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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Mark 12

 

 

Verses 1-44

Chapter 12

REJECTION AND RETRIBUTION (Mark 12:1-12)

12:1-12 Jesus began to speak to them in parables. A man planted a vineyard. He put a hedge round about it, and dug a wine vat, and built a tower. He let it out to cultivators and went abroad. At the right time he sent a servant to the cultivators that he might receive from the cultivators his share of the fruits of the vineyard. They took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent another servant to them. They wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. He sent yet another. They killed him. So they treated many others, beating some and killing others. He had still one person left to send, his beloved son. Last of all he sent him to them. "They will respect my son," he said. But these cultivators said to each other, "This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours." So they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What, then. will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and he will destroy the cultivators and he will give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this passage of scripture, "The stone which the builders rejected, this has become the headstone of the comer. This came from God, and it is in our eyes an amazing thing?" They tried to find a way to get hold of Jesus, for they feared the crowd, for they were well aware that he spoke this parable against them. So they let him alone and went away.

We said that a parable must never be treated as an allegory, and that a meaning must not be sought for every detail. Originally Jesus' parables were not meant to be read but to be spoken and their meaning was that which flashed out when first they were heard. But to some extent this parable is an exception. It is a kind of hybrid, a cross between an allegory and a parable. Not all the details have an inner meaning, but more than usual have. And this is because Jesus was talking in pictures which were part and parcel of Jewish thought and imagery.

The owner of the vineyard is God; the vineyard itself is the people of Israel. This was a picture with which the Jews were perfectly familiar. In the Old Testament it is vividly used in Isaiah 5:1-7, a passage from which some of the details and the language of this passage are taken. This vineyard was given every equipment. There was a wall to mark out its boundaries, to keep out robbers and to defend it from the assaults of the wild boars. There was a wine vat. In a vineyard there was a wine press in which the grapes were trodden down with the feet. Beneath the wine press was a wine vat into which the pressed-out juice flowed. There was a tower. In this the wine was stored, the cultivators had their lodging, and from this watch was kept for robbers at harvest time. The cultivators stand for the rulers of Israel throughout the history of the nation. The servants whom the owner sent stand for the prophets. Servant or slave of God is a regular title. So Moses was called (Joshua 14:7). So David was called (2 Samuel 3:18). And the title occurs regularly in the books of the prophets (Amos 3:7, Jeremiah 7:25, Zechariah 1:6). The son is Jesus himself. Even on the spur of the moment the hearers could have made these identifications because the thoughts and the pictures were all so familiar to them.

The story itself is of what might well happen in Palestine in the time of Jesus. The country had much labour unrest and many absentee landlords. The owner of such a vineyard might be a Jew who had sought a more comfortable land than Palestine, or he might be a Roman who regarded the vineyard as an investment for his money. If the owner followed the law, the first time for collecting the rental would be five years after the planting of the vineyard (Leviticus 19:23-25). In such a case the rental was paid in kind. It might be a fixed and agreed percentage of the crop, or it might be a stated amount, irrespective of what the crop came to. The story is by no means improbable and tells of the kind of thing which did actually happen.

The parable is so full of truths that we can note them only in the briefest way.

It tells us certain things about God.

(i) It tells us of the generosity of God. The vineyard was equipped with everything that was necessary to make the work of the cultivators easy and profitable. God is generous in the life and in the world that he gives to men.

(ii) It tells us of the trust of God. The owner went away and left the cultivators to run the vineyard themselves. God trusts us enough to give us freedom to run life as we choose. As someone has said, "The lovely thing about God is that he allows us to do so much for ourselves."

(iii) It tells us of the patience of God. Not once or twice but many times the master gave the cultivators the chance to pay the debt they owed. He treated them with a patience they little deserved.

(iv) It tells us of the ultimate triumph of the justice of God. Men might take advantage of the patience of God, but in the end comes judgment and justice. God may bear long with disobedience and rebellion but in the end he acts.

This parable tells us something about Jesus.

(i) It tells us that Jesus regarded himself not as a servant but as a son. He deliberately removes himself from the succession of the prophets. They were servants. He was son. In him God's last and final word was being spoken. This parable was a deliberate challenge to the Jewish authorities because it contains the unmistakable claim of Jesus to be Messiah.

(ii) It tells us that Jesus knew that he was to die. The Cross did not come to him as a surprise. He knew that the way he had chosen could have no other ending. It is the greatness of his courage that he knew that and still went on.

