Posted tagged ‘Scribes’

Mark 12:35-13:2. Hungry for houses.

January 22, 2011

And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”


 Ever since Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, all the action in Mark’s Gospel has focused on the Temple. Jesus has come to the Temple looking for fruit, and has found only green leaves. The place looks alive, but it is dead inside.

Jesus has spent a great deal of time in the temple, teaching the crowds who have come to worship. He has publicly criticised the Jewish authorities who run the Temple, telling them they’ve made God’s house into a hideout for criminals, and comparing them to wicked tenants trying to steal a vineyard. Group by group, these authorities have come to Jesus and tried to humiliate him by asking him questions, grasping for control of the Temple. Jesus has defeated them all. At the end, Mark tells us that nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions.

Now, having taken questions from the chief priests, scribes, elders, Herodians, Pharisees, and Sadducees; Jesus asks a question of his own.

 1. What is Jesus getting at? Is he claiming that the Christ isn’t supposed to be descended from David after all? What is his beef with the scribes’ teaching?

 2. Why does the question about the Christ become a warning about the scribes?

 3. What is the central point of Jesus’ teaching about the widow? Is it to do with a Christian attitude to money? Look at the immediate context.

 4. How does this passage fit into the wider context of Mark’s Gospel from chapter 11 onwards?

 5. Have the disciples understood anything Jesus has said about the Temple over the last few chapters?


 1.      What is Jesus getting at? Is he claiming that the Messiah isn’t supposed to be descended from David? What is his beef with the scribes’ teaching?

The most recent of the questions asked of Jesus through chapters 11 and 12 of Mark’s Gospel seemed to be different in character from the others. The scribe who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment seemed to be genuinely seeking an answer, not merely trying to trip Jesus up. The final question is different again. It is not asked to Jesus, but asked by Jesus.

Mark says in 12:34 that nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions. Having faced all comers and defeated all those who dared to challenge him, Jesus now takes the role of questioner himself.

Back in chapter 8, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, and they replied that he was the “Christ”. The word simply means the “anointed one”, being a Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah”. Jesus then repeatedly tried to correct their misunderstandings about Messiah and his kingdom by talking about his coming sufferings and death and drawing out the implications for his disciples and the way they should think and act. The question in this chapter is in the same vein, attempting to correct popular misunderstandings about the Messiah.

Jesus takes up the common teaching of the scribes that the Messiah will be the “son of David”, and suggests that this may not be the whole truth. It certainly is true that the Messiah will be of David’s line, but there is more to it than that. The teaching is firmly grounded in the writings of the prophets. In this instance, the scribes have got their teaching spot-on. God told David that he would raise up seed from David’s own body, and establish the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:12). Isaiah wrote (and you’ll find it just after the well-known “unto us a child is born” bit) that Messiah would sit on David’s throne and establish his kingdom with justice for evermore (Isaiah 9:6-7). Jeremiah prophesied about a righteous branch raised up for David who shall reign as king (Jeremiah 23:5), and about a time when Israel shall be freed from slavery to serve, “the Lord their God and David their king (Jeremiah 30:9). Ezekiel, while pronouncing woe on the selfish and greedy shepherds over God’s people, also says that God will set up over them, “One shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them” (Ezekiel 34:23). We could multiply examples. The prophets look forward to a time when David will rule as king over God’s people in peace and righteousness.

At first glance, the prophets may make little sense to us. Surely Jeremiah and Isaiah and Ezekiel knew that David had died and was buried with his fathers, didn’t they? Did they expect David to be raised from the dead and to rule as king again? Or are they just using metaphor- do they use “David” to mean “A king like David.”?

I think that the answer is “Neither of the above”. In a sense, the prophets are looking for a king like David, but they are talking about more than just similarity. The prophets knew well that David himself is dead, but they also knew of a sense in which David lived on in his children. If you take a look at Hebrews 7, the writer argues that Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek. Levi wasn’t yet born when this happened. It was Abraham, Levi’s great-grandfather, who paid the tithes. But, says the writer, Levi was there in Abraham’s loins. Levi derived his life from Abraham. So if Abraham paid tithes, then Levi paid tithes in Abraham. And if you can look at Abraham and see Levi, then to work that argument in reverse, you can look at Levi, and say “There’s Abraham. Or at least, there’s something of him”. So with David and the Christ. If the Christ were descended from David, then it would be legitimate to look at the Christ and say “There’s David.”

