Taking on the religious guardians (Mark 12)

Jesus’ opponents were looking for an excuse to have Jesus arrested.  Here in his last week, Mark puts the focus on their attempts to trap him.  I guess that in a sense 12:1-12 forms a kind of invitation to “bring it on.” Jesus tells a parable which might also be seen as a figurative retelling of the history of Israel. The Vineyard represents the kingdom of Israel/Kingdom of God’s people.  The tenants represent the leaders of Israel/The Jews, especially the religious leaders and the servants are the prophets.  Jesus is the Son who comes from the Father, he too will be rejected and killed leading to the judgement of the wicked tenants (religious leaders).

Different groups and factions among the leadership take turns to try and trap Jesus.  Mentioned here

  • The Pharisees: a populist sect who believed that if the people purified themselves then God would come to rescue them from Rome and establish the true King.
  • The Herodians: those who sought to align politically with King Herod and be implication with the Romans.
  • The Sadducees: stronger among the ruling classes/Sanhedrin which also tended towards compromise with the occupiers. The Sadducees did not accept all of the writings and prophecies as Scripture and did not believe in a physical resurrection of the dead.

Not mentioned are The Essenes -a monastic sect that saw the Jerusalem leadership as corrupt and so set up their own rival Temple in the desert at Qumran. Additionally, there were various Zealot groups seeking to overthrow the Romans by political revolution and violence.

The Pharisees and Herodians make for a peculiar alliance therefore when they seek to trap Jesus by getting him to choose between Israel/Yahweh and Rome. In response to their question about taxes he asks to see a coin. They bring him one.  By getting them to say whose head is on the inscription he is getting them to recognise that they have already placed themselves under Caesar’s rule and influence.  The challenge to give to God what belongs to him is a reminder that we in fact owe everything to Him (12:13-17).

The Sadducees come with a riddle based on the law of Levirate marriage from Deuteronomy. If a wife was widowed, then the younger brother was required to take her husband’s place to ensure continuation of the family line. So, what if in turn a serious of brothers die? Who is the woman’s husband after the resurrection? Well, this is a bit of a fallacy anyway because the point of the law is that the Levirate acts in place of the original husband to continue his line. Further, Jesus points that marriage is for life now, after the resurrection it is not needed because we are together as the bride of Christ. However, of course, they aren’t really interested in a true answer. They are trying to get Jesus to say something silly, to look foolish. They don’t believe in resurrection. Jesus gets to the real heart of the matter -they don’t really believe in God, his word and the power of his word (12:18-27).

Another person challenges with a question about prioritising Laws. It seems he is at the same time genuinely seeking because Jesus says that he is close to the kingdom. Jesus responds that the greatest commandment is to love God whole heartedly because this sums up the purpose of the Law (12:28-34).

Jesus challenges them back with a question about the ancestry of the Christ/Messiah. How can he be a descendent of David if he is greater? Of course, it is only because he is fully God as well as fully man that this can be true (12:35-37).

Jesus warns that the religious leaders are dangerous. They are abusers of power and he describes them as “devouring widows.” It seems that they found ways to take advantage of the vulnerable, presumably looking to them for financial support.  So, it is fascinating that Mark places in contrast with the grasping scribes a poor vulnerable widow who gives everything she has as worship to God (12:38-40).

It’s sometimes suggested that Jesus is skilfully ducking the traps and not getting drawn in. However, remember that Jesus knew that his hour had come. Look closely and you will see that rather than finding a way to avoid the answers, Jesus is ready to be far more provocative than even the original questioners assumed.

Big Theme: The difference between the Gospel and legalistic religion

Questions to consider:

  1. Are there people/groups of people that represent the wicked tenants in today’s culture and/or the church?
  2. How does Jesus’ response to the Sadducees affect our approach to teaching on and pastoral care for people in terms of marriage and singleness?
  3. Who would we be most identifiable with: the scribes or the widow?
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