#BCCSundaySchool2019: “The Son of Man Shall Come”

Readings

Joseph Smith-Matthew 1; Matthew 25; Mark 12-13; Luke 21.

A Preliminary Note

I’ve tried to provide some context and some analysis of a couple aspects of the reading for this week. I haven’t even feinted toward most of it, but I think it would be virtually inexcusable to teach this lesson without addressing the widow’s donation of her two coins. I’ll confess that the parable of the ten virgins still confounds me. And it would be absolutely crazy to teach this lesson without referring to Cake.

It’s a Trap!

In Mark 12, two (or three) (but probably two) groups of people try to trap Jesus. How does he avoid these traps?

“Is it lawful to render the poll-tax to Caesar or not?” I mean, obviously, I would lead with the tax question. And frankly, the answer here seems self-evident: of course you should pay your taxes. (Seriously: pay your taxes!) But the tax question gives us a lot more to work with than we usually think. To really get value out of it, we need some context and we need to really engage Jesus’ answer. And it’s probably worth looking at some recent Mormon history, too.

And yes, there is a history with Mormonism and taxes, our current policies notwithstanding. Handbook 2 says, in section 21.1.21 that member who refuse to file tax returns, pay taxes, or comply with tax judgments may be ineligible to attend the temple, should not have prominent positions in the church, and, if convicted of willful tax evasion, may be subject to church discipline.

The roots of the church’s hardline policy on paying taxes go back at least to the mid-1970s. Apparently, in the 1960s and 1970s, a not-insignificant number of Mormons were tax protestors, arguing that the income tax was unconstitutional. During the 1972 General Conference, President Lee said this:

Now there is another danger that confronts us. There seem to be those among us who are as wolves among the flock, trying to lead some who are weak and unwary among Church members, according to reports that have reached us, who are taking the law into their own hands by refusing to pay their income tax because they have some political disagreement with constituted authorities.

According to a Provo Daily Herald article from July 8, 1976 (thanks, Ardis!), this subsequently led to potential church penalties for tax evasion, and an increase in Mormons’ and Utahns’ compliance with the tax law.[fn1]

Of course, Mormons’ experience with taxes isn’t necessarily connected to the trap that Jesus escaped. And to really get why this is a potential trap, we need some context for what’s going on.[fn2]

In broad strokes: after Herod’s death, many Jews wanted Rome to directly administer Judea as part of Syria (rather than continue with Herod’s heirs ruling). Rome complied. As part of that compliance, Rome was going to need to collect taxes to fund its administration of the province.

And, in 6 C.E., Judah the Galilean and Zadok the Pharisee started a tax rebellion (one that Josephus linked directly to the war 60 years later where Rome, among other things, destroyed the temple). Judah’s rallying cry was “No king but God!”

Unsurprisingly, Rome won, the nascent rebellion was crushed, and Rome started collecting taxes.

Still, when the Pharisees and Herodians ask him whether it is lawful to pay the tax, they potentially put Jesus in a no-win situation. If He says it is lawful, he’s siding with the Roman government. If it’s not, He’s rebelling against Rome.

Copyright Classical Numismatic Group, used under GNU Free Documentation License

His answer seems clear. He asks them to bring a denarius, asks whose image and inscription is on it, and tells them, “Render the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar and the things that are God’s to God.” And His interlocutors were amazed at His answer.

As am I. I know we generally take that as an endorsement of government, at least in its sphere, and as an affirmative injunction to pay our taxes. (Note: pay your taxes!) But that’s not what Jesus says. Rather, He says to give what belongs to Caesar to Caesar. But the set of things that belong to Caesar and the set of things that belong to God aren’t clearly defined. In fact, in the last 75 years or so, scholars have come up with at least four different ways to understand Jesus’ response. It could be that the things of God trump the things of Caesar. It could be that Caesar and God are co-sovereigns, and the things that belong to each run parallel. It could be deliberately ambiguous. Or it could be that He meant both parts, but meant to prioritize the things of God over the things of Caesar.

And why should you spend time in your lesson on this? (Besides the fact that taxes are cool?) Because it illustrates both the way Jesus teaches, and the way that we can carefully read and parse language that is tremendously familiar to us. We know the New Testament. We’ve heard “Render unto Caesar.” But that lets us avoid engaging with what it actually means. Which takes us to:

Of which of them will she be the wife? The Sadducees—whom the text tells us do not believe in the resurrection[fn3]—challenge Jesus with a remarkably complicated hypothetical. It’s absurd enough that it’s probably not meant to be taken seriously on its own. But if there were a resurrection, which of seven brothers would the widow be married to?

And Jesus responds in two ways. One is, He denies the relevance of the question: after death, there is not marriage, but an angelic life. That response nullifies the question, because if there is no marriage in the afterlife, who she will be married to is a moot question, because she won’t be married.[fn4]

Jesus also has a second response, one that we tend to overlook. In Mark 12:26-27, He goes on to reference Moses and the burning bush. According to Jesus, when God speaks to Moses, He says, “I am the God of” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (emphasis clearly added). Not “I was the God”; “I am the God.” Jesus’ argument for continued existence post-death turns on the verb tense.

That seems a weak thread to hang resurrection on, and I suspect it’s not Jesus’ primary argument for post-mortal life. But perhaps, given the Sadducees’ focus on the written Torah, He’s speaking to them in the language they accept. That is, arguing for resurrection based on Isaiah 26:19 may not be a compelling argument if the people you’re talking to don’t accept Second Isaiah.

