Mark 12:35-44

Jesus Engages with Scribes (2) – The Messiah in the Tradition

Mark 12:35-37 – Who is the Messiah?

35 While he was teaching in the temple, Jesus said to them,
“How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?

Jesus’ adversaries withdrew, so Jesus himself took the initiative, raising the question of the status of the Messiah, the Christ. He wished obviously to further clarify people’s understanding of his mission. Mark gave no indication whom Jesus was addressing. Presumably it was the crowds milling around him in the open temple area.

With some reluctance Jesus had acceded to the enthusiasm of the crowd that welcomed him into the city on the previous Sunday. Their mention of our father David had betrayed an expectation of the restoration of the original legitimate monarchy. Jesus wished to scotch completely such an idea.

So he asked about the assertion by some scribes that the Messiah/Christ/King would be a Son of David

Rabbinic debate relied on the clever use of scripture. In the honour/debt code of Israel, debate encouraged more the smart answer than the totally convincing one. Jesus’ comment fell more into the category of smart answer:

36 David himself said under inspiration of the holy Spirit,
’The Lord said to my lord,
‘Sit on my right hand
while I put your enemies under your feet’.
37 David calls him his lord. How can he be his son?”

Using scripture, Jesus pointed out the impossibility of the Christ being a descendant (son) of David, and by implication a political king. The whole Davidic institution is indeed subordinate to that of the genuine Messiah.

Jesus cited Psalm 110.1.  (At the time of Jesus, people generally believed that David had composed all the psalms.) In the opening verse of the psalm the psalmist (= David) had spoken of God (reverentially called the Lord) promising victory to his Christ. In that same verse, David had called the Christ my Lord. The point of Jesus’ argument was that David would not have referred to his own son as my Lord; so therefore the Christ could not be Son of David.

Once and for all Jesus wished to make it abundantly clear that, in proclaiming and ushering in the Kingdom of God, he was not speaking in institutional terms. Jesus had no pretensions to political power. God’s Kingdom permeated but did not take shape in specific institutions; it provided rather a point of inspiration or of critique.

The whole crowd listened with pleasure.

The crowd’s response may have been due simply to the fact that Jesus had made an obviously smart argument. It may also have meant that they were in favour of Jesus’ conclusion: they too may have been fed up with Israelite monarchy, legitimate or illegitimate (like Herod), and were not interested in its restoration.

Jesus Engages with Scribes (3) – The Exploitative System is Rejected

Mark 12:38-44 – The Scribal System Devours the Poor

38 In the course of his teaching Jesus said,
“Look out for those scribes who like
strutting about in long robes
and being greeted in the town squares,
39 who like the front seats in the synagogues
and the places of honour at dinners. 
40 They consume the homes of widows
and they pray at length just for show.  
They will receive severe condemnation.”

It is always a professional hazard that some with an important role in a society expect the respect due to the role to accrue to them personally. Some of the scribes were no exception. In a theocratic state, their role was significant. They were the professional interpreters of religious law.

Jesus strongly criticised those among them who let the importance of their role go to their heads. He singled out for particular criticism their power over the poor. For spurious reasons of piety they encouraged the poor to contribute well beyond their means to the wealth of the temple: They consume the homes of widows.

41 He sat down opposite the treasury,
and was noticing how the crowd was putting money into the treasury.  
A number of rich people put in large amounts.

The Book of Nehemiah states that the primary producers among the Jews had the responsibility of paying annually a tenth of their first fruits (10:35-39). The purpose of this accumulation of goods was the material support of the Levites (who had been allocated no land of their own). One tenth of this amount was brought by the Levites to the temple as a store for all against lean years. The system of payment in kind had quickly become cumbersome. As currency had become more widely used, people had paid their tithes in money. Every Jew had the responsibility of paying the annual temple tax of half a shekel. Even Jews dispersed throughout the diaspora took seriously their responsibility of supporting the temple. Some who visited the capital made a point of paying on that occasion. In an honour-based social system, ostentatious generosity was an easy means to gain prestige. Over time those with control of the temple treasury tended to look after their own interests, and the chief priests among them became quite wealthy.

42 A poor widow came along and put in two small coins amounting to a quadrans.
43 He summoned the disciples around him
and said to them, “I am telling you clearly,
that poor woman has put in more than all the others making their contributions;
44 for they have all been contributing from their surplus,
whereas she, in her poverty, has put in all she had,
her whole livelihood.”

The persuasive and obviously successful incentives to piety exercised by those running the temple disgusted Jesus. His comment was not a commendation of the poor woman, generous as she was, but a cry of distress at the exploitation she suffered at the hands of the professionals.

This interpretation makes sense of the previous condemnation of the scribes who consume the homes of widows. Mark’s juxtaposition of the incidents was deliberate.

Other commentators would see in the incident a commendation of the woman’s generosity, her giving all she had. Some would interpret her contribution as a foreshadowing of the total gift that Jesus was soon to make of himself in his death. However, its placing by Mark at such a distance from Jesus’ arrest and execution would advise against this reading.

Next >> Mark 13:1-23