The prophets longed for a king to come who would be descended from David physically, and who would share David’s spiritual life too, showing the same devotion to God. They looked for a time when this king would do what David did, under God’s blessing, and when Israel would be freed from the yoke of foreign oppression and would enjoy the sunshine of God’s smile.

Israelites in Jesus time had taken the prophecies to heart. Those in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles were looking for Messiah to come from Bethlehem, David’s city (John 7:42). When Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, what did Bartimaeus cry out? “Son of David, have mercy on me”. When Jesus came into Jerusalem at the head of a great procession, what were the crowd shouting? “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”. They were looking for a Messiah like David, a national hero, a great warrior, to slay giants and deliver God’s people from all their woes.

And Jesus isn’t denying that the Christ has to be David’s son. That is taken as read- it’s what the Old Testament clearly says. But Jesus plainly thinks that the scribes haven’t got it 100% correct. From what Jesus says here, it seems clear that the scribes think of Messiah as somehow defined by David- limited by David’s example. The problem is that the scribes thought that a son couldn’t be greater than his father. Levi couldn’t outrank Jacob, Jacob couldn’t outrank Isaac, Isaac had to defer to Abraham, and so on all the way to Adam. Adam is the head of all of us. He was the first, and so he takes precedence.

There’s a great deal of truth in that. We derive our lives from Adam, not the other way round. God breathed life into Adam’s body. Eve shared that life, being made from Adam’s body. Cain, Abel, and Seth also shared that life, and we still share it today. The things Adam did affect all of us, because our life came from him. We can’t be something he wasn’t. We can’t make ourselves more than human, because we come from Adam, the man. And because he sinned, we are sinners. That only works forwards, not backwards.

The Jews were mindful of this, and it seems that the scribes had applied that principle where it shouldn’t have been applied. They took the prophecies about Messiah being David, and said that since a son can’t be greater than his father, Messiah could only follow where David had led. So Messiah couldn’t do anything David hadn’t already done- couldn’t be the sort of king David hadn’t already been.

But when Messiah comes onto the scene, the principle of physical descent can’t govern everything. The scribes were inconsistent here. Jesus and the scribes both agree that David wrote Psalm 110, and that he wrote it about a Messiah figure. David probably had Solomon in mind when he wrote. And so the point Jesus wants to make, from Psalm 110, is that David himself called one of his own descendants, “Lord”. David owned the Messiah as his master. And if Messiah was David’s Lord, greater than David, then Messiah can’t be constrained by David’s limitations. Yes, the Messiah will be a king, like David was. David was pulled up out from obscurity and anointed by God. David inflicted amazing unexpected defect on God’s and Israel’s enemies, led the armies of Israel to victory, slew his tens of thousands, and ruled wisely, establishing a golden age. And Messiah could do likewise. But the scribes’ Messiah is too small. They don’t expect a cosmic Messiah, merely a national hero. They had never grasped the greatness of the Messiah. They looked to his coming, but thought of him as less than he actually was, subordinate to David. Jesus is pointing out to them that Messiah is not defined by David. In fact, the reverse is the case. David himself looks up to Messiah. The point is that Messiah can be David’s son, and can still be greater than David, and if you want the authority for a claim like that, then, well, David himself knew it, and he said so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

 The people hear Jesus gladly. Perhaps for some of them, it was as though they were vaguely aware that the teaching they had from the scribes was not very good, that there was something important missing, awry. But when they hear Jesus, it makes them glad. They hear him explaining so clearly what has been dark and perplexing to them before. Things begin to fall into place. They feel as though they are getting somewhere, finally.

Maybe for others, they’re just glad to see the scribes knocked down from their high horses.

For us, we should be glad to see Jesus in this way- the eschatological king.


 2.      Why does the question about the Messiah become a warning about the scribes?

Jesus asked the question in order to correct the teaching of the scribes. It then naturally moves into a warning about the scribes themselves. Jesus tells the people to watch out for them, and he gives reasons why they shouldn’t be trusted. All of those reasons point to the same basic problem with the scribes- they are hypocrites, outwardly concerned with God’s honour, but really concerned about their own honour.