(iii) It tells us that Jesus was sure of his ultimate triumph. He also knew that he would be maltreated and killed, but he also knew that would not be the end, that after the rejection would come the glory.

This parable tells us something about man.

(i) There could be only one reason why the cultivators thought they could kill the son and then enter into possession of the vineyard. They must have thought that the owner was too far away to act, or that he was dead and out of the reckoning. Men still think they can act against God and get away with it. But God is very much alive. Men seek to trade on their own freedom and his patience, but the day of reckoning comes.

(ii) If a man refuses his privileges and his responsibilities, they pass on to someone else. The parable has in it the whole germ of what was to come--the rejection of the Jews and the passing of their privileges and responsibilities to the Gentiles.

The parable closes with an Old Testament quotation which became very dear to the Church. The quotation about the stone that was rejected is from Psalms 118:22-23. The rejected stone had become the stone that bound the corners of the building together, the keystone of the arch, the most important stone of all. This passage fascinated the early Christian writers. It is quoted or referred to in Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:4; 1 Peter 2:7, Romans 9:32-33, Ephesians 2:20. Originally, in the Psalm, the reference was to the people of Israel. The great nations which had thought of themselves as architects of the structure of the world had regarded the people of Israel as unimportant and unhonoured. But, as the Psalmist saw it, the nation which had been regarded as of no importance would, some day, in God's economy, become the greatest nation in the world. The Christian writers saw in the Psalmist's dream something which was perfectly fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

CAESAR AND GOD (Mark 12:13-17)

12:13-17 They sent to Jesus some of the Pharisees and Herodians to try to trap him in his speech. They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know that you are genuine, and that you do not allow yourself to be influenced by anyone, for you are no respecter of persons, and you teach the way of God in truth. Is it right to pay tax to Caesar? Or not? Are we to pay? Or, are we not to pay?" Jesus knew well that they were acting a part. "Why are you trying to test me?" he said, "Bring me a denarius and let me see it." So they brought him one. He said to them, "Whose portrait is this, and whose inscription is on it?" "Caesar's," they said to him. Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar the things which belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God." And they were completely astonished at him.

There is history behind this shrewd question, and bitter history too. Herod the Great had ruled all Palestine as a Roman tributary king. He had been loyal to the Romans and they had respected him and given him a great deal of freedom. When he died in 4 B.C. he divided his kingdom into three. To Herod Antipas he gave Galilee and Peraea. To Herod Philip he gave the wild district up in the north-east round Trachonitis and Ituraea and Abilene. To Archelaus he gave the south country including Judaea and Samaria.

Antipas and Philip soon settled in and on the whole ruled wisely and well. But Archelaus was a complete failure. The result was that in A.D. 6 the Romans had to step in and introduce direct rule. Things were so unsatisfactory that southern Palestine could no longer be left as a semi-independent tributary kingdom. It had to become a province governed by a procurator.

Roman provinces fell into two classes. Those which were peaceful and required no troops were governed by the senate and ruled by proconsuls. Those which were trouble-centres and required troops were the direct sphere of the Emperor and were governed by procurators. Southern Palestine fell naturally into the second category and tribute was in fact paid direct to the Emperor.

The first act of the governor, Cyrenius, was to take a census of the country, in order that he might make proper provision for fair taxation and general administration. The calmer section of the people accepted this as an inevitable necessity. But one Judas the Gaulonite raised violent opposition. He thundered that "taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery." He called on the people to rise, and said that God would favour them only if they resorted to all the violence they could muster. He took the high ground that for the Jews God was the only ruler. The Romans dealt with Judas with their customary efficiency, but his battle-cry never died out. "No tribute to the Romans," became a rallying cry of the more fanatical Jewish patriots.

The actual taxes imposed were three.

(i) A ground tax, which consisted of one-tenth of all the grain and one-fifth of the wine and fruit produced. This was paid partly in kind and partly in money.

(ii) An income tax which amounted to one per cent of a man's income.

(iii) A poll tax, which was levied on all men from fourteen to sixty-five and on all women from twelve to sixty-five. This poll tax was one denarius, roughly 31 pence per head. It was the tax which everyone had to pay simply for the privilege of existing.

The approach of the Pharisees and Herodians was very subtle. They began with flattery. That flattery was designed to do two things. It was designed to disarm the suspicions that Jesus might have had; and to make it impossible for him to avoid giving an answer without losing his reputation completely.

