Interpretive Challenges

In Mark 12, the Sadducees came to challenge Jesus with a question about the resurrection. Theologically conservative, the Sadducees accepted only Genesis through Deuteronomy and they prided themselves on meticulous adherence to the text.

But their conservatism blinded them to their own traditionalism. In rejecting an afterlife, they had accepted the notion that if there were an afterlife, it must simply be an extension of present life: marriage, children, homes and jobs. Only the location changed. So they came to Jesus with a scenario: a man dies with no heirs. His brother (being a good “law-keeper” – see Deuteronomy 25:5-6) married the widow. He too died without heirs. Another brother took her in. Eventually, seven brothers married her – all dying without heirs. Finally, the woman died. So, they asked, if there were a resurrection, whose wife would she be? If she couldn’t be the wife of them all – and they believed she couldn’t – there couldn’t be a resurrection.

Jesus accused them of being deceived and ignorant. They were deceived by a world view that had no basis in scripture (the afterlife is like this life). They were deceived by a traditional, but faulty, interpretation of Deuteronomy 25. And they were ignorant of their own scripture that affirmed life after death (Exodus 3:6).

When it comes to what we have historically believed about the will of God, we should remember that our ancestors didn’t just pull those ideas out of a hat. We should not reject them just because they are traditional. But then again, no generation has a lock on truth. Every belief must be re-examined by every generation to make sure our understanding is not colored by faulty presuppositions. And every generation is obligated to continue study, to build on foundations laid before us.


“Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away” (Mark 12:12).

Mark 12 begins with a parable (12:1-12): A wealthy man creates a vineyard and does all to make it successful. Then he rents the vineyard out to others who then lay plans to steal it from him – refusing to pay the owner his share of the crop, treating shamefully his emissaries, and eventually, killing the son of the property owner. Jesus ends the parable with a warning that the vineyard workers will be put to death and then cites Psalm 118 praising the triumph of the vineyard owner – who, in this case, is God.

It’s not surprising that the Jewish leaders “got” the parable. As it begins, it sounds very much like the parable of Isaiah 5, a parable of condemnation for Israel’s spiritual barrenness. But the citation of the Psalm at the end takes the focus off of Israel and places it on the leaders who have hijacked the vineyard of God for themselves, laying plans to kill the vineyard owner’s son: Jesus.

A similar hijacking happens today when people take the Church, God’s vineyard, for themselves recreating it in their own image – an image more palatable and appealing to themselves and (they say) the world. The result however is the ruination of God’s vineyard and an exchange of the “Body of Christ” in which the blessings of heaven are found for “The Church of What’s Happening Now” in which no heavenly blessings are found.

Important to keep in mind.

Q & A

“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” (Mark 11:28)

Jesus has been quite plain to the disciples: The influence of the Jewish leadership over the kingdom of God is quickly drawing to a close, to be replaced by a servant people whose trust is supremely in God, evidenced by a life of prayer.

But he has also challenged the Jewish authorities directly with his cleansing of the temple,  to which they have challenged “Who do you think you are?”  That’s the question behind their questions.

Jesus answers with a question of his own, and in telling us the story, Mark introduces us to this very contentious section (11:27-12:44) in his gospel – perhaps the most contentious of all –  and exposes us to the dishonesty of his opponents.  The section is not about either the questions or the answers.  It’s about attitude.  Christ’s opponents are not concerned about answers, nor are they concerned with truth.  They are concerned with burnishing their image and discrediting Jesus.

I find it helpful to note Jesus gave them no answer.  Not every question deserves an answer, and not every challenge deserves a response.  Sometimes, you just have to move on.  There is wisdom in knowing when to do what.


“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).


I can just pray for whatever I want and it will happen?

No matter what? Like telling a mountain to be removed to the sea? Even that?

Yes . . . and no.

God is not a holy gumball machine into which we put a prayer and God responds with whatever we wish. If that were the case, prayer would make God our servant.