The scribes are keen religious men, acknowledged teachers. They wear the teacher’s long robe, so that everyone will know about their qualifications, and too many of them take an unhealthy pleasure in the sense of importance that they get from knowing and teaching the scriptures. They like to be greeted in the marketplace- people honour them and take notice when they walk past. People rise respectfully to greet them in the streets, and address them with titles like “Rabbi”, “Father”, even “Master”. They sit in special seats in the synagogue, facing the congregation, because they consider themselves more important. They like to have the best seats at banquets. We’ve seen from other parts of Mark’s account how complicated Jewish social protocol was, how when you held a party, you would consider very carefully who to invite, and where to seat them according to how important they were. Scribes were given top seats.

And these scribes devoured widows’ houses. There were old poor women who felt an obligation to support the scribes, because they were the teachers of God’s law. The scribes sponged off them heartlessly, exploiting them until all their money was gone. The scribes pray, and pray at length- but their long prayers are a pretence. They seem to be directing their words to God, but their real audience is the bystanders. Instead of directing men to God, they want attention for themselves. They ought to encourage Israel to serve God humbly, but they can’t do that properly, because they are not humble themselves. The scribes care more about their own reputations and the esteem they receive from men, than they care for God’s name. Their pompous self-serving attitude obscures the God they are supposed to serve.

Notice that here, Jesus tells the people to beware of the scribes. He’s not telling them to beware of the leaven of the scribes, as he tells them elsewhere to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod (Mark 8:15). Immediately, the warning isn’t to beware of the scribes’ teaching, but to beware of the scribes themselves, as men. The scribes are dangerous enemies to have. They will bitterly oppose the followers of Jesus, will persecute them and try to have them killed. Jesus isn’t directly warning his hearers to beware of scribal attitudes creeping into their own hearts. We should certainly beware of those attitudes in our own hearts, and we should endeavour to kill those sins before they grow, but that isn’t exactly what Jesus is saying here. We could infer it, but it would be an inference.

Jesus’ warnings still stand for us. We see the same sort of religious rulers around today. The scribes devoured widow’s houses; and we have televangelists, unscrupulously asking for money from people who can ill afford to give, so that they can have flashy cars and big houses. The scribes were fond of their long robes, and loved the adulation they received. We are not short of spiritual healers and gurus who dress in gleaming white suits, and who obviously love standing in front of the crowds and being looked up to. God is not interested in that sort of religion, and it only serves to give God a bad name. Theirs is the greater condemnation, and we should be very wary of them.


3.      What is the central point of Jesus’ teaching about the widow? Is it to do with a Christian attitude to money? Look at the immediate context.

The short answer is that no, it isn’t. The slightly longer answer is that yes, it is, but it’s about so much more than that too.

 We may be used to hearing sermons from this text on the topic of whole-hearted giving. Those may be very good sermons, but to get to any application, we first need to go back and see the context.

Jesus and the disciples are sitting in the temple opposite the treasury. They are looking at the offering boxes, against the wall of the court of the women. According to Jewish tradition, there are 13 boxes there, with trumpet like funnels going into the boxes. People would come with their coins- no paper money then, just coins- and would pour them into the trumpets. If you were making a sizeable offering, then the coins would ring out as they hit the trumpets, and would clatter down noisily into the boxes. So if you were wealthy, you could afford to put on quite a show for the onlookers. It would be very obvious that you were giving a large sum. And conversely, if you were poor, and couldn’t afford to give an awful lot, everyone would know about that too. They would hear only a few coins going in.

As Jesus and the disciples watched, a poor widow came up to the boxes, and threw just a few small coins in- these were the lowest denomination of coins in circulation, and historical sources say that you weren’t allowed to throw in any fewer than two coins. So this woman is making the smallest offering it was possible to make. But she wasn’t doing that out of carelessness for the things of God. Jesus could see that she gave as much as she was able- that her offering cost her.

The widow is pious, of course, and that is a good and lovely thing. But in context, the point isn’t about her- it’s about the scribes. Jesus has just accused the scribes, who are associated in some way with the Temple authorities, of devouring widows’ houses. Jesus has been condemning the Temple ever since chapter 11, and one of the things rotten about it is that instead of providing food for widows and orphans (as required under the festival laws of Deuteronomy),  the Temple system sucks the life from devout widows, eating away all their substance instead of feeding them. This widow is plainly meant to be identified as one of the widows who are having their houses devoured. She has just given all she had to live on to the bloated vampire Temple. It is beautiful in a way, although it can’t be all that heart-warming to watch a widow having her house devoured. It’s lovely of her, but it’s a disgusting spectacle overall.