In view of all the circumstances the question which the Pharisees and Herodians put to Jesus was a masterpiece of cunning. They must have thought that they had him impaled on the horns of a completely inescapable dilemma. If he said that it was lawful to pay tribute, his influence with the populace would be gone forever, and he would be regarded as a traitor and a coward. If he said that it was not lawful to pay tribute, they could report him to the Romans and have him arrested as a revolutionary. They must have been sure that they had Jesus in a trap from which there was no escape.

Jesus said, "Show me a denarius." We may note in the passing that he himself did not possess even one coin of his own. He asked whose image was on it. The image would be that of Tiberius, the reigning emperor. All the emperors were. called Caesar. Round the coin there would be the title which declared that this was the coin "of Tiberius Caesar, the divine Augustus, son of Augustus," and on the reverse would be the title "pontifex maximus," "the high priest of the Roman nation."

We must understand the ancient view of coinage if this incident is to be intelligible. In regard to coinage the ancient peoples held three consistent principles.

(i) Coinage is the sign of power. When anyone conquered a nation or was a successful rebel, the first thing he did was to issue his own coinage. That and that alone was the final guarantee of kingship and power.

(ii) Where the coin was valid the king's power held good. A king's sway was measurable by the area in which his coins were valid currency.

(iii) Because a coin had the king's head and inscription on it, it was held, at least in some sense, to be his personal property. Jesus' answer therefore was, "By using the coinage of Tiberius you in any event recognize his political power in Palestine. Apart altogether from that, the coinage is his own because it has his name on it. By giving it to him you give him what is in any event his own. Give it to him but remember that there is a sphere in life which belongs to God and not to Caesar."

Never did any man lay down a more influential principle. It conserved at one and the same time the civil and the religious power. Rawlinson reminds us that Lord Acton, the great historian, said of this, "Those words...gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed and bounds it had never acknowledged, and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom." At one and the same time these words asserted the rights of the state and the liberty of conscience.

On the whole the New Testament lays down three great principles with regard to the individual Christian and the state.

(i) The state is ordained by God. Without the laws of the state life would be chaos. Men cannot live together unless they agree to obey the laws of living together. Without the state there is many a valuable service no man could enjoy. No individual man could have his own water supply, his own sewage system, his own transport system, his own social security organization. The state is the origin of many of the things which make life livable.

(ii) No man can accept all the benefits which the state gives him and then opt out of all the responsibilities. It is beyond question that the Roman government brought to the ancient world a sense of security it never had before. For the most part, except in certain notorious areas, the seas were cleared of pirates and the roads of brigands, civil wars were changed for peace and capricious tyranny for Roman impartial justice. As E. J. Goodspeed wrote, "It was the glory of the Roman Empire that it brought peace to a troubled world. Under its sway the regions of Asia Minor and the East enjoyed tranquillity and security to an extent and for a length of time unknown before and probably since. This was the pax Romana. The provincial, under Roman sway, found himself in a position to conduct his business, provide for his family, send his letters, and make his journeys in security, thanks to the strong hand of Rome." It is still true that no man can honourably receive all the benefits which living in a state confers upon him and then opt out of all the responsibilities of citizenship.

(iii) But there is a limit. E. A. Abbott has a suggestive thought. The coin had Caesar's image upon it, and therefore belonged to Caesar. Man has God's image upon him--God created man in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27)--and therefore belongs to God. The inevitable conclusion is that, if the state remains within its proper boundaries and makes its proper demands, the individual must give it his loyalty and his service; but in the last analysis both state and man belong to God, and therefore, should their claims conflict, loyalty to God comes first. But it remains true, that, in all ordinary circumstances, a man's Christianity should make him a better citizen than any other man.

THE WRONG IDEA OF THE LIFE TO COME (Mark 12:18-27)

12:18-27 There came to Jesus Sadducees, who are a party who say that the resurrection of the dead does not exist. They put the following problem to him. "Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote the law for us, that, if a man's brother dies and leaves behind him a wife, and does not leave a family, the law is that the brother should take his wife, and should raise up a family to his brother. There were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died, and left no family. The second took her, and he died, and left behind no family. The third did the same. The seven left no family. Last of all, the woman died. At the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife." Jesus said to them, "Are you not in error and for this reason--because you do not know the scriptures, nor do you know the power of God? When people rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are they given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven. With regard to the dead, and the fact that they do rise, have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. You are far wrong."