The limitations of prayer is actually the theme of a longer text beginning with the cursing of the fig tree and ending with our text verse. Spiritual fruitlessness is a hindrance to prayer. Worldliness is a hindrance to prayer (it certainly hindered prayer in the temple). Failure to forgive is a hindrance to prayer (see verses 25 and 26).

And here, faithlessness is a hindrance to prayer. Stated positively, faith makes everything and anything possible . . . subject, of course, to the will of God. The issue is always: are we willing to submit to the Lord’s will?

I’m not sure I’d want something that wasn’t the Lord’s will. I’m not sure I’d want to change God’s mind about a matter if that were possible. But it doesn’t mean that I should not make my requests known, for doing so demonstrates a reliance on God, and that, too, is what faith is all about.

Disappointment — 3

And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” (Mark 11:17).

On Monday of Jesus’ final week, the Lord returned to Jerusalem only to discover (as Mark presents the story) another disappointment.  Within the temple wall, the outermost court (court of the gentiles) was as close as a non-Jew could get to the temple.  Any attempt to get closer than that would result in capital punishment for the offending gentile.

The temple was to be place where everyone (regardless of nationality) could come worship the God of Israel.  What Jesus found however was not a place of worship, but a shopping mall where hawkers sold their wares at inflated prices.  The only spot where everyone could worship was not a place conducive to worship for anyone!

In a story told by all the gospel writers, Jesus cleared the mall of its merchants – much to the disappointment of the religious leadership profiting from the transactions (who begin to lay plans in earnest to kill him).

The road to God is intended to be marked and lined with the people of God who encourage all to come to God.  There is only one road.  There is neither provision nor permission to pioneer alternate routes.  God’s people have to be sure they are on that road, and living in such a way that will mark it brightly and invitingly for all who would seek God – a road more easily traveled with the help of every pilgrim along the way.

Disappointment — 2

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.  (Mark 11:13-14).

This story is found only in Matthew and Mark and its lessons would be rather straight forward except for Mark’s cryptic little comment: “It was not the season for figs.”

Why expect figs on the tree if it wasn’t the season for figs?

After the fall harvest, Palestinian fig trees lose their leaves and begin to bear small buds that remain undeveloped until spring.  In the early spring, before leaves appear, these buds begin to develop into an immature fruit called “paggim.”  By the time the leaves appear again, the “paggim” is quite edible, but not yet a mature fig (see a reference to this “early fruit” in Song of Solomon 2:13). Thus the appearance of leaves on the fig tree proclaims the existence of fruit (however undeveloped).  If there is no “paggim,” there will be no figs on the tree that season.

Jesus has been acclaimed by joyous throngs all the way to Jerusalem, but once at the city, there is no reception at all.  The story of the fig tree presents another disappointment. After all Jesus has done, there ought to be at least a fledgling momentum of excitement anticipating the Kingdom.  There is not. Israel is fruitless and stands condemned.  So will the Church if she is unfruitful.  No matter how immature, the Church of Christ should always be producing the fruit of Christ.

Disappointment – 1

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve”(Mark 11:11).

The story of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem the week before Passover is told in all four gospel accounts, but Mark presents it differently.  The other gospel writers have Jesus going to Jerusalem several times in his ministry and great things always happen.  But if we only had Mark, we might think this was the Lord’s first visit.  To the other gospel writers, this is a triumphal entry into Jerusalem with Jesus being proclaimed a king.  But to Mark, the big parade seems over before they ever get to Jerusalem – and there is no mention of Jesus being proclaimed a “king.”

In Mark, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is an anti-climax – a real balloon popper. Professor James Edwards puts it like this: “The whole scene comes to nothing.  Like the seed in the parable of the sower that receives the word with joy but has no root and lasts but a short time, the crowd disperses as mysteriously as it assembled.”

