Early the next morning Jesus was returning to the city. He was hungry.
Seeing a lone fig tree alongside the road, he approached it anticipating a breakfast of figs. When he got to the tree, there was nothing but fig leaves. He said, "No more figs from this tree - ever!" The fig tree withered on the spot, a dry stick.
The disciples saw it happen. They rubbed their eyes, saying, "Did we really see this? A leafy tree one minute, a dry stick the next?"
But Jesus was matter-of-fact: "Yes - and if you embrace this kingdom life and don't doubt God, you'll not only do minor feats like I did to the fig tree, but also triumph over huge obstacles. This mountain, for instance, you'll tell, 'Go jump in the lake,' and it will jump.
Absolutely everything, ranging from small to large, as you make it a part of your believing prayer, gets included as you lay hold of God."
Then he was back in the Temple, teaching. The high priests and leaders of the people came up and demanded, "Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to teach here?"
Jesus responded, "First let me ask you a question. You answer my question and I'll answer yours.
About the baptism of John - who authorized it: heaven or humans?"
if we say 'humans,' we're up against it with the people because they all hold John up as a prophet."
They decided to concede that round to Jesus. "We don't know," they answered. Jesus said, "Then neither will I answer your question.
"Tell me what you think of this story: A man had two sons. He went up to the first and said, 'Son, go out for the day and work in the vineyard.'
"The son answered, 'I don't want to.' Later on he thought better of it and went.
"The father gave the same command to the second son. He answered, 'Sure, glad to.' But he never went.
"Which of the two sons did what the father asked?" They said, "The first."
John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn't care enough to change and believe him.
"Here's another story. Listen closely. There was once a man, a wealthy farmer, who planted a vineyard. He fenced it, dug a winepress, put up a watchtower, then turned it over to the farmhands and went off on a trip.
When it was time to harvest the grapes, he sent his servants back to collect his profits.
"The farmhands grabbed the first servant and beat him up. The next one they murdered. They threw stones at the third but he got away.
The owner tried again, sending more servants. They got the same treatment.
The owner was at the end of his rope. He decided to send his son. 'Surely,' he thought, 'they will respect my son.'
"But when the farmhands saw the son arrive, they rubbed their hands in greed. 'This is the heir! Let's kill him and have it all for ourselves.'
They grabbed him, threw him out, and killed him.
"Now, when the owner of the vineyard arrives home from his trip, what do you think he will do to the farmhands?"
"He'll kill them - a rotten bunch, and good riddance," they answered. "Then he'll assign the vineyard to farmhands who will hand over the profits when it's time."
Jesus said, "Right - and you can read it for yourselves in your Bibles: The stone the masons threw out is now the cornerstone. This is God's work; we rub our eyes, we can hardly believe it!
"This is the way it is with you. God's kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.
Whoever stumbles on this Stone gets shattered; whoever the Stone falls on gets smashed."
When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them.
They wanted to arrest Jesus and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.
Jesus responded by telling still more stories.
"God's kingdom," he said, "is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son.
He sent out servants to call in all the invited guests. And they wouldn't come!
"He sent out another round of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, 'Look, everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!'
"They only shrugged their shoulders and went off, one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop.
The rest, with nothing better to do, beat up on the messengers and then killed them.
The king was outraged and sent his soldiers to destroy those thugs and level their city.
"Then he told his servants, 'We have a wedding banquet all prepared but no guests. The ones I invited weren't up to it.
Go out into the busiest intersections in town and invite anyone you find to the banquet.'
The servants went out on the streets and rounded up everyone they laid eyes on, good and bad, regardless. And so the banquet was on - every place filled.
"When the king entered and looked over the scene, he spotted a man who wasn't properly dressed.
He said to him, 'Friend, how dare you come in here looking like that!' The man was speechless.
Then the king told his servants, 'Get him out of here - fast. Tie him up and ship him to hell. And make sure he doesn't get back in.'
"That's what I mean when I say, 'Many get invited; only a few make it.'"
That's when the Pharisees plotted a way to trap him into saying something damaging.
They sent their disciples, with a few of Herod's followers mixed in, to ask, "Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don't pander to your students.