This is the only time in Mark's gospel that the Sadducees appear, and their appearance is entirely characteristic of them. The Sadducees were not a large Jewish party. They were aristocratic and wealthy. They included most of the priests; the office of high priest was regularly held by a Sadducee. Being the wealthy and aristocratic party, they were not unnaturally collaborationist, for they wished to retain their comforts and their privileges. It was from them came those who were prepared to collaborate with the Romans in the government of the country.

They differed very widely from the Pharisees in certain matters. First, they accepted only the written scriptures and attached more importance to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, than to all the rest. They did not accept the mass of oral law and tradition, the rules and regulations which were so dear to the Pharisees. It was on the written Mosaic Law that they took their stand. Second, they did not believe in immortality, nor in spirits and angels. They said that in the early books of the Bible there was no evidence for immortality, and they did not accept it.

So the Sadducees came to Jesus with a test question designed to make the belief in individual resurrection look ridiculous. The Jewish Law had an institution called levirate marriage. Its regulations are laid down in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. If a group of brothers lived together--that is a point that is omitted in the Sadducees' quotation of the law--and if one of them died and left no issue, it was the duty of the next to take his brother's widow as wife and to raise up issue to his brother. Theoretically this would go on so long as there were brothers left and so long as no child was born. When a child was born, the child was held to be the offspring of the original husband.

It is clear that the whole point of this law was to ensure two things--first, that the family name continued, and second, that the property remained within the family. As a matter of fact, strange as the matter seems to us, there were certain not dissimilar regulations in Greek law. If a Greek father had a considerable estate and had only a daughter, she, being a woman, could not inherit direct. Either her husband or her son would be the direct heir. But if the daughter was unmarried the father could leave his property and his daughter to anyone he chose. Such a person, in order to inherit the property, had to marry the heiress, even if he had to divorce an already existing wife to do so. And, if in such circumstances, a father died without making a will, the nearest relation could claim the heiress daughter as his wife. It is the same principle again. The whole thing is designed to maintain the family and to retain the property within the family.

The question that the Sadducees asked, therefore, may have presented an exaggerated case, with the story of the seven brothers, but it was a question founded on a well-known Jewish law.

The question of the Sadducees was simply this--if, in accordance with the regulations governing levirate marriage, one woman has been married in turn to seven brothers, if there is a resurrection of the dead, whose wife is she when that resurrection comes? They thought that by asking that question they rendered the idea of resurrection completely ridiculous.

Jesus' answer really falls into two parts.

First, he deals with what we might call the manner of the resurrection. He lays it down that when a person rises again, the old laws of physical life no longer obtain. The risen are like the angels and physical things like marrying and being married no longer enter into the case. Jesus was saying nothing new. In Enoch the promise is, "Ye shall have great joy as the angels of heaven." In the Apocalypse of Baruch it is said that the righteous shall be made "like unto the angels." And the rabbinic writings themselves said that in the life to come "there is no eating and drinking, no begetting of children, no bargaining, jealousy, hatred and strife, but that the righteous sit with crowns on their heads, and are satisfied with the glory of God." It is Jesus' point that the life to come cannot be thought of in terms of this life at all.

Second, he deals with the fact of the resurrection. Here he meets the Sadducees on their own ground. They insisted that in the Pentateuch, by which they set so much store, there was no evidence for immortality. From the Pentateuch Jesus draws his proof. In Exodus 3:6, God call himself the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. If God is the God of these patriarchs even yet, it means that they must still be alive, for the living God must be the God of living people, and not of of those who are dead. And if the patriarchs are alive then the resurrection is proved. On their own grounds, and with an argument to which they could find no answer, Jesus defeated the Sadducees.

This passage may seem to deal with a matter which is recondite and remote. It is an argument on terms which are out of the orbit of our experience. In spite of that two eternally valid truths emerge.

(i) The Sadducees made the mistake of creating heaven in the image of earth. Men have always done so. The Red Indians, who were by nature hunters, conceived of a heaven which was a happy hunting ground. The Vikings, who were by nature warriors, thought of a Valhalla where they would fight all day, where at night the dead would be raised and the wounded made whole again, and they would spend the evening in banquets, drinking wine from cups made from the skulls of their conquered foes. The Mohammedans were a desert people living in circumstances where luxury was unknown. They conceived of heaven as a place where men would live a life replete with every sensual and bodily pleasure. The Jews hated the sea and thought of heaven as a place where there would be no more sea. All men shrank from sorrow and from pain, and heaven would be a place where the tears were wiped from every eye and there would be no more pain.

