Chapter 19. The end of the old regime
Please read Mark 12:13-44
In 2009, Bernard Madoff was brought to trial. His name is almost laughably appropriate to what he was found to have done, for he literally ‘made off’ with billions of dollars of his investors’ money. His scheme for ripping people off was not specially original; essentially, it works like this. You persuade a few people to invest their money and promise them a highly impressive rate of return. After a while, they can get their money back, and you pay them everything you’ve promised. Now the word spreads; very soon many more investors are piling in, eager to hand over their cash because you’ve proved you will honour your promise. As time goes by, you acquire a huge heap of people’s money. The few who want to withdraw, you pay with the money from new investors – until the inevitable day when it all collapses, everyone demands their money back and there is almost no money to be found. The whole scheme looks so appealing, so attractive; but in fact it is just a giant confidence trick. Madoff’s trial was a sensation; at last, the long-hidden truth came to light. Thousands of people had lost money, including many who had seen their life savings wiped out, elderly and invalids who handed over their entire pension funds and in some cases were now destitute. When it eventually came, Madoff’s punishment was severe: a sentence of 150 years in prison, without parole. It was a relief to everyone when the judge declared that his reign of exploitation was at an end. There is really nothing amusing about hypocrisy like this.
In this next section of Mark’s gospel, Jesus concludes his public ministry; and he does so with what amounts to a sentence of death on the old religious regime. He confronts one group after another and declares them spiritually bankrupt. In the parable of the tenants (12:1-12), he has already established his authority to make such judgements: now he condemns the old regime for their hypocrisy and failure. Their days of misleading the people and turning the God-given Law into an intolerable burden are at an end. This theme is the thread which ties together the succession of encounters which Jesus now has with his opponents, even though the issues – taxes, death and resurrection, love for God and neighbour and so on – at first appear so different.
God or Caesar?
The shock of the parliamentary expenses scandal which struck recently in the UK continues to reverberate. It ended the careers of several ministers and dozens of other members of parliament, as well as the Speaker of the Commons himself. We discovered that a good quality Stockholm duck house will cost you £1,645, not to mention what it costs to roll paddocks, clean out swimming pools and install chandeliers – all items which MPs had claimed as legitimate expenses. The expenses scandal was certainly a shock. Its main impact on our national life has been to make people think even worse of politicians. It has made it very hard for politicians to speak with any authority on issues of morality and integrity. All in all, we have become a more cynical people. We might be surprised to find that the Bible has something to say about this subject; but the New Testament was written in a world that knew all about corruption. The whole issue of paying taxes and who you were paying them to was far more edgy in those days than it is today. It was an explosive question, a question potentially of life and death; and that makes the story in vv.13-17 all the more significant. This story about paying taxes leads up to one of Jesus’ best-known sayings – but it’s also one of the most misunderstood.
As we begin, the top-level delegation from 11:27 have abandoned the attack and retreated. But they are not willing to leave it at that. In v.13 we find them launching another attack; and the group the leaders now dispatch is an unusual combination. The Pharisees we know well by now. They are the great purists of the Jewish religion. For them, national salvation lies in a scrupulous observance of the Law of Moses. Just to be helpful, they have added hundreds of extra rules and regulations around and on top of the Law, in theory to make sure that no-one breaks the Law by mistake, but in practice making obedience an unbearable burden. The Herodians are much more obscure, and outside the New Testament they hardly get a mention. All we can gather is that they are some kind of political pressure group: they see Israel’s best hope of survival in supporting the dynasty of the Herods. The various Herods may be a dodgy bunch, they think, rightly; but at least if we can keep them between us and the Romans we have a chance of survival. In fact in Judea, which includes Jerusalem, the Herods are no longer in power and the Romans are ruling directly through governor Pilate, whom the Jews cordially detest. It is an unusual combination of purists and the pragmatists, but the authorities clearly see Jesus as such a serious threat by now that they are willing to try anything. Mark tells us explicitly that their aim is to catch Jesus, to trip him up in some unguarded statement. They approach Jesus among the crowds in the Temple and launch their attack with a most remarkable speech (vv.14-15). It’s obvious that they are simply trying to butter him up. There is a double irony in this speech. The first is that everything they say about Jesus is true! It is precisely his integrity and refusal to be intimidated that is making their lives so difficult – he simply will not be shifted from his mission. The irony is that they are pretending to praise him for what they find so infuriating! The second irony is that the character they accurately describe of Jesus is so diametrically opposed to their own – especially the Herodians who seem to have no principles whatsoever. By paying him these compliments, they hope to put Jesus off guard.
