Mark 12:37b—13:4, Exploitation and Devotion


[October 17, 2010] Today’s reading begins the second half of Mark 11:1—14:11, the whole of which I have entitled, “God’s Kingdom and God’s Judgment.”

In the first half Jesus entered the City of Jerusalem as the Son of David and King of Israel, not yet to take the throne of David but to pass judgment on the leaders of the people and the City and to pronounce the end of the Temple era in the judgment of God. The people were to come under new leadership. The new way was to be guided on the one hand by the great commandments without the practice of worship at the Temple (“all the burnt offerings and sacrifices”). For those who understood the “secret” that Jesus was the Messiah, on the other hand, the new way was to be the enjoyment of His kingship in heaven. The King did not come for the glory of an earthly kingdom yet. Rather He had come to offer Himself up as the atoning sacrifice for the people’s sin and to enter into His glory in heaven, the right hand of the throne of God. There He would be for His people, those who believe into Him.

We already sense a foreboding of the division of God’s people. The majority of the people of Israel would come under the leadership of Rabbinic Judaism without recognizing the Messiah in His humility and heavenly glory. They will continue to wait for His coming while seeking to be faithful to the commandments to love God and their neighbor. There will be others who do recognize Jesus as the Messiah, not only Jews but also Gentiles. They will be the Messiah’s own people who will be in union with Him in heaven—through the Holy Spirit—and will identify with Him in His humility—the “way of the cross.” They will be His church.

In the second half of this section, 12:37b—14:11, Jesus pronounces the fulfillment of God’s judgment, the coming catastrophe about to come to the City of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The judgment would fall because of treachery and in the midst of treachery. Then they will also see the coming of the heavenly Son of Man who will gather His chosen—who? Israel or the church?—from the ends of the earth. Jesus warns His disciples to be on the alert and to watch.

This half begins and ends with accounts of women who act faithfully in the midst of great treachery. In the first account the woman is (apparently) ignorant of Jesus but is still faithful to God, and thus represents what God is looking for in the people of Israel as the enter upon the new way under new leadership and without the Temple. In the second account, 14:1-11, the woman is what God is looking for in the church, among the Messiah’s own people, those who are with Him in His humility.

Mark 12:37b-44 forms a unity just as does 14:1-11. Here Mark (or Peter whose speech scribes had transcribed and which Mark was editing) follows Luke’s account (20:45—21:4) though his acquaintance with Matthew 23 comes through (especially 23:1 and 6-7). Probably Peter had the Gospel according to Matthew committed to memory and at this point had the Gospel according to Luke open in front of him.

The Treachery of the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40)

Peter and his audience in Rome were experiencing persecution at the time when he was retelling the Gospel in the version that we know as the Gospel according to Mark. There was treachery as Christians were being falsely accused of crimes and as some who were accused of being Christians renounced the faith and betrayed others to avoid their own execution. Jews may have also been tempted to dissociate from the persecuted “Christians” to avoid getting caught by the public’s fury. Before this time, believing Jews and Gentile Christians may have both been attending the synagogue on the Sabbath. This atmosphere of treachery was a reality for those who first heard what we know as the Gospel according to Mark.

Let us begin then with treachery. Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes.” The scribes were a mixed group. In 12:28-34 Jesus just told a scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” They were also an indispensible group. They were the ones responsible for creating the Scriptures. For example, it is they who transcribed the words of the prophets and who created the scrolls of the prophets as we have them. They were the ones who copied the Scriptures and ensured that the copies were accurate (there was no printing press). They were the ones who were also responsible for teaching and explaining what is in the Scriptures, which is why Jesus said in 12:35, “How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David?” There were many levels or gradations of scribes. Some were mere copyists and others were highly educated and influential. In Jerusalem, most of the scribes were employees of the Temple, and some were quite wealthy and close to the chief priests and elders. These scribes would have carried a lot of influence.

