The story of Job in the Old Testament is one that is both scary and compelling. It is scary when we see how God allows Satan to have his way with the righteous man Job. It is compelling because the rest of the book is in essence a series of questions as Job and his friends try to figure out what has happened to bring Job all this tragedy. Towards the end, Job himself complains and questions God. The pivotal moment comes when God answers Job, “Brace yourself like a man. I will question you and you will answer me!” It’s one of those “oh oh moments.” When God decides to start asking you the questions, it’s time to brace yourself.
Now in Mark’s gospel, it’s Jesus’ turn to ask a question. We have been seeing how the Jewish leaders have been trying to trap Jesus into saying things that would get him in trouble. Each time Jesus deftly avoids the trap and shows clearly what the real teaching is. Last week we learned about how Jesus taught the teacher of the law about what was required for entry into the kingdom. Now it’s Jesus’ turn to ask the questions of the Jewish leaders and like Job, they had better brace themselves for Jesus will pull no punches. Let’s read Mark 12:35-40.
I. Why does Jesus bring up the relationship between David and himself in verses 35-37?
It helps to understand what the expectations were regarding the Messiah and David. They were popular hopes for an earthly kingdom and these were brought to an even higher expectation during the celebration of the Passover. The Passover celebrated the event when God rescued his people before. Now there were renewed hopes that deliverance would come once again. Pius Jews were convinced that the kingdom as it was under King David would be restored under the leadership of someone from the line of David. They believed that the coming Messiah would be the result of the promise to David given in 2 Samuel 7:11-16.
This teaching is in fact firmly grounded in the prophet as well. In speaking of the Messiah, Isaiah 9:6-7 says, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” Jeremiah 23:5 says, “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.’”
And so Jesus takes this expectation and teaches what they should really be expecting. The questions in verses 35 and 37 should be understood in the sense of, “What do the scribes mean when they say that the Messiah is the son of David?” These questions are calculated to provoke thoughtful reflection upon the characters of David and the Messiah specifically involving the term “Lord.” David is the great ancestor from whom the Messiah would come. Yet David also says that this descendent would be his own Lord.
Jesus quotes what David said in Psalm 110 under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In that psalm, David clearly affirmed that the divine promise was not about himself, but about the coming Messiah. If David referred to the Messiah as “his Lord,” he understood that the one who would receive this promise was far greater than himself. Jesus is asking the people if they see him as being the Lord in this passage.
In Acts 2:29-34 Peter at Pentecost affirms this and shows how Jesus fulfills this. His point is that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as the Savior marked the fulfillment of the promise to David; Jesus is David’s Lord. And so the question posed by Jesus in Mark 12 anticipates his own resurrection and exaltation to God’s right hand.
Jesus’ point here is to show that his role is not to restore David’s kingdom on earth. Rather, Jesus comes to establish a wholly different kingdom; a kingdom that will be over the whole world with the throne being at God’s right hand. The political nationalistic concept of David’s kingdom is wrong and simplistic. And the teachers of the law had no suitable answer to this question from Jesus.
The last part of verse 37 shows that the common people identified with Jesus. They sensed the discomfort of the scribes and responded enthusiastically to Jesus’ teaching, which must have really twisted the noses of the Jewish leaders! They may not have fully understood the significance of what Jesus said but they knew he spoke with authority and they loved it!
I once spoke with a long-time member of the CRC and he was telling me about his pastor and how much the people loved him and his great insights. He said, “A lot of the time we don’t even understand what he is saying, but boy, he is really good!” While I don’t think that is a good thing to describe a pastor’ preaching, it does describe the people’s understanding of Jesus. And they might have been delighted in how Jesus treated those stuffy leaders. And in fact, Jesus now aims his words very specifically at those leaders.
II. Jesus first levels his charge of pride against the leaders in verses 38-39.
In the previous section, the scribes teaching was exposed as simplistic and misleading but now Jesus takes aim at their character, particularly at their abundant pride. Specifically Jesus attacks the teachers’ love of people showing them great respect. Their focus on God’s Law should have made them clearly aware that God alone should receive the praise of people. Yet they loved receiving the adulation and praise from the people! The leaders, particularly the scribes, were highly esteemed and venerated. The scribe was distinguished by his long white linen robe with a fringed mantle reaching to the feet. White linen clothes were regarded as a mark of distinction and so the scribes and priests wore white and left bright colors to the common people.
