LAST-WEEK TEACHINGS Mark 12–13
“As He taught, Jesus said, ’Watch out for the teachers of the Law. . . . They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely’ “ (Mark 12:38–40).Confrontation is sometimes necessary. And at such times often blunt speech is required.
In the temple area, Jesus’ Parable of the Tenants exposed the religious elite (12:1–12), who then failed to trap Him with questions about taxes (vv. 13–17) and the resurrection (vv. 18–27). Jesus named the greatest commandment (vv. 28–34), and to the delight of the crowd silenced His attackers (vv. 35–37). A poor widow’s gift illustrated true piety (vv. 38–44). As Jesus left the temple, He predicted its fall and spoke of the end of the age (13:1–37).
Understanding the Text
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” Mark 12:1–9 The thrust of the allegory was clear to leaders and people. Isaiah had spoken of Israel as God’s vineyard, prepared just as in Jesus’ description (cf. Isa. 5:1–7; Mark 12:1). The situation was also familiar. In the first century most of Judea’s best land was owned by absentee landlords, who leased it to tenant farmers for a percentage of the crop. Much prime land was owned by Herod and his cronies. The fury of such people, should the tenants dare defraud them, could be easily imagined! Jesus’ story identified the current religious leaders as rebellious tenants, who wanted God’s vineyard for themselves. They would soon kill the Son. But they would be punished when the owner returned. The leaders knew Jesus had “spoken the parable against them” (v. 12). They might have taken it as a warning, and repented. Instead they tried even harder to find a way to be rid of Jesus. We need to see all Scripture’s warnings in this light. They are both invitation to repentance, and a stimulus to further sin. How we respond determines whether a warning will bring life, or kill. Let’s not follow the example of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. If we but heed Scripture’s warnings, they become channels of overflowing love and grace. “The stone the builders rejected” Mark 12:10–12. Here Jesus applied Psalm 118:22–23 to Himself. Though rejected by the “builders,” He Himself is the “capstone” of God’s building. The Greek word may mean “foundation-stone,” which anchors a building, or “keystone,” which completes an arch or building. The implication is the same in either case. Jesus is the foundation on which our understanding of Scripture must be constructed. He is the One who enables us to fit together Old and New Testaments in a harmonious whole. No one who approaches Scripture without faith in Jesus as the Son of God can hope to grasp its message, or use it successfully to build his or her own spiritual life. “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” Mark 12:13–17 There’s more than a touch of irony in this story. Many Pharisees were well-to-do, and the Herodians especially had profited greatly from Rome’s domination of Judea. Neither group felt Rome’s taxation as a particular burden. It was the common folk who suffered. Note too that when Jesus answered the question, He had to ask for a denarius. And “they brought the coin.” Jesus’ answer has rightly been understood to call on believers to live as loyal subjects in earthly kingdoms (see Matt. 22, Reading 207). But the interplay also makes it clear that Christ’s accusers had failed to give “to God what is God’s.” We are to be good citizens of both kingdoms. But loyalty to God’s kingdom must have priority. “I am the God of Abraham” Mark 12:18–27. How completely can we trust Scripture? Here Jesus bases His whole argument on the tense of a verb! When God spoke to Moses He said, “I am the God of Abraham.” He did not say, “I was the God of Abraham.” If He had said “was” then God would have confirmed Abraham’s death. Since the Lord said “am,” He confirmed the fact that Abraham still lived! You and I can have total confidence in the trustworthiness of the Word of God. And we can find comfort in the knowledge that our loved ones are not lost, but alive with and in our God. “Not far from the kingdom of God” Mark 12:28–34. What is the Old Testament really about? How can its message be summed up? This question concerned the sages of Judaism, who attempted to sum up the 365 negative and 248 positive statutes they identified in the Old Testament. Hillel, challenged by a Gentile to make him a proselyte by teaching the whole Law while the Gentile stood on one foot, said, “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole law, the rest is commentary; go and learn.” Both the question and the answer reflect a works-righteousness understanding of the Old Testament, as did the common viewpoint that love and sacrifice (interpersonal duty and ritual duty) were the twin pillars on Old Testament thought. But when Jesus was asked to sum up the message of the Old Testament, His answer