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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 12

A Parable Against the Tenants (11:27-12:12)

Israel had been called by God to be a light to the nations. The Holy City had been designed to be a magnet to draw the tribes of men. The Temple had been established as God’s dwelling and therefore the sanctuary for all peoples (Mark 11:17). The priests, scribes, and elders (vs. 27) had been appointed to welcome foreigners and outcasts in the name of the Lord (Isaiah 56:6-8). The Messiah had been sent to bring to realization all these things. But was he the Messiah? That was the key to everything else. The guardians of Israel were duty-bound to raise the question, "Who gave you this authority . . . ?" (vs. 28). Why did Jesus not give a direct answer? We do not know. Perhaps it was because recognition of his authority must come from God and therefore from the heart. As usual he turned the burden of proof upon the questioners. What about John? Or rather, what about his baptism? Obviously Jesus knew that the authority for this baptism was from heaven (Mark 9:13). But did the Temple leaders know it? They pled agnostic neutrality (vs. 33). Actually they had denied God’s initiative in John’s work of preparing a highway in the desert (Mark 1:2-3).

It is an interesting lesson in the varieties of language to examine the subsequent story as a precisely parallel teaching (though in vastly different idiom). The paragraph we have just read is a pronouncement story, a narrative whose purpose is to give a trenchant pronouncement. The next paragraph is a parable, an imaginative story about something that happened once upon a time. Yet Jesus addressed the same company, and the thrust of his message was much the same. For they had rejected his authority and in rejecting him had rejected the God who sent him. Actually in its form the story is closer to allegory than to parable, for almost every detail has an algebraic equivalent. The people of God are now represented by the vineyard, a usage quite common in Scripture. God is the man who had planted this vineyard (Mark 12:1) and had given it all it needed to produce a harvest. The tenants are those stewards to whom God had entrusted the vineyard’s care and who had accepted the task of producing the harvest — in other words, the leaders of Israel. But the benefits had not come to God; they had been embezzled by his appointed leaders. They no longer recognized the owner of Israel, nor did they concede that Israel belonged to him. When God sent messengers (his servants the prophets) to collect his share of the harvest, the tenants had skeptically asked, "By what authority . . . ?" (Mark 11:28). With the sending at last of the Son, they argued that with him out of the way there would be no further challenge to their position. They would become in fact the sole owners. So they killed him (Jesus, of course) and cast him out of the vineyard (of this, the Crucifixion outside the city wall was a symbol). This is the story of the vineyard, but it parallels the debate with the priests (Mark 11:27-33), the cleansing of the Temple, and the blasting of the fig tree. In fact, it is a sharply etched summary of the story of Jesus, yes, even of the story of Israel from beginning to end.

"What will the owner of the vineyard do?" He will not touch the vineyard itself. His people are holy. Has God rejected them? No (Romans 11:1). The love of God for them will force him to save them from their leaders. One set of tenants will be destroyed. in spite of the obvious fact that they had succeeded in their declaration of independence. Had they not killed the Son? Yes, but his death will be reversed by his resurrection. Or, in the language of the Psalm, which substitutes the picture of a temple for that of a vineyard, God will choose as the cornerstone a block of stone which the masons had thrown away (Psalms 118:22-23; 1 Peter 2:7). Every story in this section thus became for Christian readers a tiny etching of the longer Passion Story which would follow.

Traps Set for the Son (12:13-13:2)

According to the allegory the farmers simply killed the son whom the owner had sent. But that is a figurative summary of the whole story. Actually, this murder took place over several months, if not years, and had its source in their deafness to his message. Mark, however, detects a trap in every altercation over Jesus’ teaching, a trap set for the purpose of destroying him, a trap which in fact succeeded, in that they accomplished his death, and yet failed, in that he used each trap as an opportunity to teach God’s will. The scribes used three traps (Mark 12:13-34); in rebuttal their quarry launched several attacks upon them (Mark 12:35-44). At least this was the order in which Mark arranged this last debate between Jesus and the "tenants."