These scribes associated with the aristocratic circles of Jerusalem are probably the ones Jesus is talking about. These may be the “scribes who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at the dinners.” They enjoyed their prestige and exploited it. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says that “they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16), meaning that this worldly reward is what motivates them and as a consequence there will be no reward from “your Father who sees in secret.” Whether or not the scribes were Sadducees (many of them were in fact Pharisees), these people whom Jesus is describing lived for this life only, without any sense of having to give an account of their life to God after this time is over or even of the present reality (the “power”) of God and of heavenly things (for example, the angels). This is borne out by Jesus’ accusation that “for a pretense they make long prayers,” as if it were not God to whom they were praying but their prayers were only a “show” before an audience.

They enjoyed the honor that people gave them and exploited this instead of realizing the weight of their responsibility for the people in the sight of God. Remember that for Jesus the presence of God is the overriding reality of all that we do. The presence of people is secondary. We do everything in the sight of God and under His governance. How people look at us is entirely secondary. What matters is how we treat them and whether this is from the heart or merely for affect. What matters is what God sees, for we exist in His presence, and what He sees is our heart and our motivation.

Good deeds done out of an evil or even a blind heart, even though they may have immediate affects that are good, in the long run sow seeds that are harmful, even very harmful, in the long run. Many of our environmental problems today are the result of “good deeds” done in the past that were motivated by greed or blindness. This is no less true of social problems, though less obvious.

Nevertheless, Jesus also says that these scribes “devour the widow’s houses.” Here he accuses them of exploiting their position to rob the vulnerable, whether they are vulnerable because of ignorance, poverty or hardship. We are reminded of Jesus’ words in the Temple, that they—presumably the chief priests and their associates—had made God’s house into “a den of robbers” (11:17). We are also reminded of the tenants of the vineyard, the “chief priests and the scribes and the elders,” who refused to render to the owner of the vineyard “the fruit of the vineyard” but wanted to seize the son’s inheritance for themselves (12:1-9). They took advantage of the people’s devotion to God to enrich themselves. What belonged to God they paid to themselves. They robbed the people and they robbed God.

Do we see how this applies to ourselves? Jesus says, “You cannot serve two masters, for either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). We can suppose that the scribes probably thought that they were serving God, and they may have started out that way, but because of their love for money and the prestige that money can buy, they were no longer serving God but themselves, or rather, the power that money and prestige had over them. Yet outwardly they appeared to be serving God.

We can imagine that we are serving God but be fooling ourselves. Church leaders can also be interested in their paycheck, in their power, or even the influence or just the survival of their institution, whether that is the local church or the denomination. Who do you have to please to get there? There is always a rationality, often morally “righteous,” but what is the real motivation? When we think we are responsible for establishing the kingdom of God on earth, we are in trouble. For then we begin to rationalize the need for our own power and influence and we lose sight of the “power of God.” For Jesus, the presence and governance of God is the overriding and indeed the overwhelming reality in which we exist. Our attitude to the kingdom of God needs to be simply faithfulness to God with respect to ourselves and patience with respect to the working out of God’s will.

“But you, beware; I have told you all things beforehand” (Mark 13:23). “Beware of the scribes” (12:38). Not everything is at it is labeled!

A Woman Who Acts Faithfully (12:41-44)

The scribes “devour the widows’ houses” by depriving them of the little that they have that they need to live on. Paul teaches us that in the church our giving should be in proportion to what God has given us: “It is acceptable according to whatever one has, not according to what he does not have. For it is not that to others there would be relief yet to you affliction, but it is out of equality; at the present time your abundance for their lack that their abundance also may be for your lack, so that there may be equality; as it is written, ‘He who gathered much had no excess, and he who gathered little had no lack” (2 Corinthians 8:12-15). It is not right that though the rich give much, that it should be small in relation to the whole of their income and that the poor should give what they need to live on. Those who have money need to give the larger portion; indeed, the poor are not obliged to give at all (but keep reading).

