Have you ever been called religious? Is that a good thing or not? One of the options on Facebook is to declare your religious views and one of my Facebook friends responded to that option by writing, “I’m not into religion, I’m into grace.” On the website “Yahoo Answers” the question was asked, “What is the difference between being religious and being spiritual?” One answer which someone gave was, “A religious man goes to church and daydreams of fishing, a spiritual man goes fishing and day dreams of God. Religion comes from a church and a structured belief, spirituality comes from within.” By these responses it seems that being religious is not a good thing. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for an apparent decline in church attendance. In a December 2007 article on the Canadian Christian web site Jim Coggins writes the following: “The first systematic survey, a Gallup poll, placed weekly church attendance at 60 percent in 1945. Some surveys place the figure even higher in the 1950s, approaching 70 percent. However, in Bibby's words, weekly attendance dropped "to just over 30 percent in 1975 and to around 20 percent by 2000."
Does Jesus want us to be religious? The Jewish religious leaders were very religious. They had developed a culture of religiosity, but when Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world, they ran into serious conflicts with Him. In fact these conflicts were so serious that they led to the death of Jesus. This morning we want to examine Mark 11:27-12:44 which is a record of some of the conflicts Jesus had with the Jewish leaders. As we do, we will come to understand the difference between being religious and having a relationship with God. We will also be able to examine ourselves to see if we are religious or if we have a relationship with God.
In Mark 11:15-18, we read the story of Jesus cleansing the temple. This made the Jewish religious leaders so angry that they plotted to kill him. When Jesus came into Jerusalem again the chief priests were ready for him and were looking for a way to discredit him and so they asked Him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “who gave you authority?” They asked these questions because Jesus had demonstrated authority in his statements regulating Sabbath observance, in his teaching, over illness, over demons and in many other ways. It is possible that they may have had all of these things in mind, but certainly the authority he demonstrated in cleansing the temple was fresh in their minds.
Jesus turned the question back on them and asked them about their view of John the Baptist, specifically whether they believed him to be from heaven or not. They did not believe he was from heaven, but they refused to say so because they were afraid of the people who did believe that John was from God. Their refusal to answer and the discussion they had in arriving at their answer reveals a lot about them. They were in charge of a well organized religious system. That system, evidently, did not include a relationship with God that allowed them to recognize God’s presence. Their primary goal in life was to maintain their position in the religious system.
Although Jesus did not answer their question, His answer is implicit in the story and revealed in the rest of Mark. He was from God and that was the source of His authority. Even though they were religious, their response to Him shows that they did not know God.
Jesus exposed their rejection of God in the parable which follows beginning in Mark 12. The parable is about a landowner who established all that was needed to grow grapes and make wine. Then he leased the vineyard and winery to a management group and left. When the time came for him to collect his portion of the proceeds from the farm he sent a servant to retrieve the return on his investment. The management group violently refused to give the servant the proceeds and as the owner sent more servants they were so violent in their refusal that they even killed some of them. Finally the owner decided to send his son whom they also killed. They may have assumed that the owner had died, since he sent his son. Consequently they thought that by killing the son they would inherit the farm. The use of the phrase “beloved son” reminds us of the times when Jesus has spoken about His relationship to His father and we understand that the parable is talking about Jesus. In the end of the parable Jesus invited the Jewish religious leaders to realize that they stood under God’s judgment because of their rejection of Him. Jesus quoted Psalm 118:22, 23 to reveal their hearts. They were very religious, but they had rejected God.
This rejection of God by the Jewish religious leaders is highlighted again in Mark 12:35-40 where Jesus pointed to Scripture to show who He was - the Son of David who is also the Lord of all - and warned the people not to follow the hypocritical religiosity of the Jewish leaders.
As we examine our own world, we need to think carefully and critically about what is written here. Are we open to God or are we trying to maintain a religious system? In the process of being the church what would happen if God showed up? Would we be open to what He would want to do in our church? Is our personal life merely a well structured religious system or do we have a relationship with God that allows us to recognize Him and know Him?
Jesus gets to the heart of the matter in Mark 12:10 when He says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.” A capstone or keystone is the final stone which is put in an arch. If it is not there, the whole arch will fall down. If it is there, it holds the whole thing together. The religious leaders had rejected Jesus, but God’s kingdom is all about Him. In the following stories in this chapter we see one conflict after another in which these religious people rejected Jesus. As Jesus responded to their challenges, we learn from their negative examples what it means to live with Jesus as the keystone, with our lives truly centered upon Him.