Jesus called his disciples to him, sitting there, and told them that God did not value the money pouring into the coffers as much as he valued the gift of this poor widow. She had shown real, albeit undiscerning, devotion to God. And to Jesus, who had come to the Temple wanting to find fruit, her love for God was worth more than all the rest of it put together.

 Does God need our money? Of course he doesn’t. God is already the owner of everything. He needs nothing. He can accomplish whatever he wishes with or without money. He doesn’t need us to give back to him what he has first given to us out of his limitless treasury- and we can only give to him what is his already. The reason for our giving to God isn’t primarily economic, but rather relational. Of course we know that God ordains means to accomplish his chosen ends, and we know that money is therefore useful, and used by God. But we can also be sure that a lack of money doesn’t ultimately prevent God from achieving his purposes. We are like children giving a parent a Christmas present. The child can only give the parent something bought with the parent’s own money. But the point isn’t in the gift itself, as much as it is in the giving. The gift matters because it represents devotion.

It’s not what you give, it is what you keep. What you keep shows more truly how much you love God. This widow loved God with all her heart, because she gave him everything she had. The rich men who made a show out of giving sums far larger than this widow had given in all the offerings of her life put together, were actually giving less. They could give a lot, and still afford to buy for themselves whatever they wanted. They did not have to make any sacrifices to give. And so their giving did not show much love for God. God doesn’t care for money or offerings as things in themselves. He cares for love. So in that sense, the passage is about real religion, humble devotion of everything to God; versus pretend religion, which uses God’s name as a cover for pride and self-importance. It’s about what real fruit looks like, compared to useless leaves.


4.      How does this passage fit into the wider context of Mark’s Gospel from chapter 11 onwards?

 This passage fits into the structure of Mark’s Gospel as part of a frame. The opening scene Mark gave us in the Temple was back in 11:11, where Jesus was looking around at everything, like an inspector gathering evidence. The closing scene in the Temple is this one, where Jesus sees the widow throwing money into the box, calls the disciples over to have a look, and teaches them. In-between those two scenes, we have had the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the Temple, and the long string of questioners trying to embarrass Jesus in the Temple. Jesus has come to the Temple as to his own house, confronted his enemies on what they think of as their territory- although it is nothing of the sort- and they have grown to hate him more and more. After Jesus has spent the better part of a week in the temple, seeing everything that goes on there and talking to the men who think they run the show, we close the drama in the Temple with the section about the scribes and the widow. This scene represents Jesus’ final verdict on the Temple and all its works.

We started off with the comparison of the temple to the fruitless tree, which was cursed for its lack of fruit. The scribes, the chief priests, the elders and all the others are just like the temple they love so much. The temple too is outwardly impressive, looks great, and makes people honour it. But it is empty to God. He finds no pleasure in it, because those who run it are no longer interested in him. In fact, it is redundant, and will be destroyed. With the background of the rest of the section, the key thing in the story is the comparison Jesus makes between the widow and all the other givers. What she has done is the only thing Jesus has seen worth seeing in all his time at the Temple. Everything else has been empty and without value.


5.      Have the disciples understood anything Jesus has said about the Temple over the last few chapters?

We’ll come to chapter 13 next time, but it is worth, very quickly, seeing the connection between that chapter and the previous section. Chapter 13 is confusing, but whatever we make of it, it needs to be rooted in the conversation Jesus and the disciples are having about the Temple. Mark wants us to see that the disciples haven’t understood anything that has been going on around them. Where Jesus has seen barrenness and a sterile empty façade of religion, the disciples have seen great impressive godly stuff. They need to open their eyes.

They leave the Temple with Jesus’ words about the widow still in their ears- “See her? She’s the most real worshipper in this place.” But they walk out saying “Oh, I love it here. So impressive and solid and holy. When you come to the Temple, you just know you’ve been in God’s presence, know what I mean? Oh, the history of this place, the significance in God’s great purposes. It’s wonderful”

We can walk into a big cathedral, and it’s impressive- dizzying, even. But where there’s no justice and righteousness, God isn’t bothered about the buildings.