Jesus sat opposite the treasury, boxes with holes on top in which people deposited offerings of money, and He watched, as He would soon tell His disciples to do. “Beware, be alert … and what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:33, 37). A poor widow cast in “two lepta, which is a quadrans,” not worth very much at all, but it was “all that she had, her whole living.”

On the one hand, there is injustice about this, not on the part of the widow but rather of the system that allowed the rich to benefit and the poor to suffer, keeping in mind the words that Jesus just said about the scribes “devouring the widow’s houses.” What the widow lost was way out of proportion to the surplus that the rich could spare. Indeed, according to the Torah, the rich should be caring for the widow, not allowing her to go without her basic necessities. Part of the money that went into the Temple treasury was in fact meant for her. Instead, the way this system was working was unjust.

On the other hand, Jesus admires the widow, for what she does she does for God. The “many rich” cast in much, but she was only “one poor widow.” Her offering made no real difference compared to what the rich cast in, yet it meant much more to God. Not only did she cast in more than the others from the point of view of human fairness, she also offered up more to God, apparently in the belief and trust that God would care for her.

While Paul told the Corinthians that giving in the church should be on the principle of fairness, he also—in the same context—praised the Macedonians: “In much proving of affliction the abundance of their joy and the depth of their poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality: according to their power, I testify, and beyond their power, of their own accord, with much entreaty they besought of us the grace and the fellowship of the ministry to the saints [in Jerusalem]; and this, not as we had hoped, but they gave themselves first to the Lord, and to us [the diakonia that Paul was organizing for the poor in Jerusalem] through the will of God” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5).

Jesus also said, “Give, and it will be given to you; a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, they will give into your bosom. For with what measure you measure, it shall be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). As Paul also says, “He who sows with blessings shall also with blessings reap … [For] God is able to make all grace abound unto you, that, in everything always having all sufficiency, you may abound unto every good work … [For] He who bountifully supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed [for sowing] and cause the fruits of your righteousness to increase. You in everything are being enriched unto all liberality” (2 Corinthians 9:6, 8, 10-11).

Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not forget doing good and sharing with others, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” When the Temple is no more, there will be no more offering of sacrifices at its altar. But sacrifices will continue—sacrifices of praise to God, the fruit of lips confessing His name (Hebrews 13:15), and doing good and sharing with others. We ought to give as we are able, on the principle of equality, as Paul says, but God is also looking for sacrifices. Sacrifice is something that costs us something. It implies loss. Sacrifice is also at the heart of what it means to belong to God. Jesus’ entire life was a “burnt-offering” offered up to God. A burnt offering is a sacrifice that is entirely consumed at the altar. Only ashes are left. Jesus was consumed on the altar of His life, by emptying Himself of the manifestation of His divine nature, and denying His soul and finally laying it down in death on the cross. It is this burnt-offering aspect of His life that enabled His death to be a sin and trespass offering.

Our own life too ought to be poured out as a sacrifice to God, a burnt-offering. We too need to take up the “way of the cross” and deny ourselves and lose our soul. In practice this means that we need to offer up praise to God when we are hurting and to do good when it is unwarranted and to share what we have when it costs us. It is a way of life in which we trust God to provide for us and to take care of us while we give Him our all. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

This is something that needs to come from a special place in us, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9, especially 14-15. It has to come out of a place of grace and gift, so that it issues from a sense of freedom and love, not obligation. Giving too much can be the result of spiritual pathology and psychological issues; for example, out of self-justification or a sense of grandiosity or self-disdain; it can issue not from trust but from a desire to test God. Indeed, it needs to be by grace and Spirit-led, offered in love and trust and faithfulness, not out of recklessness or self-righteousness or with a secret desire to manipulate God.

Yes, God wants your all; God wants the sacrifice of your heart and soul, of your praises and service and giving. Jesus admires this poor widow. But we need to be before God and know ourselves well. The fellowship of the Body helps us, even when our fellow believers do not understand (as in Matthew 26:8). Still, God has more mercy on the foolishness of younger saints than tolerance for the tight-fistedness of the older ones. May we all learn to offer the sacrifices that God desires and, indeed, to make our whole life a burnt-offering to Him. This is to render to God what belongs to God.

