In the midst of an extremely divisive climate in our culture, we could use some wisdom on how to best engage in heated conversations without throwing gas on the fire. As we also live in what has become a post-Christian society, we could use some wisdom on how to best share the teachings of Jesus in a way that corrects misunderstandings about him and that confronts the ways that he is often misrepresented.
Recently I was asked to write four short devotional-type messages that will be published in an upcoming issue of the Sports Spectrum magazine. Each these four writings were to be based on the overall theme of how we should engage others who might hold different opinions about life than we do.
For this project, I decided to use four different encounters that Jesus had during his time in the Jerusalem temple recorded in chapter twelve of Mark’s gospel. In each of these encounters, we see the wisdom of Jesus confronting and challenging others in a way that can help us in our conversations today. Those encounters and some principles that we learn from them have been summarized below, and I hope this helps all of us in carrying out our duty of being peacemakers and voices of unity, grace and truth in the midst of so much divisiveness and confusion.
TRANSCEND TALKING POINTS
In chapter twelve of Mark’s gospel, Mark records some stories of Jesus being challenged by different groups of people with hard questions to see how he might react or respond. Those who are offended by his life and message are hoping to get him to saying something offensive or damaging to his reputation, but in each one of these encounters, Jesus demonstrates great wisdom as he responds with answers that transcend all the potential traps and talking points.
In one encounter, the Pharisees and Herodians attempt to trap Jesus with a question on taxation. These two groups were notorious adversaries in regard to many political and religious issues in the same way that we might think of Republicans and Democrats today. Jesus seems to be a threat to both of their agendas, and so they come together to try and force Jesus into a position of either supporting Roman authority or Israelite independence.
Today, we live in a very divisive and opinionated society where people are quick to pick a particular side of an argument or issue. As those who belong to Jesus, we must be different and respond in ways that transcend the typical talking points.
Jesus’ response doesn’t affirm or condemn either agenda. He basically says, “The coins bear the image of Caesar so give them to Caesar; man bears the image of God so give yourself to God.” It’s a brilliant response that avoids the trap of picking a side while also challenging the agenda of both.
A GOOD QUESTION
In another encounter that Mark records in his gospel, the Sadducees attempt to trap Jesus with a question concerning the resurrection. The Sadducees were a group of wealthy Jewish families who controlled the Jerusalem temple and the highest religious council of Israel. They were conservative in their beliefs and did not believe in a resurrection or life after death. Therefore, the teaching of Jesus was ridiculous to them.
The Sadducees simply come to mock Jesus’ belief in a resurrection by giving an obviously ridiculous and unrealistic illustration of a woman who was married seven different times. They then ask Jesus, “In this resurrection and eternal life that you keep talking about, which one of these seven men will get to be her husband?” In their minds, they’ve just proven that belief in a resurrection and eternal life is dumb.
The Sadducees believed that this life was all that mattered because this life was all there was. It was this belief that motivated their materialism and skepticism. We all know people like this today, and we are probably familiar with people who ask overstated questions in an attempt to make our beliefs look foolish or unpopular.
Jesus doesn’t entertain the overstated question. Instead, he responds with a question that challenges the Sadducees’ own understanding of what they claim to believe, and then he uses what they believe to prove the validity of his own teaching. It’s another brilliant response and a reminder that sometimes a good question is the best answer.
After some encounters with people who opposed his message, Jesus is approached by a scribe who seems to be sincere in the question that he wants to ask. This scribe is a teacher of the Jewish Scriptures, and he wants to know Jesus’ honest opinion concerning what commandment best sums up all the other commandments of God.
Whenever we are confronted by people who ask overstated questions to criticize what we believe, we must recognize that these questions are rarely sincere and that the person asking such questions is not really seeking any sort of answer. However, whenever we are approached by people who ask honest questions and who seem to be sincere and teachable then we need to be ready and able to give clear and insightful answers that confirm what we believe.
Jesus gives this teachable scribe a very direct and clear answer. Jesus tells him that the command in Deuteronomy 6 to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and the command in Leviticus 19 to love your neighbor as yourself can be combined to give you the fundamental command that best sums up all the other commandments. The scribe finds Jesus’ answer agreeable and appreciates such a clear response.
As disciples of Jesus, we must devote ourselves to studying the Scriptures and truly knowing what we believe. And then like Jesus, we must stay ready and able to give solid answers to sincere questions.
THE ULTIMATE QUESTION
After Jesus withstands the challenges of his opposition and answers some hard questions with great wisdom, Mark tells us that no one else dared to ask him any more questions. So now, Jesus decides that it’s his turn to ask a question. Jesus asks, “If David himself calls the Christ ‘Lord’ then how could the Christ be merely his son?”
Jesus is challenging everyone’s understanding concerning the identity of the Christ and the nature of the kingdom of God. Contrary to the people’s understanding of the Christ and the kingdom of God, Jesus declares that the Christ cannot be reduced to just a future Son of David; he is the eternal Son of God and the promised Savior-King who reigns over the heavenly kingdom that will one day be fully established here on earth.
Jesus exposes the misunderstandings and the false expectations that many people in his society had about the Christ and the eternal kingdom of God, and he does so by asking a question that gets to the heart of the matter. He is essentially asking, “Who am I? Am I just human or am I more?”
Jesus is the most misunderstood and misrepresented figure in human history. Today, our society is full of misunderstandings and false expectations concerning Jesus and the eternal life that God gives. And so, as his representatives, may we boldly proclaim the truth about the kingdom of God. And may we start by simply asking others the ultimate question, “Who is Jesus?”