is the king which is credited with establishing the Kingdom by driving off Israel’s enemies. He was far from a perfect man–he committed adultery; he had several wives; his son rebelled against him and sought his throne. Yet, despite these things, David was repentant; he worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and David listened to the prophets who called him to seek the way of the Lord. For these reasons, David was seen as the king par excellance of ancient Judaism. He was seen as the greatest king, and one to be imitated. The Messiah would come from David’s house and lineage, and this Messiah would once again establish the kingdom of Israel, drive off Israel’s enemies, and establish a time of peace. This was a given in Jewish thought at the time.
Psalm 110 was considered a Messianic Psalm. You may wonder why I brought that Psalm into this discussion. Here’s why. Jesus quotes the first verses of that Psalm in His question, and Jesus attributes that Psalm to King David who was writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit. So, Jesus is exegeting this Psalm, and Jesus points out a rather fascinating thing.
David says, "The Lord" or God said to my lord–or the Messiah, "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet." Here’s where things get interesting. David calls the Messiah his lord. In other words, David submits himself to the authority of the Messiah. David says that the Messiah is greater than himself. We might shrug our shoulders and say, "No kidding." But you are looking at this from your perspective of history. You are looking at this through modern eyes. You are not looking at this through Jewish eyes through ONLY the lens of the Old Testament!! For if you were, you would see just how troubling this question is. Why?
Ancient Jews never believed a decedent was greater than an ancestor. The honor always traveled from the younger generation toward the older generation. Remember the fourth commandment? "Honor your father and your mother." Great respect and honor were given to one’s parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and the like. No ancestor would reciprocate. The younger would not receive such honor. It wasn’t traditional in society, and it wasn’t mandated by scripture. So, Jesus brings up this discrepancy. How can David call the Messiah "Lord" if the Messiah is simply a man? How can the Messiah be greater than the greatest king that Israel has ever seen if the Messiah is simply a man?
This was a disturbing question for the scribes. Very disturbing. Why?
The scribes were caught between a rock and a hard place. They had carefully crafted their image of what the Messiah would be. They believed the Messiah would be a man; a king who would be a great military leader; a man of power; yet a man of compassion and justice. But, as Jesus pointed out, if that Messiah were just a man, then David would never have called the Messiah, "Lord." Yet, if the scribes were to say that the Messiah were more than a man; if they were to say the Messiah was the Son of God–then they would be faced with having to rethink their entire idea of what constituted idolatry and what constituted blasphemy.
Remember the two points I made earlier in this sermon? Remember the reactions to the coin with Tiberius’ picture on it and the situation when the Roman soldiers displayed images? Do you think the scribes could easily change their perspective? Do you think they could drop all their years of study and come over to Jesus’ way of thinking in the blink of an eye?
Of course they could not. They would do no such thing because it would involve changing their entire belief system. It would require them to convert and look at the world in a totally different way, and you don’t just walk away from your worldview without a serious change of heart and being.
But this is exactly what Jesus is getting at. This is exactly what is at the heart of Jesus’ question to the scribes. It is not only a question to them, but it is a question to us as well. For at the root of what Jesus asks is, "How do you see me?"
Do you see me as a good man who does good things for people? I am that, but I am much more.
Do you see me as the Messiah who will bring peace to earth? I am that, but it won’t be through military might.
Do you see me as a prophet who calls people to repentance? I am that, but I am so much more.
Do you see me as a great teacher of morality and how we should live our life? I am that, but I am so much more.
The answer that Jesus’ question leads to is unequivocally this: Jesus is the Son of the Living God. Only the Son of the Living God could be over king David. Only the Son of the Living God could make David submit to Him. Only the Son of God could be the Messiah.
No good Jew would have adhered to this because it would have seemed like dividing God. No good Jew would have acknowledged this because it would have given too much authority to the Messiah. No good Jew would have proclaimed this because it would have come across as blasphemy.
That means, either the disciples were not good Jews or something happened to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah–Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life; Jesus was the Son of God. Something happened to completely and totally change their worldview and bring them to belief.
That something is the same thing that can change your worldview; change your heart and bring you to belief as well. That same thing is the Gospel and understanding what Christ has done for you. For the Messiah is the God made flesh who entered into this world to live the perfect and blameless life. He is the Messiah who became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the Lamb of God who blameless and sinless became the atoning sacrifice for our sin who upon the cross bore the wrath of God so that we might live with God forever. He is the Messiah who so loved the world that He was willing to die for it.
Rarely do we change the way we look at things in this life. We generally are too stuck in our ways of doing things, but when we experience tremendous love, we indeed look at things differently. When we find someone who is willing to lay down their lives for us, we truly appreciate them and seek to please them, and we hear what they have to say because it is important to us.
And when we understand that from God’s perspective. When we understand that from Jesus’ perspective, our entire life becomes different. Our entire life is changed as we are greeted by the love of the Messiah who was willing to die for us when we didn’t deserve it. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him." How does your life change?
Imagine for a moment that you no longer care what people think about how you look or what job you have. Imagine for a moment feeling like you no longer have to prove yourself to anyone. Imagine for a moment not feeling like you are any better or any worse than anyone else. Imagine for a moment being truly content with who you are and where you are at while at the same time knowing you haven’t arrived at where you could be. Imagine for a moment not getting angry with others when they mess up. Imagine for a moment not having your happiness dependent upon what is going on in the world around you. Imagine for a moment your heart being full of song and praise. Imagine for a moment a sense of peace and calm that envelopes you no matter the stress level of the world around. That is but a snippet of what it is like when Jesus becomes the Lord of your life. That is but a snippet of what it is like to have the Gospel take root in your heart. That is but a snippet of what it means to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and to trust in what He has already done instead of what you think you must do.
Jesus comes to us today and asks, "Who do you say that I am?" May we have the courage to respond, "You are my Lord and my God!" Amen.