“After that, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said, “Now, that is the real deal right there!” (Okay, that’s not exactly how He phrased Mark 12:43, but it’s the point.)
We who take God’s word seriously sometimes get caught up in the minutiae of word study. As we isolate a parable or story for our Bible study, teaching lesson, or sermon subject, we often end up missing the larger context. Mark 12 is a great case in point.
The chapter is a chronicle of one frustration after another for the Lord, starting with the chief priests, scribes and elders confronting and questioning Him at the end of chapter 11. Chapter 12 begins with Jesus’ parable to them, putting in context precisely what they were doing and the danger they were risking.
These however were people of power and influence. They weren’t interested in learning about God from a carpenter of Galilee. God was their domain. Teaching was what they did. Receiving truth and wisdom from a common laborer was something they would not be doing today or any other day.
Mark 12:12 says, “And they were seeking to seize Him. Yet they feared the multitude…. So they left Him and went away.”
Next came the Pharisees and Herodians, a motley merging of political enemies. The Pharisees were the “moral majority” of their day, the religious right, while the Herodians were compromisers, Jews who supported the tyrant in the palace for the gain that would flow to them. They are “sent” by the previous group (see 12:13), thus embodying the line about politics making strange bedfellows. What they have in common is a dislike for Jesus. They asked their question and got their answer.
“Well!” they must have said to one another. “That didn’t go too well.”
“And they were amazed at Him (12:17).”
Next up was the Sadducees with a riddle they had no doubt tossed around and delighted themselves with. You can almost hear their snickering as they pose this question-with-no-answer to the One who seemed to have answers for everything. Their puzzle (12:23) had always reduced their opponents to blabbering idiots, and would no doubt stymy the Lord. But they had underestimated Jesus. (A common failing which still goes on.)
“You’re making two mistakes,” said Jesus. “You do not know your Scriptures, nor do you know the power of God.” We smile at this. Those, incidentally, are the same two mistakes every theological smart-aleck has made throughout the centuries since. But does that stop them? Not in this lifetime. Pride and ego are forces hard to rein in.
Jesus ended this little repartee with “You are greatly mistaken” (12:27).
Okay, who’s next? The assembly line of opponents which had begun so stridently has now begun to dissolve. And then, one man steps up.
A scribe who had been taking all this in had “(recognized) that He had answered them well” and came forward with a serious question. Once again, we imagine it was an issue these guys had spent hours tossing around.
What was the greatest commandment, the man wanted to know. Now, this was what we would call a softball lobbed over the plate so the Lord could hit it out of the park. But as He did in every other case, the Lord gave His questioner more than he bargained for.
Deuteronomy 6:4-5 was the right answer, the Lord assured him, as the man had no doubt surmised. But then Jesus added something, something no one had asked.
“And the second commandment…”
Second? No one had asked about the second greatest commandment. However, the Lord was not going to let these people walk away with a one-dimensional religion. “Just you and me, Jesus, we got our own thing going,” is how a country songwriter put it. Another wrote a gospel song “Jesus and me.” But the Lord was not going to have this or let us limit our relationship with God to the vertical only.
So, Jesus pointed His questioner to Leviticus 19:18. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We end up with the sign of the cross, you will have noticed. Vertical to God, horizontal to all those about us.
“After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions” (Mark 12:34).
The Lord must have been exhausted by this exchange with people who loved to argue but had no intention of putting His teachings to practice.
He was bright. Brilliant, even. And He could debate with the best of them. (See Matthew 12 for a good example.) But this was foolishness.
It was time-consuming, exhausting, and fruitless.
Then, three things happened in quick succession.
One. Jesus asked His questioners a theological question which they could not answer. “If the Christ is the son of David, then why did David call him ‘Lord’?” He’s quoting Psalm 110:1.
Matthew 22:46 says no one could think of an answer. These religious know-it-alls were not interested in truth, only in winning arguments. The Lord had little patience with that.
Two. The Lord warned the people to “beware the scribes.” (Mark 12:38). They were not to be trusted.
They “devour widows’ houses,” meaning they took advantage of them. Without a husband or father to guide and protect them, these women were clueless about financial issues, estates, taxes, and such. Presenting themselves as advisors with the best interests of the women at heart, the scribes would worm their way into the trust of the women and then end up owning the entire estates. They were shameless.
Like so many modern day clergy–and I speak as a member of that fraternity!– the scribes loved their titles and greetings and accolades and degrees. They enjoyed displaying their learning and honoring one another in order to receive honors in return. If they had had theological colleges or seminaries, they would have been awarding honorary degrees to one another, a practice made notorious in our day.
Three. The Lord and His disciples retreated into the temple to rest. They found themselves seated near the treasury where people were bringing their offerings. Mark says ‘they began observing how the multitudes were putting money into the treasury” (12:41). In the little parade came “a poor widow” with her two small copper coins. She dropped them into one of the three huge brass urns and went on her way, never knowing she had just thrilled the heart of the Lord of Heaven.
The God of the universe loves it when one of His children gets it right.
“There!” we can almost hear the Lord say. “That’s what I want! That’s what this is all about. Obedience. Faith. Love.”
Two chapters later, Jesus would say of the woman who anointed Him with the costly fragrance, “She has done what she could” and “Wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, that this woman did will be spoken of in memory of her”. ( Mark 14:8-9) Both statements could be said of the widow of Mark 12.
Two women. Neither brought questions or riddles or puzzles for Him to solve. Each one simply loved and humbled herself and gave what she had. The gift of one was worth two cents, and for the other, a year’s wages. But each was honoring her Lord and Jesus took very personally what they were doing.
The first one, the widow, might not have known Jesus yet. She was a faithful Jew doing what she knew to do, bringing her offering and trusting God. The other knew the heart of Jesus so well she could not stop the tears from flowing (see Luke 7:36ff).
The Lord welcomes the sincere questions of the seekers. He has little patience with verbal entrapments, theological puzzles (“how many angels can stand on the point of a needle?” is a famous one), or word games.
What the Lord wants and values and loves is trust. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Someone asked Billy Graham who he thought was the greatest Christian of our age. As I recall, he answered something like, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s some unknown person working in an isolated place, just doing her work for the Lord. And not at all some person in the media spotlight who gets all the acclaim and honors.”
“You see your calling, brethren,” said the Apostle to the church at Corinth. “Not many mighty among you. Not many wise or noble. God has chosen the foolish things of the world to bring to nothing the know-it-alls” (my version of I Corinthians 1:26).