The scribes were honored with unbounded respect and when a scribe passed on the street or in the market, the people were expected to stand respectfully. The scribe was greeted with titles of deep respect: “Rabbi,” “Father,” “Master.” In the synagogues as well the seat of honor was reserved for him and in fact he would sit at the front facing the congregation in full view of the people. When the important men of Jerusalem gave a feast they considered it a badge of distinction to have a distinguished scribe and his pupils attending. The highest places of honor were assigned to them, and the scribe was given priority in honor over the aged and even over the person’s parents. Jesus condemns the scribes for their desire and love for these tokens of status and for the way they continually worked on receiving it!
We don’t have our teachers walking around and displaying such pride... or do we? Ask a pastor today how many members are in his church and watch him either puff up with pride or shrink in stature based on the number of people in the chairs on Sunday. Pastors of churches with large memberships are generally given great deference and honor by Christians today. And many of them love and thrive on the attention that it gives them.
Of course, it’s not just churches either. In any organization, there will be those who make sure you know their standing. If someone were the special assistant secretary to the assistant to the undersecretary of the Secretary of the department of labor, they would probably let you know it! In the academic world, the number of degrees a person has is a source of pride. We must be keenly aware of the sin of pride that Jesus is talking about.
He continues: “If you believe them, you will become an empty shell. It will kill your ministry and rob you of the glorious liberty that is the heritage of a child of God. They will tell you, when you talk about sin, that you, of course, know sin only by hearsay. If you believe that, you will become a Pharisee and rob others of the liberty God would give to them.”
Brown concludes, “The danger for all of us is that we will think we are better, more spiritual and know more than others. Some Christians have such a high opinion of themselves that they think God is quite fortunate to have them. That would be of no import except that others, also because of a false self-image, believe them, making the church into an army of generals instead of a fellowship of people who love the King. Because grace runs downhill, it is very important that you not stake out your territory at the top of the hill.” Let God’s grace run down on us and forget about the silly human notions of pride.
III. The further sin of greed and its resulting punishment is seen then in verse 40.
The problem was deeper than just pride for the leaders were also abusing their position. In the first century AD, the scribes lived primarily on subsidies, since they were not allowed to be paid for doing their profession. While a few scribes were reduced to begging, there is a lot of evidence that shows that many of the Jerusalem scribes belonged to the poorer classes. Offering hospitality to them was strongly encouraged as an act of piety. It was also considered to be particularly meritorious to give money to the scribes.
So Jesus’ charge that the scribes “devoured widows’ houses” refers to the fact that they often sponged on the hospitality of people of limited means. They evidently had no problem taking advantage of the poor by receiving those gifts from the poor and then living lavish lives. Think of the stories now of health and wealth pastors taking the last bit of money from poor people who give with the hope that God will bless them with more. And in the meantime, the wealthy pastors live in luxury because it shows how much God has blessed them!
These Jewish leaders made much of public prayers as well. This gave them an opportunity to win the esteem of people. And of course with the esteem would come increased wealth. They had lost the perspective of being in the service of God. And as a result Jesus says that God will punish them severely! This condemnation of the scribes concludes Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry. But it is this confrontation which will inevitably lead to Jesus’ death.
What do we learn from this? Let’s make sure that we don’t limit God’s kingdom to our own thinking and plans. We are concerned about our nation and things happening in our nation, but let’s never forget that God’s kingdom is far, far greater than any nation. The people in Jesus’ day were looking for a kingdom on earth. Jesus wants us to look to a kingdom that transcends all earthly kingdoms.
And let’s beware of our own pride in whatever it is that God calls us to do. The center of our lives should be God’s kingdom. The center of our attention should be God and not ourselves. We live to glorify God and not to seek glory in or for ourselves.
Jesus is King, and not only over each one of us individually, but over his kingdom. And that kingdom is far greater than anything we can imagine. Let’s live to serve him and glorify him as we live in that kingdom.