Always men have tended to create in thought a heaven to suit themselves. Sometimes that idea can be poignantly beautiful. During the 1914-18 war The Westminster Gazette printed a lovely little poem about those who had died for their country:

"They left the fury of the fight,

And they were tired.

The gates of heaven were open quite,

Unguarded and unwired.

There was no sound of any gun,

The land was still and green,

Wide hills lay silent in the sun,

Blue valleys slept between.

They saw far off a little wood

Stand up against the sky.

Knee deep in grass a great tree stood,

Some lazy cows went by.

There were some rooks sailed overhead,

And once a church ben pealed.

'God, but it's England!' someone said,

'And there's a cricket field'."

There is wistful beauty there and real truth. But we do well to remember that Paul was right (1 Corinthians 2:9) when he took the words of the prophet (Isaiah 64:4) and made them his own, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him." The life of the heavenly places will be greater than any conception this life can supply.

(ii) In the end Jesus based his conviction of the resurrection on the fact that the relationship between God and a good man is one that nothing can break. God was the friend of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when they lived. That friendship could not cease with death. "God," as Loisy said, "cannot cease to be the God of those who served him and loved him." As the Psalmist said, "I am continually with thee. Thou dost hold my right hand. Thou dost guide me with thy counsel and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory." (Psalms 73:23-24.) He cannot conceive of his relationship with God ever being broken.

In a word, there is only one immortal thing--and that is love.

LOVE FOR GOD AND LOVE FOR MEN (Mark 12:28-34)

12:28-34 One of the experts in the law, who had listened to the discussion, and who realized that Jesus had answered them well, approached him and asked him, "What is the first commandment of all?" Jesus answered, "'The Lord thy God is one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and your whole mind, and your whole strength.' This is the second, 'You must love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no other commandment which is greater than these." The expert in the law said to him, "Teacher, you have in truth spoken well, because God is one, and there is no other except him, and to love him with your whole heart, and your whole understanding, and your whole strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is better than all burnt-offerings of whole victims and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." And no one any longer dared to ask him any questions.

No love was lost between the expert in the law and the Sadducees. The profession of the scribes was to interpret the law in all its many rules and regulations. Their trade was to know and to apply the oral law, while, as we have seen, the Sadducee did not accept the oral law at all. The expert in the law would no doubt be well satisfied with the discomfiture of the Sadducees.

This scribe came to Jesus with a question which was often a matter of debate in the rabbinic schools. In Judaism there was a kind of double tendency. There was the tendency to expand the law limitlessly into hundreds and thousands of rules and regulations. But there was also the tendency to try to gather up the law into one sentence, one general statement which would be a compendium of its whole message. Hillel was once asked by a proselyte to instruct him in the whole law while he stood on one leg. Hillel's answer was, "What thou hatest for thyself, do not to thy neighbour. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary. Go and learn." Akiba had already said, "'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself'--this is the greatest, general principle in the law." Simon the Righteous had said, "On three things stands the world--on the law, on the worship, and on works of love."

Sammlai had taught that Moses received 613 precepts on Mount Sinai, 365 according to the days of the sun year, and 248 according to the generations of men. David reduced the 613 to 11 in Psalms 15:1-5 .

Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent? who shall dwell on thy holy

hill?

1. He who walks blamelessly.

2. And does what is right.

3. And speaks truth from his heart.

4. Who does not slander with his tongue.

5. And does no evil to his friend.

6. Nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour.

7. In whose eyes a reprobate is despised.

8. But who honours those who fear the Lord.

9. Who swears to his own heart and does not change.

10. Who does not put out his money at interest.

11. And does not take a bribe against the innocent.

Isaiah reduced them to 6. (Isaiah 33:15.)

1. He who walks righteously.

2. And speaks uprightly.

3. Who despises the gain of oppressions.

4. Who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe.

5. Who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed.

6. And shuts his eyes from looking upon evil.

He shall dwell on high.

Micah reduced the 6 to 3. (Micah 6:8.)

He hath showed thee, O man, what is good, and what doth the

Lord require of thee?

1. To do justice.

2. To love kindness.

3. To walk humbly with your God.

Once again Isaiah brought the 3 down to 2. (Isaiah 56:1.)

1. Keep justice.

2. Do righteousness.

Finally Habakkuk reduced them all to one. (Habakkuk 2:4.)

The righteous shall live by his faith.

