Mark 11-12

Mark 11:1-11: Jesus is now entering Jerusalem. Much of the material in chapters 11-15 was used by Matthew in his account of Jesus arrival in Jerusalem, trial and death. I will, then, be repeating some of the comments I made about those passages here. Entry processions were important occasions during the time of Jesus. Rome was good at pomp and circumstance, and their imperial processions reflected their power and prestige. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book The Last Week (which follows Mark’s gospel through these days) propose that there were two processions entering Jerusalem that day, one an imperial procession in which Pontius Pilate rode into the city to reinforce Roman rule during Passover week and one, the procession with Jesus riding on a donkey. Jesus ride is a distinct contrast to an imperial procession – which may have been taking place in another part of town. Here there is spontaneous joy at the arrival of Jesus. There is a sense of anticipation that something wonderful will happen. Again, one might contrast this with a sense of fear and foreboding that may have accompanied the imperial procession. Here are a few lines from Crossan and Borg’s book: Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is central… to the story of Jesus and early Christianity (p. 4-5). Jesus is taking his work and message about God’s dream for the world into the heart of a city that embodied Roman domination and a Jewish collaboration with that system. Given the conflict between Jesus and both religious and political authorities to this point in Mark, you have to wonder how the authorities might deal with this wandering teacher and healer who arrives in Jerusalem with shouts of “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Like Jesus, we are invited to bring good news about God’s love into difficult places, sharing a message that will sometimes challenge the way things are. Where are some of those places in your life or in our world today?

Mark 11:12-14: This is a rather strange story, but Mark uses it in conjunction with the story of the disruption at the Temple. In Mark’s telling, Jesus comes to the fig tree looking for figs because he is hungry. There was nothing but leaves, but it was not the season for figs! Nevertheless, Jesus is disturbed and behaves petulantly, cursing the tree by saying “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Mark’s additional note that it was not fig season is an indication that we should read this story parabolically and symbolically. Jesus was hoping for, expecting fruit but did not find it – is there something here related to his concern for the Temple?

Mark 11:15-19: While the narrative in Mark, where Jesus disrupts Temple activity seems to indicate he shut down the entire enterprise, in all likelihood, his action was more prophetic, parabolic and symbolic. It would have been impossible for one person to shut down all the activity. Jesus did enough to disrupt some of the activity and make his point – this place was not producing the kind of spiritual fruit that it should. Perhaps Jesus was objecting to the commercial activity present in the Temple, but probably not that in itself. He may have objected to the way such activity could obscure or get in the way of ordinary people’s connection to God, hence his concern for the Temple being a house of prayer. He may have been concerned with what he perceived to be a disconnect between worship and justice. Worship of God is intended to produce fruits of compassion and justice. More specifically, Jesus may have been concerned with the way imperial Rome and certain Jewish elite centered in the Temple hierarchy perpetuated injustice. The Temple system as it was constituted was not producing fruit and Jesus symbolic action meant to show that this must come to an end. Of course with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, all Jews needed to ask the question – “what next?” In any event, Jesus symbolic action in the Temple leads the chief priests and scribes to look for ways to eliminate this troublesome Jesus. He seems to have the crowd spellbound.

Mark 11:20-25: The saga of the fig tree is continued. It is Tuesday morning and the disciples pass by the fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before. They find it withered to its roots. Jesus goes on to encourage faith, prayer and forgiveness. “Mark here gathers independent sayings into a small catechism on faith” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Perhaps Jesus is contrasting unfruitfulness with fruitfulness. A fruitful spiritual life will be characterized, in significant ways, by faith/trust, prayer and forgiveness. To do justice and act with compassion involves a deep trust that acting in these ways really is helping fulfill God’s dream for the world, even when such action seems pointless, a whispering in the wind. Prayer can seem like “wasted time” when there is so much to be done to make the world better. It takes faith/trust to know that action that connects us with God, that slows us down some, that may heal us inside is also kingdom work. Forgiveness is powerful, intrapersonally, interpersonally, and socially. Over the past couple of years I have been struck by how central “forgiveness” is to the Christian faith. Often that has only meant “the forgiveness of my own sins so I can get to heaven.” The sense that one is forgiven by God is very important, but the importance of forgiveness is even deeper and wider. I have most recently learned more about forgiveness from Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist. Here is some material from his book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace. Traditionally the work of the heart begins with forgiveness…. It is hard to imagine a world without forgiveness. Without forgiveness life would be unbearable. Without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release…. Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. These words from the Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita, are also powerful. “If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred. If you want to see the brave, look for those who can forgive.”

Mark 11:27-33: The scene at the Temple is only round one of the controversy Jesus will engage in with members of the religious establishment of Jerusalem. Remember, they are already out to get him. Jesus returns to the Temple, and some religious authorities ask Jesus about his own authority. Jesus turns the table on them, asking them their view of John the Baptist and his baptism. The authorities are in a catch-22. If they say John was speaking only with human authority, they will besmirch the reputation of a person widely regarded as a prophet. But if they say that his authority came from God, they know Jesus will ask them why they did not respond. They gave no answer and neither did Jesus. For Mark it is clear that Jesus’ authority comes from God and those who don’t recognize that, in Jesus’ own time and in Mark’s are missing out on something important.