The question they ask is a very good one, and very cleverly selected. Caesar, by the way, is not a personal name, it’s a title: Emperor. The current Caesar is Tiberius. The repetition in the question makes it more probing. We get the sense that they are insisting on a simple, direct answer this time! In the debate about authority, Jesus asked a question that put his opponents on the spot (11:30). Now, Jesus’ opponents are trying the same tactic on him. They are following his example by asking him a question where either answer, in this very public place, could spell suicide. The danger in the question is that this tax is the Roman poll-tax, levied at a flat rate on everyone who owns property. This tax, which has been in force for around twenty-five years, is paid directly to the Roman authorities and is therefore a concrete symbol of the occupation of their land. Every patriotic Jew loathes having to pay it. Beyond that, their attitudes differ. From what we know of the times, the Pharisees resent it as a humiliation, but they pay up. The Herodians will support it because doing so keeps the peace. The Zealots – the extremists who are working themselves up to rise in revolt against Roman rule – refuse point-blank to pay the tax. Among Jesus’ supporters from Galilee, some of whom are no doubt within earshot at this moment, there are plenty of Zealots. It is a political trap. Jesus has a choice. He can say it is right to pay, and thus alienate many of his supporters by looking like a collaborator. Or he can say, No – an announcement the authorities will be very interested to hear, and his enemies will make sure they hear it very soon. There’s a Roman fortress (the Antonia, on the northern side of the Temple) about a hundred yards away as they speak.
Unfortunately for them, Jesus is more than a match for their strategy (v.15b). He can see straight through their attempt to catch him off-guard. No doubt their hearts sink as not only does Jesus not fall into their trap, but he refuses again to give an instant answer! The denarius he calls for is a common Roman coin – the only coin acceptable for paying the Roman tax. That Jesus himself doesn’t seem to have one in his possession probably reflects his own poverty, but someone rummages around and finds one and they gather round to look at it (v.16): a silver coin, with a picture of the Emperor Tiberius on one side. The coin presents him as the son of the god Augustus and the goddess Livia – the Emperor Augustus and Livia his wife were indeed the parents of Tiberius, but the Romans are hailing them as gods and Tiberius is well on the way to god-hood himself. The coin gives him the title, Pontifex Maximus, Supreme high priest – all very worrying for any Jew who’s committed to worshipping the one, true God, Yahweh. Finally Jesus gives his answer (v.17), the short saying that is so familiar. What does it mean? Let’s unpack the two parts of Jesus’ reply here.
First, giving to Caesar. We need to be clear about what this does not mean, for this little sentence has given rise to a lot of confusion. It does not mean, as some have suggested, ‘All these coins belong to Caesar, so send them all back to him and let’s get rid of this polluted Roman money.’ Jesus never makes that kind of openly political statement. Neither does it mean, ‘get rid of the authority that all money represents and let’s create a society without authority: let’s have some kind of anarchy’. Occasionally you do find Christians who hold that kind of view, but in fact there is no support for anarchy, Christian or otherwise, in the New Testament; and anyone who thinks anarchy is a good idea needs to go and live in Somalia or some similarly chaotic place for a year! Nor does Jesus mean that there are some things which belong to God and other things which belong to this world, as if not everything belongs to God, as if there are some things which are ‘sacred’ – God’s special stuff – and some things which are ‘secular’ – not God’s special stuff. No, the truth is that everything belongs to God. As Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and politician, put it, There is not one inch of human existence about which Jesus Christ does not cry, That is mine. That’s a beautiful summary of what the Bible teaches. So ‘giving to Caesar’, for a Christian, has to be part of ‘giving to God’.
When Jesus talks of ‘giving to Caesar’ he is doing something very significant, if his hearers can understand it. He is telling them that he hasn’t come to do what his supporters want him to do, to put the clock back to the glory days of the kings of Israel. He is not going to re-create an earthly theocracy, where God is the government, as in old Israel. Jesus is saying that the human government, even bad government, has a claim on them. Yes, the Roman government is hated and corrupt; yes, it gained its power through military might – but for all that’s wrong with them, they have a claim. So give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The simple answer to the question is, Yes. You should pay the tax.
In saying this, Jesus lays the foundation for all subsequent New Testament teaching about how his people should relate to the State, especially in Romans 13:1-7. For us, rather obviously, this means we should pay our taxes, faithfully, fully and on time; we certainly should not try to dodge them. There have been times when people have refused to pay their taxes, or part of their taxes, for conscientious reasons; that has included some Christians. Often people have taken that stand with very clear and courageous motives. Some wanted to withhold their taxes over the 2003 Iraq war, for example. They said, This war is not to be waged in my name, and I will not contribute to it in any way. I applaud their sincerity. But I have to say that Scripture gives very little support to this kind of idea. The New Testament gives little support to any form of civil disobedience by Christians, even in a rather passive sense such as non-payment of taxes. That doesn’t mean that Christians should not protest or take action against evil and injustice; but it does mean that in most circumstances we should stay within the law – unless and until the law forbids us directly to do what God has commanded. We should also recognise that at least in Western countries today we are far better off than the Jews of Jesus’ day. How much of their taxes would go to pay for schools and hospitals, to pay for teachers, nurses and doctors? In case you’re wondering, the answer is: none at all! Nearly all the taxes they paid, leaving aside the amounts siphoned off by corrupt officials like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), would go to pay for the armies of occupation, the lifestyles of the provincial authorities, or to bribe the mob in Rome so that they wouldn’t overthrow the government. But Jesus still tells them to pay! In fact, in this passage, Jesus is telling the Jews to pay taxes to the occupying authority which is about to crucify him!
