Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44)
If you only had the gospel of Mark, you might never know Jesus ever went to Jerusalem until the time of his death. It is not until chapter eleven that he arrives there.
The scene Mark paints of Jerusalem however is not a pretty one. The temple area has degenerated into a commercial trading zone – a poor venue for prayer. The Jewish leadership – mostly religious leadership – has renewed its efforts to murder Jesus (11:18; 12:12) and Jesus has let them know, that he knows, they mean him harm. Chief Priests, Elders, Teachers of the Law, Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees all come to debate with him. The Lord not only defeats them, but accuses the most respected among them of taking advantage of some of society’s most vulnerable – the widows.
All of which brings me to this: Why did the poor widow continue to support such a corrupt system with her contributions?
The answer, of course, is that she wasn’t supporting a corrupt system. She was giving to God. God would hold the leaders accountable for their corruption. He would hold her accountable for her faithfulness. The widow wasn’t concerned about giving to a cause. She was concerned about giving to God. She knew that her financial giving could not be divorced from her faithfulness. She was “all in,” and she proved it by giving all she had to live on.
Ironic is it not? The religious leadership was all about taking a life. The widow was all about giving her own life. It is in her example we find Christ-likeness.
“You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
The “teachers of the law” (also known as “scribes”) are the second most often mentioned opponents of Jesus. While not of the ruling class themselves, they were none-the-less advisors to the ruling class and perhaps the most influential class in Jewish society. No one knew the law better than they did.
They may also have been the instigators and leaders of the plot against Jesus’ life (compare Mark 11:18 and 12:12). Jesus knew it, so when he says this to a teacher of the law (who had the honesty to agree with him that loving God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength – and loving your neighbor as yourself — is the greatest command), it was high praise indeed. In fact, it is the only time Jesus ever praises a teacher of the law in Mark.
But Jesus’ compliment was not just praise. It was instruction (and a bit of an insult). Not being “far” from the kingdom of God is not the same as being “in” the kingdom of God.
It’s an important point to remember ourselves. One can know God’s commands, know even the greatest of commands and all the intricacies of scripture. But knowing is not the same as doing, and the only way one can be in the kingdom of God is by doing. It’s not a “salvation by works” thing. It’s a “salvation that works” thing. The only way to come under the rule of God is to let Him rule in your life, and that means doing as He has said.
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.
When the Pharisees and Herodians came to test Jesus, have you ever wondered why Jesus had no coin of his own?
I realize the text doesn’t actually say that he had no coin, you might wonder why, if he had his own, he didn’t use it. The coin he asks for is a denarius, the daily wage of the working man. Here was a group of people who had money, arguing with a man who had none, about the propriety of paying taxes.
But then again, they weren’t really interested in paying taxes.
They remind me so much of some disciples today who major in minor things – things that have nothing to do really with what God has actually said – in order to cover up their inattention to major things that God really spoke about. When Christian people, for example, in an effort to stand for truth, turn mean and hateful, it will not matter what truth they are for, their proclaimed faithfulness is overshadowed by the hardness of their heart.
Mark really shines in these lessons. By looking at the people who opposed Jesus, and the people who followed Jesus, and being honest about them both, he gives us a compendium of behavior we can match with our own lives to see if we are truly disciples of the Lord.