So tell us honestly: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, "Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me?
Do you have a coin? Let me see it." They handed him a silver piece.
"This engraving - who does it look like? And whose name is on it?"
They said, "Caesar." "Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his."
The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.
That same day, Sadducees approached him. This is the party that denies any possibility of resurrection.
They asked, "Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies childless, his brother is obligated to marry his widow and get her with child.
Here's a case where there were seven brothers. The first brother married and died, leaving no child, and his wife passed to his brother.
The second brother also left her childless, then the third - and on and on, all seven.
Eventually the wife died.
Now here's our question: At the resurrection, whose wife is she? She was a wife to each of them."
Jesus answered, "You're off base on two counts: You don't know your Bibles, and you don't know how God works.
At the resurrection we're beyond marriage. As with the angels, all our ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.
And regarding your speculation on whether the dead are raised or not, don't you read your Bibles? The grammar is clear: God says,
'I am - not was - the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.' The living God defines himself not as the God of dead men, but of the living."
Hearing this exchange the crowd was much impressed.
When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault.
One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up:
"Teacher, which command in God's Law is the most important?"
Jesus said, "'Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.'
This is the most important, the first on any list.
But there is a second to set alongside it: 'Love others as well as you love yourself.'
These two commands are pegs; everything in God's Law and the Prophets hangs from them."
As the Pharisees were regrouping, Jesus caught them off balance with his own test question:
"What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said, "David's son."
Jesus replied, "Well, if the Christ is David's son, how do you explain that David, under inspiration, named Christ his 'Master'?
God said to my Master, "Sit here at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool."
"Now if David calls him 'Master,' how can he at the same time be his son?"
That stumped them, literalists that they were. Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of these public verbal exchanges, they quit asking questions for good.
Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them.
"The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God's Law.
You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It's all spit-and-polish veneer.
"Instead of giving you God's Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn't think of lifting a finger to help.
Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next.
They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions,
preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called 'Doctor' and 'Reverend.'
"Don't let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates.
Don't set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of 'Father'; you have only one Father, and he's in heaven.
And don't let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them - Christ.
"Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant.
If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.
"I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God's kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won't let anyone else in either.
"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned.
"You're hopeless! What arrogant stupidity! You say, 'If someone makes a promise with his fingers crossed, that's nothing; but if he swears with his hand on the Bible, that's serious.'
What ignorance! Does the leather on the Bible carry more weight than the skin on your hands?
And what about this piece of trivia: 'If you shake hands on a promise, that's nothing; but if you raise your hand that God is your witness, that's serious'?
What ridiculous hairsplitting! What difference does it make whether you shake hands or raise hands?
A promise is a promise. What difference does it make if you make your promise inside or outside a house of worship? A promise is a promise. God is present, watching and holding you to account regardless.
"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God's Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment - the absolute basics! - you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required.
Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that's wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons?
"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony.
Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something.
"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You're like manicured grave plots, grass clipped and the flowers bright, but six feet down it's all rotting bones and worm-eaten flesh.
People look at you and think you're saints, but beneath the skin you're total frauds.
"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You build granite tombs for your prophets and marble monuments for your saints.
And you say that if you had lived in the days of your ancestors, no blood would have been on your hands.
You protest too much! You're cut from the same cloth as those murderers,
and daily add to the death count.
"Snakes! Reptilian sneaks! Do you think you can worm your way out of this? Never have to pay the piper?
It's on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation - and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse.
"You can't squirm out of this: Every drop of righteous blood ever spilled on this earth, beginning with the blood of that good man Abel right down to the blood of Zechariah, Barachiah's son, whom you murdered at his prayers, is on your head.
All this, I'm telling you, is coming down on you, on your generation.
"Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Murderer of prophets! Killer of the ones who brought you God's news! How often I've ached to embrace your children, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you wouldn't let me.
And now you're so desolate, nothing but a ghost town.
What is there left to say? Only this: I'm out of here soon. The next time you see me you'll say, 'Oh, God has blessed him! He's come, bringing God's rule!'"
Published by permission. Originally published by NavPress in English as THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language copyright 2002 by Eugene Peterson. All rights reserved. (The Message Bible Online)