It sounds like loss, and it is, but the loss of the soul is the way to its salvation, and the way of the cross is the pathway to our sharing in Christ’s glory.

The End of the Temple (13:1-2)

As Jesus leaves the Temple, the disciples point out to Him the wonderful stones and buildings. The time is now over for Jesus merely to allude to the end of these things (the fig tree losing its foliage, the casting out of the merchants from the Temple and the overturning of the tables of the money changers, the destruction of the tenant farmers, and the “greater judgment” that the scribes will receive). Jesus is done speaking in public, so He speaks to this questioner directly, “Do you see these great buildings? There shall by no means be left here a stone upon a stone which shall not be thrown down.”

As the Son of David Jesus came into the City of David and confronted the “stewards”: the leaders of the City and of the people of Israel and keepers of the Temple, the chief priests, scribes and elders, those responsible for rendering the fruit of the people’s worship to God. He condemned them and now He is pronouncing the sentence of God’s judgment. Just as in the words of the great prophets, Jesus is letting them know that the “sign” of the Temple will be taken away from them—they are still in the exile that the prophets proclaimed, still under the reign of God’s judgment, they equally and along with all the nations. The time of God’s kingdom, the age of the Messiah, is not yet. Now is the time of God’s judgment. The proof of God’s verdict on them and on all the nations was the death of the Messiah, whose death revealed the wrath of God from heaven against all humanity (Romans 1:18).

Not only Israel comes under God’s judgment. Even the church exists under this judgment, in solidarity with Israel. For the church exists in the world in the way of the cross, submitting to God’s judgment as Jesus Himself did. For the church too there is no earthly kingdom and nothing comparable to the Temple.

What is different for the church, however, is that the church knows that the Messiah’s death was also the atoning sacrifice, the sacrifice that purifies Israel of its sins, and that obtains forgiveness for all who believe into Jesus, the Messiah. While believers submit to God’s judgment of the world while they are in the world (for we too are sinners), they do not bear the judgment of the world on behalf of the world the way Jesus could and did. The church also knows that Jesus, though rejected by the world—which His death signifies—now reigns at the right hand of God and through the Holy Spirit lives in His believers.

He dwells in us as the faithful One. The kingdom of God reigns over us and within us, but we still live in the world and therefore we need to take up the cross while we are in the world, as He did. We need to suffer with Him if we would reign with Him, identifying with Him in the death of our own soul so that our soul can be saved when He is at last manifested.

When All These Things will Be Accomplished (13:3-4)

Jesus and His disciples continued to walk up Olivet and then Jesus sat opposite the Temple. Peter, James, John and Andrew (three of whom also went up the mountain with Jesus when He was transfigured) ask Him something “privately.” Not all the disciples ask Him or hear His explanation. What Jesus is about to say cannot be accepted or understood by all, not even all the disciples. It is revealed, however, to the few, those who have the spiritual capacity. They ask Him, “When will these things be? And what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

“These things” refers to the destruction of the Temple and its leadership and the transferal of the leadership to others. It may also refer to the coming of the Messiah in His kingdom; for Jesus goes on to speak of this (separately?) in 13:24-27. “The sign when all these things are about to be accomplished” refers to the events that will precede and surround the destruction of the Temple. In Jesus’ response He weaves these things together.

What is disconcerting to some is that Jesus is talking about the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, not of an event that is still to happen for us or people after us. This may be confusing to us, because Jesus seems to imply that His Second Advent will come immediately after that event, and obviously it did not. It was confusing to the early Christians too, who at that time also lost the important leadership of men like Peter and Paul. As we proceed, we will try to understand our Lord’s words with the advantage of hindsight. Nevertheless, whether we too will be scandalized by them may depend on our spiritual capacity. His words were only given to select ones among the Twelve, though they are also given to us all in the Gospel itself. They are meant then to challenge us.

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