The first challenge comes to Jesus from two groups of leaders who never got along, but came together in their opposition to Jesus. They represent the religious leaders and the political leaders and they came to place Jesus on the horns of a religious/political dilemma.
They asked Jesus “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” The tax they had in mind was a particular tax which was required of every person and indicated allegiance to Rome as the occupying force in their land, the Promised Land. The other problem was that the coin required to pay this tax had an image of Caesar on it, which violated the second commandment. If Jesus answered that it was lawful, the Pharisees would accuse him of being unfaithful and they would put him in disfavor with many of the people and so discredit him. On the other hand, the Herodians were supporters of Rome and if Jesus said that it was not lawful to pay this tax, they would have had him arrested as one who was trying to provoke rebellion.
The answer Jesus gave was brilliant, avoiding the trap all together. He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
In giving this answer, we have the first perspective on what it means not to be religious, but to truly follow God. Jesus’ words invite us to ask, “What does it mean to “give to God what is God’s?” Since the image on the coin was that of Caesar, giving the coin to Caesar was giving to Caesar what was his. But even more powerful is the recognition that the image which is stamped on every human being is the divine image. Genesis 1:27 says, “…God created man in his own image.” Therefore giving to God what is God’s means giving ourselves to God.
To give to God what is God’s begins with settling the ownership issue. To whom do we belong? Are we ruled by our whims and wishes or are we ruled by God. I like the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 (NIV), “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.” We personally answer the ownership question when we ask Jesus to come into our life. At that point, we accept the sacrifice He made on the cross and turn over the management of our life to Him.
We continue to answer the ownership question when we acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord of our life. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.” That means that every day our life’s purpose is to follow Jesus.
The next section introduces an interesting logical puzzle. It is presented by the Sadducees, who were very religious recognizing only Genesis to Deuteronomy as God’s Word. Since they did not find the concept of resurrection in these books of the Bible, they rejected it.
Their logical dilemma revolved around something called Levirate marriage. Because the Promised Land was passed on within the family, it was very important that each family have an heir. If a man died without an heir, it was the responsibility of the man’s brother to provide an heir with the man’s wife so that the family line would be continued. This group of Sadducees dug up the most extreme example of Levirate marriage they could find. Whether this actually happened or not we don’t know, but it was a logical possibility and so they raised it. A man died without offspring and his brother was faithful to the law and took his wife in order to raise up an heir. This man also died without offspring and so the next brother married the woman. He also died as did all the man’s seven brothers, each one marrying the woman and not having an heir. All seven men had been married to this woman and none of them had a superior claim to her by having had a child with her and so their question was, “whose wife is she in the resurrection?” Their story was brought about to show the ridiculousness of belief in the resurrection.
Jesus attacked them directly and told them, “You are quite wrong.” He demonstrated their folly by telling them that they were missing two key ingredients. They did not know the Scripture and they did not know the power of God. He demonstrated his accusations by giving an explanation in reverse order. They did not know that by the power of God things are different in heaven than they are here. God has the power to raise men from the dead and to make it a different kind of existence than the life we live on earth. We will be like the angels. The second error is that they do not know Scripture. To demonstrate their ignorance Jesus quoted from the section of the Bible which they accepted and showed that it proves the resurrection. The passage he referred to is the account in which God spoke to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” At this point, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had already been dead for more than 400 years, yet God says “I am” indicating that they are not dead, but live in the resurrection.
This answer to the Sadducees gives us some more things to live by so that we will not be merely religious, but will have a relationship with God. The words of Jesus invite us to recognize the importance of knowing the Word of God and trusting the power of God.
Do we believe, know, and understand the Word of God? The Bible is the place in which God has spoken to His people. If we are not reading and studying it, we are missing out on a key component of understanding and knowing God. This week I heard the sad story of a person who was part of a cult in which the word of the pastor was authoritative. We need to measure every truth according to God’s Word and if we know it we will follow God faithfully.
