[October 10, 2010] Today’s reading brings to a conclusion the first half of Mark 11:1—14:11, the whole of which I have entitled, “God’s Kingdom and God’s Judgment.” Jesus entered the city as the royal Son of David, as One entitled to the throne of Jerusalem and as such with the right of judgment. Jerusalem, centered around the worship of God in the Temple, is like the fig tree in full foliage but it is without any fruit to render the King. Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers from the roots, presaging the coming fate of Jerusalem and the Temple at the heart of its life. This interprets the next event when Jesus enters the Court of the Gentiles, the outer court of the Temple, and casts out those who sold and changed money, cryptically accusing the Jewish establishment of using the worship of God for their own security and financial gain and obfuscating the (eschatological) purpose of the Temple, which was to be “a house of prayer for all the Gentiles”—alluding to the coming kingdom when all the nations would turn from their idols and worship the God of Israel. After that, Jesus confronts the stewards of the City who were also responsible for leading and shepherding God’s people, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. He accuses them of being incapable of judgment and of refusing to render to God the fruit of the people’s worship. They send Pharisees and Herodians to embroil Him in the realpolitik of the day but He turns their ploy into an accusation that they are not rendering to God what belongs to God; and when their own party comes, the “realistic” Sadducees, Jesus exposes their lack of realism in view of their ignorance God’s reality.
What Matters Most and Will Matter Hereafter (12:28-34)
This brings us to today’s reading. Here the scribes come to Him, the scribes who are responsible for the creation, preservation and teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures, and therefore not simply to be dismissed like the others in the Jerusalem leadership. A scribe, an expert in the Scriptures, heard Jesus and “perceived that He had answered them well.” His question, moreover, unlike the others’, was a legitimate one. It was not a trick question. How Jesus answered this question would tell the scribe a lot.
There is a Talmudic legend of a Gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism but made one stipulation. He wanted the entire Torah taught to him while standing on one foot. Since there are 613 commandments, this would seem impossible. He made this request of Rabbi Shammai and Shammai became angry and took a measuring rod and hit the man with it, driving him away for being such a fool. Next he approached Rabbi Hillel and Hillel said respectfully, “What you do not want someone to do to you, do not do to him or her. The rest of the Torah is commentary upon this principle. Now go and learn it!” This is the negative version of the Golden Rule that Jesus taught in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31, though the positive way that Jesus taught it makes us responsible for those in need, which captures the essence of the Torah even better. See Brad H. Young, Meet the Rabbis: Rabbinic Thought and the Teachings of Jesus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), on pages 193-194.
This was an important question for Judaism, for under the conditions of exile, and especially after the destruction of the Second Temple, they had to find a new way to remain faithful to God when they could no longer keep the Torah according to all its outward rubrics. What was the essence of the Torah? What was, in other words, the greatest commandment by which everything else could be measured and interpreted correctly?
Though the synagogue was established as an institution, the Jews still made their pilgrimages to the Temple to keep the three great Feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Succoth.(Also see Luke 2:22-24). Even in the Diaspora, the Temple in Jerusalem was still the focal point of their life and they saw their obedience to the Torah still in relation to it. After its destruction, this would have to change, though their love of the Temple would continue.
When Jesus answered the scribe’s question in Mark’s gospel, He begins by reciting Israel’s creed, the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4), emphasizing that God alone must be worshiped. This is omitted in Matthew and Luke (Luke omits this story because he has a similar one at the beginning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Jesus without any question or hesitation honors the religion of Israel and the heritage of Abraham and Moses. It was important for Mark to bring this out for his Gentile readers and auditors whose background was steeped in idolatry.
The highest (“first”) commandment is Deuteronomy 6:5, though here (in Mark, not Matthew) Jesus changes the threefold heart-soul-and-might to the fourfold heart-soul-mind-and-might as the scribe did in Luke 10:27. That this was the first commandment was orthodox Judaism, and every Jew recited this commandment several times a day, even in Jesus’ day. The second commandment is Leviticus 19:18 and was also familiar to the scribes (see Hillel’s answer to the Gentile previously mentioned and also Luke 10:27). Contrary to what many Christians seem to think, Jesus was saying nothing new or different than what Judaism already taught.
The scribe answers Jesus, “Well said, Teacher; in truth you have said …” and he repeats what Jesus said. He honors Jesus with the title “Teacher,” not hypocritically like the previous two questioners but honestly. In Mark’s gospel, the scribe adds the telling words, This “is more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices” (the scribe’s response to Jesus is not in Matthew’s gospel). Burnt offerings and sacrifices are offered at the Temple.
On the one hand, this reminds us of Psalm 51:16 and many statements in the prophets such as 1 Samuel 15:22; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8. Everything else must serve the two great commandments or it is quite pointless and God does not even want it.
On the other hand, these words show the direction for Judaism in exile from the Temple, the direction that the rabbis were to lead Israel in the following century. After the destruction of the Temple, both Israel and the church experienced a crisis. For Israel the disaster was the destruction of the Temple. As Jesus predicted in Mark 12:9, the responsibility for God’s vineyard (the people of Israel) transferred from the hands of the chief priests, scribes and elders to the rabbis of Rabbinic Judaism. For the church, the crisis was the fact that the Son of Man did not return. The crisis was resolved in the recapitulation of the Gospel by the disciple John and the formation of the New Testament canon.