It can be seen that rabbinic ingenuity did try to contract as well as to expand the law. There were really two schools of thought. There were those who believed that there were lighter and weightier matters of the law, that there were great principles which were all-important to grasp. As Augustine later said, "Love God--and do what you like." But there were others who were much against this, who held that every smallest principle was equally binding and that to try to distinguish between their relative importance was highly dangerous. The expert who asked Jesus this question was asking about something which was a living issue in Jewish thought and discussion.

For answer Jesus took two great commandments and put them together.

(i) "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." That single sentence is the real creed of Judaism (Deuteronomy 6:4). It had three uses. It is called the Shema. Shema is the imperative of the Hebrew verb to hear (compare Hebrew #8085), and it is so called from the first word in the sentence.

(a) It was the sentence with which the service of the synagogue always began and still begins. The full Shema is Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, Numbers 15:37-41. It is the declaration that God is the only God, the foundation of Jewish monotheism.

(b) The three passages of the Shema were contained in the phylacteries (Matthew 23:5), little leather boxes which the devout Jew wore on his forehead and on his wrist when he was at prayer. As he prayed he reminded himself of his creed. His warrant for wearing phylacteries he found in Deuteronomy 6:8.

(c) The Shema was contained in a little cylindrical box called the Mezuzah (compare Hebrew #4201) which was and still is affixed to the door of every Jewish house and the door of every room within it, to remind the Jew of God in his going out and his coming in.

When Jesus quoted this sentence as the first commandment, every devout Jew would agree with him.

(ii) "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." That is a quotation from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus did one thing with it. In its original context it has to do with a man's fellow Jew. It would not have included the Gentile, whom it was quite permissible to hate. But Jesus quoted it without qualification and without limiting boundaries. He took an old law and fined it with a new meaning.

The new thing that Jesus did was to put these two commandments together. No rabbi had ever done that before. There is only one suggestion of connection previously. Round about 100 B.C. there was composed a series of tractates called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, in which an unknown writer put into the mouths of the patriarchs some very fine teaching. In The Testament of Issachar (5:2) we read:

"Love the Lord and love your neighbour,

Have compassion on the poor and weak."

In the same testament (7:6) we read:

"I loved the Lord,

Likewise also every man with my whole heart."

In The Testament of Dan (Daniel 5:3) we read:

"Love the Lord through all your life,

And one another with a true heart"

But no one until Jesus put the two commandments together and made them one. Religion to him was loving God and loving men. He would have said that the only way in which a man can prove that he loves God is by showing that he loves men.

The scribe willingly accepted this, and went on to say that such a love was better than all sacrifices. In that he was in line with the highest thought of his people. Long, long ago Samuel had said, "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." (1 Samuel 15:22.) Hosea had heard God say, "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice." (Hosea 6:6.)

But it is always easy to let ritual take the place of love. It is always easy to let worship become a matter of the Church building instead of a matter of the whole life. The priest and the levite could pass by the wounded traveller because they were eager to get on with the ritual of the temple. This scribe had risen beyond his contemporaries and that is why he found himself in sympathy with Jesus.

There must have been a look of love in Jesus' eyes, and a look of appeal as he said to him, "You have gone so far. Will you not come further and accept my way of things? Then you will be a true citizen of the Kingdom."

THE SON OF DAVID (Mark 12:35-37 a)

12:35-37a While Jesus was teaching in the sacred precincts, he said, "How can the experts in the law say that God's Anointed One is the Son of David? David himself, moved by the Holy Spirit, said, 'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.' David himself calls him Lord. And how then can he be his son?"

For us this is a difficult passage to understand, because it uses thoughts and methods of argument which are strange to us. But it would not be at all difficult for the crowd who heard it in the Temple precincts in Jerusalem, for they were well accustomed to just such ways of arguing and of using scripture.

We may begin by noting one thing which helps to make the passage clearer. The Revised Standard Version translates Mark 12:35, "How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David." In the early parts of the New Testament Christ is never a proper name, as nowadays it has come to be. It has in fact in this passage the definite article before it and so is translated the Christ. Christos (Greek #5547) and Messiah (Hebrew #4899, compare Greek #3323) are the Greek and the Hebrew for the same word, and both mean the Anointed One. The reason for the use of the title is that in ancient times a man was made king by being anointed with oil--still a part of our own coronation ceremony. Christos (Greek #5547) and Messiah (Hebrew #4899) then both mean God's Anointed King, the great one who is to come from God to save his people. So when Jesus asks, "How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?" he is not directly referring to himself. He is really saying, "How can the scribes say that God's Anointed King who is to come is the Son of David?"