Equally concerning is to consider whether or not we understand the power of God. What does it mean to live our lives trusting in the power of God? I know that in my own life I have to solve this question repeatedly. A challenge comes up in my personal life or in the church. What is my first step? It is often seeking the wisdom of others and trying to think about what makes sense instead of seeking God. I want so much to learn to trust in the power of God first and I know that as long as I don’t, I am missing an important ingredient in truly living in a relationship with God.
The next story involves a man who came to Jesus with a much more open attitude. He saw how well Jesus answered and seemed genuinely interested to know the answer to His question. He asked Jesus, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
Jesus answered with what we have come to know as the great commandment. It has two parts. One part is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4, 5 which says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second commandment, which Jesus quoted, is from Leviticus 19:18 and calls for people to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is interesting that the man agreed with Jesus and it is also interesting that Jesus responded to the man’s positive attitude with a word of encouragement when he said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” A few weeks ago we talked about the difference between a bounded set and a centered set. We once again see this concept illustrated in the words of Jesus. He does not say you are in the kingdom or out of the kingdom. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom.” In other words, “You are headed in the right direction and if you keep moving in this direction, you are on the journey to knowing God.”
Once again we have a statement which helps us answer the question, “Am I religious or do I know God?” The answer is built on keeping the greatest commandment: to love God and neighbor.
So, do we love God? What was becoming increasingly clear about the Jewish leaders – both religious and political – was that they did not love God. They loved their positions, they loved their power, they loved their system, but they did not love God and that is why they rejected Him. Do we love God? What is the evidence that we love God? If we love God we will obey God. Are we obeying Him? If we love God, one priority in life will be getting to know God. Are we taking time to grow in our relationship with Him? If we love God, we will serve Him. Is serving God more important to us than enjoying our own pleasures and activities?
The greatest evidence of love for God is when we love others. How is that love for others manifested in our lives? Do we love those who are our family and friends? Do we love those who are, “The least of these?” Do we love the lost? Do we love our enemies? How do we demonstrate love to each of these? How we answer these questions reveals whether we are just religious or if our life is lived in a relationship with God.
The final story in this section is not a story about conflict with the religious leaders, but happened while Jesus was still with his disciples in the temple. As they were sitting in the temple, they were near the place where people put offerings into the provided receptacle. Among the many people bringing offerings, Jesus invited his disciples to observe one particular woman who gave “all she had to live on.” Geddert comments, “What a model of self-sacrificing devotion to God!”
Jesus commended her action as one who gave more than all the others. That reminds us once again that God’s mathematics does not work the way we usually assume mathematics works. How can 2 pennies be more than $10,000? It is more because God does not look at how much we have given, but at how much we love Him. And our love for Him is demonstrated in the extravagance of the gifts we bring Him.
The first thing I would like to note is that in one sense we have come full circle. The poor widow demonstrated what Jesus called the Pharisees and Herodians to do. She gave to God what was God’s. She had given herself to God depending on the promises in His Word and also the power He had to care for her. Having given herself to God in this way, she was able to give her possessions to God as well without any difficulty.
The second thing which cannot escape our notice is that it had to do with money. Last week we looked at the story of the rich ruler who was not prepared to sell everything in order to follow Jesus. This week we are thinking about this poor widow who has given everything to God. I would like so much to avoid pointing out that if we have given ourselves to God, if we know His Word, if we trust His power, if we love Him, then it will also be demonstrated in how we give. This represents a very great challenge to most of us who are much more like the rich young man than we are like the poor widow. We have much and we give gladly out of our abundance, but do we, with generosity, give of our time, our money and all we are? Is it possible that our giving reveals that we are religious, but not that we have a deep, committed, passionate love relationship with God? When I was studying this during the week, here is what I wrote in my notes, “How will I personally respond to this? How will I preach about it? Help!!” May God help us!
I had a conversation with someone from our church this week. They were telling me about a conversation they had had with a co-worker. The co-worker told them, “I’m very religious, I pray twice a day.” They responded, “It’s not about being religious, it’s about having a connection with God.”
Are you religious or do you have a connection with God?
Our connection with God will be revealed when we give to God what is God’s, when we know both the Scripture and the power of God, when we love God and our neighbor and when we demonstrate a willingness to live sacrificially as an expression of our love for God.
I invite you to examine your life by the measure of these statements. I invite you to a connection with God.