Mark 12:1-12: Jesus then tells a story, a rather strange, violent and tragic story. It is a story about a vineyard owner and tenants who refuse to pay their rent. The story is steeped in an unreal situation. What owner would tolerate that kind of behavior for long, and what owner, given that history would send a son? And what kind of law would give tenants rights of inheritance? Mark has Jesus use this story to make a couple of significant points. Those who have mismanaged faith in God are going to be replaced. Those who have let the symbols of faith be co-opted by imperial authorities will be replaced. Mark is also asserting that Jesus is like the son of the vineyard owner, coming to invite people to a different way. Whereas in other places, Mark has those who hear parables misunderstand them, here the authorities understand very clearly that the story is being told about and against them. Their response is to fuel their desire for Jesus’ arrest.

Mark 12:13-17: Controversy continues, though “the adversaries” change. Up to now in the chapter (beginning with chapter 11, verse 27) those who have opposed Jesus have been “chief priest and scribes.” Now we have “some Pharisees and some Herodians.” All this is language to refer to more elite persons, authorities – often people who also collaborated with the Roman imperial authority. We need to avoid the tragic mistake of Christian history which paints these persons as stand-ins for all the Jews of the time. Jesus was a Jewish reformer, not an anti-Jewish crusader. Some Pharisees and some Herodians do their best to try and trap Jesus by getting him to say something that will raise the ire of the political authorities. Jesus wisely understands what is going on and responds with wit and intelligence. Should one pay taxes? Jesus provides no definitive answer, only noting that it is the empire that issues the money and that one should give the emperor what is his and God what is God’s. In the context of other things Jesus says, loyalty to God is the highest loyalty. That need not be in total opposition to “governments” but governments can never claim our ultimate loyalty. Our final loyalty is to God and to God’s purposes in the world. The work of governments can be a part of fulfilling those purposes, but they can also overreach. We must decide in our own day and time and in our own lives how we can support God’s purposes and the ways governments might further those purposes, and how we should be critical of those aspects of government and public policy that seem to thwart God’s purposes. Another shade of meaning might be found in considering that the coins bore the image of the emperor, and thus may belong to the emperor. Human beings bear the image of God, and thus “belong to” God. By the way, the fact that these religious leaders were carrying imperial money made them a little suspect.

Mark 12:18-27: Again, the adversaries change – this time it is the Sadducees, another influential group in the Judaism of Jesus’ time (and probably Mark’s time as well). The Sadducees “belonged to the wealthy, conservative, priestly stream of Judaism associated with the temple leadership” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection and so pose a rather absurd scenario to see what Jesus might think of it. Jesus suggests that God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world, will provide for very different patterns of relationship. “The text is not a devaluation of marriage and family, but a reminder that the nature of God’s transcendent world is a mystery that cannot be captured within the categories of the present human world” (The People’s New Testament Commentary).

Mark 12:28-34: Here a scribe comes to ask a question, but rather than being hostile, this scribe appears sincere. It’s as if Mark wants to remind us that we must always be careful in painting people with too broad a brush. Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment – not an unusual question for the Judaism of the time, and Jesus response would not have been all that surprising. “That love, faithfulness, and obedience to God are more important than sacrifice is represented by a broad stream of Old Testament tradition” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Loving God, loving others – this is the heart of Jesus teaching. Jesus recognizes that this scribe gets it and has come near God’s kingdom. He is beginning to be part of God’s dream for the world. Mark invites his readers to come just as near – to have faith, to understand, to act. Jesus’ exchange with this scribe is so impressive, that no more questions will be asked.

Mark 12:35-37: A controversial point is made in this text, though there is no interrogator of Jesus. Teaching in the Temple, Jesus seems to be making an obscure point about a “son of David tradition.” It helps to know that there had emerged in between the time of the last writings of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus a tradition within Judaism that the kingdom of God would come with a David-like warrior-king. Jesus seems to be saying that this category is inadequate to understand what it means to be Messiah. Jesus is inviting his listeners to see God at work in his teaching and ministry. He is the one anointed by God (Messiah means “anointed”) for this time. He is a son of David, but also the one in whom the hopes of David’s people will be fulfilled, though perhaps in a unique way. While these verses seem terribly obscure, we read, “and the large crowd was listening to him with delight.” Such delightful listening was to the chagrin of many religious authorities.

Mark 12:38-40: From controversial dialogue to direct confrontation, Jesus tells his listeners to beware of the scribes and their practices. Justice is divorced from piety, and that is not in keeping with God’s dream for the world. Matthew’s and Luke’s criticisms are longer.

Mark 12:41-44: In stark contrast to the behavior of the scribes, Jesus points out the action of a poor widow. Matthew did not include this story in his gospel. Most commonly, this passage is understood as contrasting the deep devotion of the poor widow with the public display of generosity of the wealthy. As such she (rather than the wealthy) is a positive image of discipleship: she gave all that she had. An alternative interpretation hears the passage as a condemnation of the way the poor are manipulated to give all that they have to support the temple. It does not condemn the widow, but the system that leads her to act in this way. In either case, the passage is critical of the wealthy. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 75) If Jesus is critical of the wealthy does that mean all wealth is bad? Jesus comments are probably more systemic, criticizing systems in which wealth becomes concentrated and many are left poor. In Jesus teaching, wealth can pose certain problems for one’s spiritual well-being. Please see comments on the potential problems of wealth in the blog for Mark 10:17-31.