The disappointment in this story continues with the next, but there is an additional point here: Christianity is more than excitement, hype, and parade.  It is fundamentally about discipleship.  There’s nothing wrong with the new, innovative, and exciting – unless their presence and our thirst for them distracts us from very difficult business of following and being Jesus in the world.

That is our calling.


The blind man said: “Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (Mark 10:52).

Jesus has done a lot of healing in Mark: I count eight healing stories thus far.

All these have at least one thing in common: we don’t know their names.

The only healed person whose name we know in Mark is the subject of our text: Bartimaeus. We first meet him at Jericho sitting in the road begging.  He may be blind, but there is nothing wrong with his hearing!  He hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.  He’s heard of this Jesus fellow.  He’s heard of the amazing things he has done.  He believes Jesus can make him see and when he gets a chance, he asks for precisely that – despite the fact that a host of people stand in his way.

The story concludes a long section (beginning in 8:1) that has to do with blindness. The disciples are blind to what Jesus’ power means for their lives.  They are blind to the will of God.  They are blind to who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.

But Bartimaeus, blind though he is, sees Jesus as the cure and when Jesus heals him, he does what no other healed person does; does what few sighted people do: he casts everything aside and follows Jesus.

Spiritually blind people struggle with discipleship.  But those who see clearly have only one goal: to follow the Lord and they let nothing, particularly the influence of the crowd, deter them. At heart though is this: you gotta want to see.

Fire and Salt

“Everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49).

I like salt.  Perhaps too much.  I’ve been known to salt my food before tasting it – a real faux pas in a fine restaurant and an (unintended on my part) insult to the chief.  Salt gives bland food flavor.  It can also act as a preservative and (according to Reader’s Digest) it can remove wine stains from carpet, deodorize sneakers, relieve the itching of mosquito bites and poison ivy, extinguish grease fires, rid gardens of weeds, snails and slugs, freshen breath and get rid of dandruff.

In the ancient world, salt was considered so valuable that it was often used as a synonym for wisdom.  Paul uses it this way in Colossians 3:6 when he says “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt [wisdom].”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all preserve Jesus’ remarks about salt and the warning that if salt loses its saltiness, it is worthless.  The fact is though,  salt cannot be made less salty.  Salt is salt.

However, when salt is mixed with something else, it takes more of it to do the job and if it is mixed with the wrong thing (virtually anything), it becomes not only less salty, but worthless.  Who would want to use salt that had been mixed with dirt?

Only Mark records Jesus’ words “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  His point is this: Life is full of trials.  Some of them God deliberately sends our way to teach us, mold us, make us better.  But will God succeed?  Not if we don’t learn from them, not if we don’t take those lessons to heart, and not if we forget the lessons we learn.  In each case, this divine salt of our lives becomes worthless.  God doesn’t send every trial we face, but he intends every trial to make us better.  Let’s not waste the opportunity.

Divorce as Illustration

He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

Not much “wiggle room” there.

Most folks don’t have a problem with this rule until they (or someone they know) break the rule.  Then what?

Mark does not address the “then what” – and neither should we (at least not from Mark).  He just lays down the rule.  The significance is why he lays it down where he does.

Mark 9:30 informs us of Jesus’ second prediction of his impending death.  From there, right through the third prediction and 10:45, Mark focuses on selfless living.  Almost squarely in the middle, he presents Jesus’ teaching on divorce.

It’s not just a “divorce” passage.  The passage is there, without compromise, to illustrate the seriousness of self-centeredness.  It leads to a condition described as adultery.  Every divorce is caused, at root, by selfishness on the part of one or both partners.  But it isn’t just in marriage.  In every phase of life, self-centeredness removes God from the throne in favor of self.  That action is called “adultery,” and when God wanted to talk about Israel’s faithlessness, that’s the word he used.

Marriage is serious business.  To make it work requires selflessness.  Failure is not consequence free option because selfishness is not a consequence free option.  It would be better to have an anchor tied about your neck and be thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).  The illustration underscores the seriousness and personal impact of following Jesus.