That leads on to a more general point. It may shock us to say it, but we should be grateful for our government! In the UK, for example, we may feel cynical about the expenses scandal, but in how many countries in the world today would that abuse ever have come to light? As for ancient Rome – it’s hard to imagine Pontius Pilate, or the Emperor Tiberius, even writing an expenses claim, let alone allowing the national press to quibble over a few million denarii here or there! If we have the privilege and blessing of living in a country where it still is a scandal, where it does make people resign, we should be grateful! We have great privileges that were denied to the early Church and that are denied to most of our brothers and sisters in the world today – to live in a society where we can engage with the process of government and where we can make a difference. We must use these freedoms while we still have them – to argue our corner, to call for justice, to give praise where praise is due. Yes, our true citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) – but as Christians we are also called to be good citizens here – above all, for the sake of the gospel. That is our priority. Let’s not be cynical. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Secondly, giving to God. We’ve already said that Jesus is not dividing the world into two realms here, one that belongs to God and one that does not. It all belongs to God. ‘Giving to Caesar’ comes underneath ‘giving to God’. By putting it like this, Jesus is again making a revolutionary point. He is saying that earthly rulers can’t claim unlimited power. That may seem obvious today, for those of us who have grown up in a democracy and known no other way – but in those days, and in some places today, it is revolutionary! Tiberius has no right to make these claims on his coins. There is a higher authority before whom the world’s biggest dictators, the greatest autocrats, must learn to bow. Even they will one day bow the knee to God and to his Son Jesus Christ. Far better for them to do it soon! And our own governments likewise are accountable to God for every step they take.
But when Jesus says, ‘Give to God what is God’s’ in this company, it has a very pointed meaning. This is the sting in the tail; this is why his answer can’t just be picked up and turned against him. Once again, he has turned the tables on his opponents. In ch 11 we saw how Jesus cursed the fig-tree. He went looking for fruit but he found nothing but leaves. The tree put on a good show but produced nothing of use. Meaning: the nation has not given to God what is rightfully his. In ch 12 Jesus told the parable of the tenants and the vineyard. The owner sends his servants to collect the fruit; but nothing is forthcoming. Meaning: the nation’s leaders have not given to God what is rightfully his. Now Jesus says it right out and in public: Give to God what is God’s. It’s like a final thrust to the parable of the tenants. Jesus is saying, It’s all very well playing games with me about paying tax or not paying tax. But this is what you people have missed. You haven’t given God what he wants from you. That is the worst sentence God can declare over anyone. This is judgement. This is fatal. No wonder they are ‘amazed’. Here once more there is an opportunity to respond. Here once more, they are face to face with the one who will be their Saviour; yet all they are doing is looking for evidence that will kill him. If only they believed their own speech – yes, he truly is Jesus the man of integrity, teaching God’s way in accordance with the truth. But to them it means nothing. The same message comes to us: ‘Give to God what is God’s.’ What is God’s, what belongs to God, is everything. He claims every inch of this earth for his own, and he claims us, all that we have, and all that we are.
Near or far?
In vv.18-34, Jesus speaks of the certainty we have as his people. He speaks of the relationship we have with God: the Lord’s unbreakable commitment to us and our wholehearted response to the Lord. He shows us that we have a solid and certain hope that goes beyond death, because we have a God who is unshakeably faithful and true. All this arises out of yet more questioning, directed to Jesus first by the Sadducees and then by a teacher of the Law: one man who is near to the Kingdom, Jesus says, and a group who are far outside it.
First, in v.18, come the Sadducees. Unlike some of the other delegations, they don’t come as part of a combined plan of attack; and that’s not surprising, because the Sadducees are fierce opponents of the Pharisees and the Jewish mainstream. Our knowledge of the Sadducees is limited. Everything we know comes from their opponents; and because they were so closely associated with the Temple, they more or less disappeared when it was destroyed in AD 70. We do know they are stricter than the Pharisees in their interpretation of the Law. They are very keen on preserving the life of the Temple and keeping the status quo, even if that means collaborating with the Romans. They are theologically conservative in the sense that they reject what they see as later or new-fangled ideas: they don’t like the extra traditions which the Pharisees have added to the Law; and, crucially, they reject the resurrection. So in this story they are taking advantage of the atmosphere of controversy around Jesus to challenge him on this thorny issue of their own.