Which commandment is the first of all? In Luke 10 a lawyer decides to test Jesus, and asks Him which is the great commandment. Jesus turns the question back on him, and the lawyer comes up with the two-part love God and love neighbor. Not satisfied, the lawyer pushes further, asking who is his neighbor.

It goes differently in Mark, which is why this one is likely not a trap. Here, the scribe overhears Jesus’ answers, which he finds compelling. So he asks Jesus which is the most important commandment, and Jesus provides the answers. (FWIW, the answer could legitimately come either from Jesus or from his Jewish interlocutor: they are both citing Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 in their responses.) The scribe agrees with Jesus, who tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” That’s a far different response from the Lucan “Go and do likewise.”

Eschatology and the Joseph Smith Translation

A lot of the reading for today’s class has to do with signs of the Second Coming. For various reasons, I personally find this one of the least compelling parts of Christian belief. But these eschatological chapters do raise interesting questions, ones that we should address.

One of the reading assignments is JS-Matthew, which is basically Joseph’s Inspired Version of Matthew 24.

Which means, if you haven’t already done so, there’s probably value in discussing the Inspired Version (which we often refer to as the Joseph Smith Translation).

Kevin has come up with 14 different categories of emendations that Joseph made in the Inspired Version. (A blog post summary is here; you can download his longer version here.) I don’t know that this list is exhaustive, but it’s at the very least a sufficiently-detailed list. If I were teaching this lesson (and, ftr, I will be on Sunday), I would either write the categories on the board, or make a PowerPoint slide with them, and provide the class with a redline of the KJV to the JST.[fn5] If you’re interested, you can download the redline I made here.

It would be interesting to try to categorize the emendations Joseph made. Why did he make the changes he made? What do those changes add to our understanding of the Second Coming? What do they shift?

Also, it’s probably worth talking about why Jesus even gives these signs. Honestly, by and large they’re not terribly helpful at recognizing that His return is new. Take, for instance, wars and rumors of war. There are some great graphics here depicting the historical prevalence of war. And basically, since 1500 (and almost certainly before then), there have been wars. In fact, the least warlike era in that period is essentially the second half of the twentieth century.

Earthquakes, famines, and pestilence? Yeah, there have been a lot of those. These signs must be doing something other than delineating when Jesus will come again.

One possibility: they’re a symbol of God’s judgment and power. The Bible linked earthquakes with God’s power. (Check out, for example, Isa. 5:25.) It did the same with famine and pestilence. So maybe the signs are symbolic for the power of God.

Maybe they’re meant as encouragement for Christians, an acknowledgment that, while things may be bad, that was part of God’s plan, and is a precursor to Jesus’ triumphant return.

Maybe you or your class will come up with something else altogether.


[fn1] It wasn’t all rainbows and puppies, of course. Bo Gritz left the church at least in part because he lost his temple recommend because he refused to file his tax returns.

[fn2] I’m taking the context here from Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews 33-35 (2018).

[fn3] The Sadducees are the priestly class. They don’t believe in the resurrection because they believe in the written Torah, in contrast to Pharisees, who also believe in the oral Torah.

[fn4] I’m perfectly aware that that contradicts Mormon cosmology, and that the general Mormon way to get around that contradiction is to say that we can’t marry or be given in marriage in the resurrection, but that marriages done pre-resurrection can stay in force. That’s cool, but that eliminates the relevance of His answer here, because if there is post-resurrection marriage, then it suddenly becomes relevant who she’s married to. (And our answer would be, the person or people she was sealed to + God will work it out, but that doesn’t work in the scriptural context here. Basically, Jesus isn’t answering the question do marriages persist?; He’s answering the question is there a resurrection?)

[fn5] Basically, a redline takes two documents, marks additions with an underline and deletions with a strikethrough. They’re pretty common in legal practice.

Comments

  1. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection. So, they were Sad, You See? And that my friends is how they got their name.

  2. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    You go sit in the corner and think about how you’ve let us down today, Jim.

  3. On the eschatology part i think hes just being evasive.

  4. Great lawyerlin minds! I doo did a redline of JS-M against Mt. 24 once, and the results were illuminating for me: https://bycommonconsent.com/2011/06/04/harmonizing-the-text-with-history/

  5. Not a Cougar says:

    Sam, you may not get a ton of comments on these posts, but please don’t stop! I rely on your information every Sunday School week.

  6. Another Roy says:

    Thank you for this post. I find it quite helpful in preparing my “home church” lessons.

  7. I’m teaching this lesson on Sunday and I agree that the second coming isn’t the easiest thing to teach about. I’m not a huge fan because most of it is random speculation.

    I will say that I completely disagree about the taxes but. I believe that Jesus is basically saying who cares. It isn’t important.

  8. Thanks for that background on LDS members not paying their taxes. That was informative.
    I’ve always found the phrase “marry or are given in marriage” to be an interesting one, because it’s only used in the Bible with a negative connotation. It’s first used to describe the sin that Sodom and Gomorrah are accused of, and then is used in this resurrection paradox test. I suspect it’s a euphemism for gratuitous sex, because being married isn’t a sin. So when Jesus responds with this, I suspect he’s telling the Sadducees that they’re too focused on sex (which is a titillating subject) and actually don’t really want the answer to their question.
    As for the signs before the second coming, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus thought that he’d be returning in a few decades, and likely within the lifetimes of some of the apostles. It certainly seems that way when he says “you will be persecuted” and “you will testify before kings”, etc. If Jesus knew he’d be returning thousands of years later, it feels deceiving of him to say those things, and I don’t want Jesus to be deceiving.

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