was, love God supremely, and your neighbor as yourself. And one of the teachers of the Law who heard Him agreed! What a lesson for us. No, not a lesson on the primacy of love, but a reminder that there were godly, spiritually sensitive men in first-century Judaism who were “not far from the kingdom of God.” It’s an error to stereotype all members of any group on the basis of the actions of a visible few. Let’s not characterize anyone by group membership, but let’s seek to know persons as individuals. We may be surprised to find what folks today are also not far from God’s kingdom. “How is it?” Mark 12:35–38 The great claim to spiritual superiority made by the “teachers of the Law” was that they had mastered both Scripture and the complex mass of traditional interpretations that had grown up around it. Ordinary folk, who lacked the time and resources needed to be devoted to study, were contemptuously dismissed as am ha eretz, just “people of the land.” It’s no wonder then that the crowds “listened to [Jesus] with delight” as He raised a question that the experts could not, or dared not, answer. Somehow most people recognize hypocrisy and shame when they see it. The person who is proud of his knowledge of Scripture, but fails to live a righteous and loving life, fools no one but himself. It is far more important for you and me to live what we learn than to be masters of Bible trivia, or even to be theologians of note. “Watch out for the teachers of the Law” Mark 12:38–44. Most preachers today tend to be relatively poor. In the first century, most “teachers of the Law” were well off. For instance, we know of one wealthy rabbi, who not only owned vast lands but also ran a shipping business, who after the fall of Jerusalem was regularly given the tithe to be set aside for the Levites by his neighbors. He didn’t need the money. But it was considered a good deed in early Judaism to contribute to a person who spent his life in study. Jesus warned against those teachers of the Law who paraded themselves openly, whose prayers were a pious show, and whose greed was so great they would “devour widow’s houses”—take money from those who were proverbially needy. Such men, Jesus said, “will be punished most severely.” For contrast Mark immediately reported an incident in which Jesus praised a woman who freely placed her last coins in the treasury. What a study in values. The greedy rich man, who always wanted more, and the poor widow willing to give all. The “great man” viewed with respect by society, and the insignificant woman, held in high regard only by God. While you and I may be neither rich nor poor, our choices are likely to be governed by the values expressed by one of these two. Which of the two will we choose to be most like?
Troubled Times (Mark 13)
Sue said it yesterday. “I think the Lord must be coming soon.” She’d been reading in the paper about drugs, and about students bringing guns to school. Then she got a letter from a friend of ours who counsels sexually abused children and does therapy with the abusers. In the letter our friend mentioned two especially terrible situations. One involved two gay mothers, Satan worshipers, who prostitute their six children for crack cocaine! That was the last gloomy straw for Sue. The Lord must be coming soon, she felt, with our society becoming so corrupt. Mark 13, a complex apocalyptic passage that draws a grim portrait of the future, tells us to expect tragedy and suffering in this world. We’re not to be alarmed by wars or natural disasters (vv. 7–8), or by the corruption of society (v. 12). It’s not these things, but the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy by Daniel, that signifies the end is near (v. 14). And after that, things will get even worse (vv. 15–23). There are, however, three things in Mark 13 intended to encourage us. First, Jesus forewarned us. He knew the terrible things that would happen. God isn’t surprised, and He retains control of history. Second, we’re encouraged by the promise of God’s presence. Even when Christians are actively persecuted for their faith, the Holy Spirit remains with us (v. 11), and will deliver those who endure (v. 13). Third, and most important, Jesus will come again “with great power and glory” (v. 26). In the end, God will set things right. And we’re told to wait, and watch (vv. 33–35). So in a way, Sue rightly interpreted current events. Not that they are predictors of when Jesus will come back. But the horrors we experience remind us that we cannot look to this world for our future. We must look up. And watch.
“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ” (Mark 13:37)
“The truth of the second coming of Christ transformed my whole idea of life; it broke the power of the world and its ambition over me, and filled my life with the most radiant optimism even under the most discouraging of circumstances.”—R.A. Torrey