Judaism and the church did not have to go separate ways; it was not inevitable. That they did so was the fault of both sides. Believers in Jesus as the Messiah began to be expelled from the synagogue (though this was not universal for a long time). Also as the church became increasingly Gentile, it also turned against Israel. This was more the case of the leaders than the people, but eventually the people turned as well. The medieval church became so abusive toward the Jews, and the interpretation of the Scriptures so anti-Jewish that the only way a Jew could become a Christian was to give up Judaism entirely and, in practice, become a Gentile first.
Jesus approved of the scribe’s response. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Not only is it the right direction for Judaism, it also speaks to the church which will be made up of Jews and Gentiles. In the church Gentile believers are not required to become Jews and to keep Halakah. In fact, according to Paul, they ought not to. Nevertheless, they still need to give up idolatry and keep the essence of the Torah, which is to love God with all of the heart, soul, mind and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (see, for example, Romans 13:8-10). In addition they were to keep the minimal stipulations of the Noahide covenant (see Acts 15:20).
The Son of David Is Not As You Expect (12:35-37a)
The final episode in this confrontation with the leaders is addressed to the scribes. In their teaching they have said that the Messiah is the Son of David. This brings us back to how this section began. Jesus entered the City on the back of a donkey according to Zechariah 9:9 which says, “Your King comes to you lowly and riding upon a donkey,” and He was hailed (Zechariah also says, “He bears salvation”) with the words, “Save us now! Blessèd is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessèd is the coming kingdom of our father David! Save us now in the highest!” The crowds who followed Jesus expected the kingdom of God to come immediately, during the Passover Festival. But they envisioned this in entirely earthly terms. Jesus was going to be a king like David or Solomon the “son of David.” He would restore and exalt the earthly kingdom and Israel would be exalted above the nations.
But Jesus says, “David himself said in the Holy Spirit, ‘The Lord [YHWH] said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand until I put Your enemies underneath Your feet.”’ David himself calls Him ‘Lord,’ and how is He his son?” In other words, the Messiah is David’s Lord in the sense that He sits on a throne that is far greater than the throne that David sat on in Jerusalem. His kingship is far greater than David’s. God says to the Messiah, “Sit at My right hand.” For Jesus, this refers to the throne of God. In other words, Jesus may be entitled to the throne of David but He also expects to ascend to the throne of God, and there He will remain (even after His Second Advent) until God puts all His enemies underneath His feet. (See 1 Corinthians 15:25).
In other words, Jesus was proclaiming His ascension to heaven. This was going to precede the restoration of David’s kingdom and in fact would be far greater. It was for this that He had come to Jerusalem, for He would ascend to the throne of God by way of the cross. The vision of Christ transfigured on the mountain is the fulfillment of His taking the way of the cross (see Mark 8:31 and 9:1).
On earth the judgment proclaimed by the prophets would continue—Israel’s exile would continue—until the coming again of the Son of Man. But in the meantime something new would come into the picture as the result of His death and resurrection. The people of the Messiah would know His rule in heaven and would come under His rule as the church. They too would bear the cross in the world and would submit to God’s historic judgment on the nations, as He did, but they would know His presence through the Holy Spirit and His rule in heaven. They would, in other words, be a heavenly people in their relationship to Him.
The synagogue would continue alongside the church, living under the judgment of God, and loving God and neighbor without burnt offerings and sacrifices. But the church of Jews and Gentile, in solidarity with the synagogue and doing the same, would also know the secret presence of the Messiah in glory—of the Savior of Israel who is yet to be manifested in glory.
This is the secret of the Messiah that the Gospel according to Mark is really about. The reality of the glorious Messiah can only be known in relation to the cross. We can only know the glorious Messiah in relation to His cross when we take up the cross ourselves. This section of the Gospel according to Mark is when Jesus takes this message to not just Jewish disciples but to the symbolic heart of the Jewish people, to their official leadership. The kingdom that the zealous are striving for, the kingdom that the Sadducees think they already have, and the kingdom that the people are waiting for is not what any of them think. The kingdom is far greater. It is truly the kingdom of God, but it will only come by following Christ and submitting to the judgment of God in utter faithfulness to God by denying the self, taking up the cross, and losing one’s soul.
When Christ does this it brings the entire world under the sentence of God’s condemnation, and thus morally ends the age-long pursuit of Babel. But His death is also a sin-offering for Israel and the salvation of the world, for those who believe.
While He went this way alone, we bear the cross in the world accompanied by Him, now in the glory of His kingship. We are not alone as we give up everything (and perhaps suffer martyrdom) for His sake. While Mark’s gospel does not spell this out, it is only because of the Holy Spirit which He breathes into us at our new birth—that is, His indwelling presence—that we are at all able to go this way. After we take this way, if we are faithful along the Way (see Mark 8:35 and Romans 8:17), we will save our souls and share with Him His glory, which is in fact the eternal glory of the divine nature.
This section of Mark’s gospel reorients the Jewish believer to not be scandalized by the destruction of the Temple—about to take place (for Mark)—but to see in it God’s purpose.