The first trap was dexterously laid. The Herodians as supporters of the Roman puppet were eager to get evidence of treason against Caesar. The Pharisees as spokesmen for God and his Law wanted to alienate Jesus from loyal Jews who rejected the sovereignty of the emperor. If Jesus said, "Pay the taxes," he would be a traitor to Israel; if he said, "Do not pay," he would commit treason against Rome. Either answer would destroy him. Jesus, however, proved even more adept at setting traps. "Bring me a coin," he said. He put them on the defensive, for they were Jews who carried money on which the image of Caesar was inscribed. They were self-confessed idolaters. Moreover, the image proved that this money was coined by the emperor and therefore belonged to him. They had answered their own question, and were caught in their own trap. But this was more than a matter of adroit dodging. With his final command, "Render to Caesar . . . and to God," Jesus forced them to decide for themselves which things belong to one king or to the other. This is in truth the demand of God, compelling man to determine for himself the proper ownership of everything, down to each penny. In the preceding parable Jesus had made clear how this decision had already been made by his antagonists (Mark 12:1-12). What belongs to God? Jesus gave his own verdict by giving his life. It proved quite impossible to trap such a man, and equally impossible to avoid his trap.

The Sadducees set a different kind of trap, one which dealt with speculation concerning life after death. They had often challenged the scribes with this riddle, because the Sadducees denied the existence of such life while the Pharisees defended it. Both appealed to the Pentateuch as final authority. If there is an existence after death — an unlikely possibility, according to the Sadducees — what will be the situation for a woman who had, in accordance with Mosaic prescriptions (Deuteronomy 25:5), become in turn the wife of seven husbands, and the widow of all seven? "Whose wife will she be?" The Pharisees had never been quite able to meet this dilemma, for obvious reasons.

Jesus’ answer is still not intelligible to those who base their arguments and conjectures on the same grounds. These grounds, he insisted, reflect ignorance both of the Scriptures and of God’s power (vs. 24). Faith in life after death emerges out of a direct knowledge of God’s power rather than out of human egoism. Resurrection is not to be confused with reanimation, nor is life in heaven to be confused with life on earth. Resurrection means transformation. The Apostle Paul later gave perhaps the most adequate clues to the radical changes which are wrought in that transformation (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). Death will involve the change from one glory to another, from one body to another, each given according to God’s purpose. When men become "like angels in heaven" (vs. 25), their whole being will be transfigured (Mark 9:2-3; Revelation 7:9-17). The cleverness of the Sadducees ignored God’s power to accomplish such things. Worse than this, they denied that God himself is alive, that is, that he is the very ground of life. Because he lives, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob also live. In his livingness and theirs, men may find the starting point for their thinking. Where God lives, there live also all who belong to him. Faith in the resurrection rests on personal knowledge of this life and this power. The passing of time, therefore, does not increase the distance from the dead patriarchs; rather they are alive in the present. Their resurrection is reality; men should begin to reason about such matters by recognizing that reality.

One of the scribes, a Pharisaic opponent of the Sadducees, approved this answer (vs. 28). He therefore posed a question on which many rabbis had been deliberating. What is the best summary of all the laws? When we list all of the divine commandments, which should be placed at the head of the list, as including all the others? Jesus did not evade this question, because it was entirely legitimate. His answer was explicit and direct. Moreover, this scribe approved Jesus’ ruling, and Jesus approved his approval (vs. 34) . In the midst of debates, even in the shadow of bitter conflict, there emerged this point of agreement between the Son and the tenants of the vineyard. Mark did not want the Roman disciples, embroiled in the same conflict, to forget that Church and synagogue belonged to the same Israel. They were addressed by the same God, and they affirmed loyalty to his commandments. Only in one respect did Jesus qualify his approval : "not far from the kingdom." How far was this? As far as the rich man in Mark 10:22? As far as the scribes of Mark 12:38-40? Or as near as the widow in Mark 12:44? Or as far as the verbal recognition of the first law is from its embodiment in love? With Jesus’ example before him, Mark seems to be saying to his readers in Rome: "You should not be too eager to deny that your enemies may love God. At any moment you may meet a scribe like this, ready to be instructed in the Kingdom" (Matthew 13:52; Acts 23:9). This message is in fact the same as that taught a little later by Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43).