The argument which Jesus puts forward in support is this. He quotes Psalms 110:1 --"The Lord says to my Lord sit at my right hand." The Jews at this time assumed that all the Psalms came from the hand of David. They also held that this Psalm referred to the coming Messiah. In this verse David refers to this coming one as his Lord. How, asks Jesus, if he be his son can David address him by the title of Lord?

What is Jesus seeking to teach here? Of all titles for the Messiah the commonest was Son of David. At all times the Jews looked forward to a God-sent deliverer who would be of David's line. (Isaiah 9:2-7, Isaiah 11:1-9, Jeremiah 23:5 ff, Jeremiah 33:14-18, Ezekiel 34:23 ff, Ezekiel 37:24, Psalms 89:20 ff.) It was by that title that Jesus himself was often addressed, especially by the crowds (Mark 10:47 ff, Matthew 9:27, Matthew 12:23, Matthew 15:22, Matthew 21:9; Matthew 21:15). All through the New Testament the conviction that Jesus was in fact the son of David in his physical descent occurs (Romans 1:3, 2 Timothy 2:8, Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38). The genealogies of Jesus given in the passages from Matthew and Luke which we have cited are to show that Jesus was in fact of the lineage of David. What Jesus is doing is this--he is not denying that the Messiah is the Son of David, nor is he saying that he himself is not the Son of David. What he is saying is that he is the Son of David--and far more, not only David's son but David's Lord.

The trouble was that the title Son of David had got itself inextricably entangled with the idea of a conquering Messiah. It had got involved in political and nationalistic hopes and dreams, aims and ambitions. Jesus was saying that the title Son of David, as it was popularly used, is a quite inadequate description of himself. He was Lord. This word Lord (the Greek kurios, Greek #2962) is the regular translation of Yahweh (Hebrew #3068; Hebrew #3069) (Jehovah) in the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures. Always its use would turn men's thoughts to God. What Jesus was saying was that he came not to found any earthly kingdom but to bring men God.

Jesus is doing here what he so constantly tried to do. He is trying to take from men's minds their idea of a conquering warrior Messiah who would found an earthly empire, and seeking to put into them the idea of a Messiah who would be the servant of God and bring to men the love of God.

THE WRONG KIND OF RELIGION (Mark 12:37 b-40)

12:37b-40 The mass of the people listened to him with pleasure. And in his teaching he said, "Beware of the experts in the law, who like to walk about in flowing robes, and who like greetings in the market-places, and the front seats in the synagogue, and the places of highest honour at meals, men who devour widows' houses, and who, in pretence, pray at great length. These will receive a more abundant condemnation."

The first sentence of this passage most probably goes with this section and not, as in the Revised Standard Version, with the passage which goes before. The verse divisions of the New Testament were first inserted by Stephanus in the sixteenth century. It was said that he put them in while riding from his house to his printing factory. They are by no means always the most suitable divisions, and this seems to be one requiring change. It is far more likely that the mass of the people listened with pleasure to a denunciation of the scribes than they did to a theological argument. There are certain minds to which invective is always attractive.

In this passage Jesus makes a series of charges against the scribes. They liked to walk about in flowing robes. A long robe which swept the ground was the sign of a notable. It was the kind of robe in which no one could either hurry or work, and was the sign of the leisured man of honour. It may be that the phrase has another meaning. In obedience to Numbers 15:38 the Jews wore tassels at the edge of their outer robe. These tassels were to remind them that they were the people of God. Quite possibly these legal experts wore outsize tassels for special prominence (compare Matthew 23:5). At all events they liked to dress in such a way that it drew attention to themselves and to the honour they enjoyed.

They liked greetings in the market-place. The scribes loved to be greeted with honour and with respect. The very title Rabbi means "My great one." To be so addressed was agreeable to their vanity.

They liked the front seats in the synagogue. In the synagogue, in front of the ark where the sacred volumes were kept and facing the congregation, there was a bench where the specially distinguished sat. It had the advantage that no one who sat there could possibly be missed, being in full view of the admiring congregation.

They liked the highest places at feasts. At feasts precedence was strictly fixed. The first place was that on the right of the host, the second that on the left of the host, and so on, alternating right and left, round the table. It was easy to tell the honour in which a man was held by the place at which he sat.