Mark says nothing more about this scribe; he quickly turns to another item of debate with the scribes. They recognized that the Messiah was to be the Son of David, for the Scriptures had taught it very plainly (Psalms 18:49-50; Amos 9:11-12; Isaiah 9:2-7). But Jesus appealed to David himself as the traditional author of the Psalms. David had been guided by the Holy Spirit, who inspired the prophets, to call the Messiah not only "son," but much more significantly "Lord." This became a favorite text among the Christians, for it indicated many things about their Master: his succession to David’s place, his power over his enemies, his priesthood, his throne on Mount Zion (Psalms 110; see also Matthew 22:44; Luke 20:42-43; Acts 2:34; Hebrews 1:13; Hebrews 5:6). Now in the very city of David, when the prophecy was fulfilled, the scribes could not discern his hidden authority as David’s Lord. Reliance on the Scripture had aggravated their blindness.

On a number of occasions in earlier chapters Jesus had cautioned his disciples against the leaven of the scribes (Mark 8:15). Now again he has his students in mind. What made such a warning necessary? If we itemize the faults of these men, only one is obviously wrong: the devouring of the houses of helpless widows- and even this meal was fully enjoyed within the Law and without conscious cruelty. The other faults are far less terrible. One seems a perfectly laudable desire — to deserve the dignified long robes of respected leadership, the ceremonious greetings of the less noble citizenry, the seats set aside in the churches for prominent members, the places of honor at banquets. Is there any society which does not grant these recognitions, or which does not encourage the desire for them? "Long prayers" seem to be the rule in every religious company. Who is there who, if he prays at all, is guiltless? And who is free of the element of pretense? Yes, if these things are terrible, then Jesus was wise in warning his disciples. In mentioning the scribes, he chose not the worst but the best individuals in the life of Israel, and looking squarely at his followers said, "Beware." In this case as in others, Jesus measured uncleanness not by external righteousness but by the wishes and words which spring from the heart (Mark 7:14-23 ) .

He measured money with the same scales. He noticed that the rich men subscribed large sums to the Temple budget. Was this wealth the profit from foreclosed mortgages on widows’ homes? What did it say about their hearts? And he noticed the widow who quietly and almost secretly put in her last coin. Was she the one who had been robbed? Even that is unimportant to Jesus. For he measured the gift by the giver’s heart. By those scales, the penny was a larger sum than the rest of the budget. Is this poetic exaggeration? Or is it God’s disclosure of what money means to him?

Having deflated the value of the currency, Jesus turned to the deflation of the most sacred building itself. In a sense this is the climax of his debates with the scribes and priests. His authority exceeded that of the vineyard owner of 12:9. He knew the power of God and therefore the truth of the resurrection (Mark 12:24-27). He was the Lord; in serving him every scribe must seek the last place rather than the first (Mark 10:35-45; Mark 12:35-39). He was a widow’s son, whose poverty cheapened all the gifts of rich men. But what now about his evaluation of the Temple itself?

We have mentioned the Temple’s sacredness and its holiness. We recall how old it was — more than nine centuries. We should recall how gigantic and impressive it was, with huge stone buildings, set in an immense square courtyard, surrounded by thick walls, on the summit of the hill. Nothing in the landscape of Jesus’ day could match it for splendor, for strength, for permanence. All this must have been in their eyes when the disciples said, "Look, Teacher." But there was something else, too. This Temple with its vast resources was their enemy. It would soon be instrumental in killing the Messiah and his Apostles. It would continue to be the stronghold of resistance to the Church. Within its courts the word of the chief priests was law, at least so long as the Roman governor did not countermand it. Who, then, can fight against such massive power, such agelong prestige, such holiness? (compare Revelation 13:1-10). Yet this very Man, this layman among the professional churchmen, this poor man whose only power was that of meekness, chose to fight against it. He uttered a curse much more explicit than the blasting of the fig tree, much less enigmatic than the story of the vineyard: "There will not be left here one stone upon another." It was this prophetic woe which would soon play an important role in his trial and condemnation (Mark 14:58; Mark 15:29; John 2:19).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 12". "Layman's Bible Commentary".