They devoured widows' houses. This is a savage charge. Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, says of certain times of intrigue in Jewish history, that "the Pharisees valued themselves highly upon their exact skill in the law of their fathers, and made men believe that they (the Pharisees) were highly favoured by God," and that "they inveigled" certain women into their schemes and plottings. The idea behind this seems to be this. An expert in the law could take no pay for his teaching. He was supposed to have a trade by which he earned his daily bread. But these legal experts had managed to convey to people that there was no higher duty and privilege than to support a rabbi in comfort, that, in fact such support would undoubtedly entitle him or her who gave it to a high place in the heavenly academy. It is a sad fact that women have always been imposed upon by religious charlatans, and it would seem that these scribes and Pharisees imposed on simple people who could ill afford to support them.

The long prayers of the scribes and Pharisees were notorious. It has been said that the prayers were not so much offered to God as offered to men. They were offered in such a place and in such a way that no one could fail to see how pious they were who offered them.

This passage, as stern as Jesus ever spoke, warns against three things.

(i) It warns against the desire for prominence. It is still true that many a man accepts office in the church because he thinks he has earned it, rather than because he desires to render selfless service to the house and the people of God. Men may still regard office in the church as a privilege rather than a responsibility.

(ii) It warns against the desire for deference. Almost everyone likes to be treated with respect. And yet a basic fact of Christianity is that it ought to make a man wish to obliterate self rather than to exalt it. There is a story of a monk in the old days, a very holy man, who was sent to take up office as abbot in a monastery. He looked so humble a person that, when he arrived, he was sent to work in the kitchen as a scullion, because no one recognized him. Without a word of protest and with no attempt to take his position, he went and washed the dishes and did the most menial tasks. It was only when the bishop arrived a considerable time later that the mistake was discovered and the humble monk took up his true position. The man who enters upon office for the respect which will be given to him has begun in the wrong way, and cannot, unless he changes, ever be in any sense the servant of Christ and of his fellow-men.

(iii) It warns against the attempt to make a traffic of religion. It is still possible to use religious connections for self-gain and self-advancement. But this is a warning to all who are in the church for what they can get out of it and not for what they can put into it.

THE GREATEST GIFT (Mark 12:41-44)

12:41-44 When Jesus had sat down opposite the treasury, he was watching how the crowd threw their money into the treasury, and many rich people threw in large sums. A poor widow woman came and threw in two mites which make up half a farthing. He called his disciples and said to them, "This is the truth I tell you--this poor widow woman has thrown in more than an the people who threw money into the treasury, for all of them threw their contributions in out of their abundance, but she out of her lack has thrown in everything that she had, all she had to live on."

Between the Court of the Gentiles and the Court of the Women there was the Gate Beautiful. It may well be that Jesus had gone to sit quietly there after the argument and the tension of the Court of the Gentiles and the discussions in the cloisters. In the Court of the Women there were thirteen collecting boxes called "The Trumpets," because they were so shaped. Each of them was for a special purpose, for instance to buy corn or wine or off for the sacrifices. They were for contributions for the daily sacrifices and expenses of the Temple. Many people threw in quite considerable contributions. Then came a widow. She flung in two mites. The coin so called was a lepton (Greek #3016), which literally means a thin one. It was the smallest of all coins and was worth one fortieth of one pence. And yet Jesus said that her tiny contribution was greater than all the others, for the others had thrown in what they could spare easily enough and still have plenty left, while the widow had flung in everything she had.

Here is a lesson in giving:

(i) Real giving must be sacrificial. The amount of the gift never matters so much as its cost to the giver, not the size of the gift, but the sacrifice. Real generosity gives until it hurts. For many of us it is a real question if ever our giving to God's work is any sacrifice at all. Few people will do without their pleasures to give a little more to the work of God. It may well be a sign of the decadence of the church and the failure of our Christianity that gifts have to be coaxed out of church people, and that often they will not give at all unless they get something back in the way of entertainment or of goods. There can, be few of us who read this story without shame.

(ii) Real giving has a certain recklessness in it. The woman might have kept one coin. It would not have been much but it would have been something, yet she gave everything she had. There is a great symbolic truth here. It is our tragedy that there is so often some part of our lives, some part of our activities, some part of ourselves which we do not give to Christ. Somehow there is nearly always something we hold back. We rarely make the final sacrifice and the final surrender.

(iii) It is a strange and lovely thing that the person whom the New Testament and Jesus hand down to history as a pattern of generosity was a person who gave a gift of half a farthing. We may feel that we have not much in the way of material gifts or personal gifts to give to Christ, but, if we put all that we have and are at his disposal, he can do things with it and with us that are beyond our imaginings.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Mark 12:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/mark-12.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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