To do this, they invent a very silly story. It’s based on a law which you can find in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, which said that if a man dies without children, his brother must marry the widow and have children by her, so that the family line is carried on. The reason for the law is that in old Israel – an agricultural, land-based society – ownership of the land was vital and family lines had to be preserved. But the Sadducees see their chance to produce a knock-down proof that the resurrection is a daft idea (vv.19-23). Seven is a good number for making the story sound proverbial and serious – which it isn’t! In turn, each brother marries the same woman but dies without any children being born. So last of all, this much-married lady arrives in heaven and there are all seven husbands: what does she do?! Jesus, frankly, is not impressed by their argument. In his reply – and this time it’s a very straight reply! – he begins and ends by telling them they are totally misguided. But it’s Jesus’ robust response to the Sadducees that encourages the next questioner to join the fray (v.28). The teachers of the Law, or scribes, are mostly Pharisees; Matthew’s account of this incident confirms that he is (Matthew 22:34-40). We could have worked that out, because Mark tells us here that he approves of Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees. The Pharisees believe in the resurrection; by this time, most Jews do. We know of a prayer that was routinely used at burials: ‘God will cause you to arise. Blessed be he who keeps his word and raises the dead.’ Now one of them comes up with a question of his own.
Again, the question is based on the Law of Moses, but this time the questioner does not come across as a cynic. This man is sincere. He wants to know which of all God’s commandments is the most important. It’s a popular debating point; and it will be interesting to see what kind of answer Jesus produces. Jesus gives a very clear answer (vv.29-31). Yes, there is one command that dominates all the others. It encapsulates the first half of the Ten Commandments. Jesus quotes directly from Deuteronomy 6:29-30. He quotes what is called the Shema, after its first word in Hebrew, ‘Hear’. It’s used morning and evening every day by pious Jews as a prayer and a confession of faith. The commandment which takes second place is found in Leviticus – ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, summing up the second half of the Ten Commandments. Love for God, love for your fellow man: that’s what matters, Jesus says. His questioner, the teacher, agrees (vv.32-33). ‘Well said!’ he responds. This time Jesus does not dismiss him as mistaken. He sees that the man has tuned in to what he has told him: he has ‘answered wisely’ (v.34). In fact, ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God’. We might think this man would feel flattered – but that’s because we are so used to thinking that Jesus is great and the Pharisees are villains. But this teacher of the law is like a university professor; he is a career expert based in the nation’s highest seat of learning; and to him Jesus is something like a promising student from some northern backwater. To him, this is Cambridge professor addressing rustic yokel! So how does the professor feel when the student replies: ‘Not bad. That’s quite a promising answer.’? The teacher thinks he has just marked Jesus’ exam paper – but in truth, it’s the other way round. Jesus has put this man squarely in his place. That is why no-one dares to ask him any more questions. Jesus has seen off the high priests, the elders, the Sadducees and the Pharisees; none of them can lay a finger on him. From now on, he asks the questions!
So much for the hostile Sadducees – far from the Kingdom – and the friendly Pharisee – near to the Kingdom. Through these two encounters, if we look again more closely, we will see that Jesus has shown us what knowing God is all about. Beyond and above the questioning and banter, the manoeuvring and debating, this is what it means to be in a relationship with the living God. The encounter with the Sadducees shows us one side of the picture; the encounter with the teacher shows us the other.
First, we see God’s side: an unbreakable commitment. Notice how Jesus responds to the Sadducees in vv.24-27. In v.24 he tells them, You don’t know what God is able to do, and you don’t know what God has said he will do. Now he deals with the issue of marriage, although it is not really the main point. In general, the Jews, if they believe in the resurrection, assume that human relationships will be picked up in the new world exactly where we left off in this world. Jesus says, That’s not how it is – which means that the Sadducees’ silly story is exactly that. There will be no marriage in the new world – and Jesus clearly is talking about the new heavens and new earth, when we have resurrection bodies. When he says we’ll be like the angels (v.25), don’t take that too far: Jesus simply means that just as angels don’t have marriages, neither will we. Probably he is hinting at the fact that the Sadducees don’t have much of a belief in angels either (see Acts 23:8). The way that we react to that news may depend on whether we have been blissfully married for fifty years, or have a less than happy marriage, or are single; but all such reactions miss the point. In fact, if there were marriages in the new world, they’d all be perfect, like everything else there! The point is that we will be in a better relationship than any marriage, even the best imaginable, because we will be in a relationship with Christ that surpasses anything we can begin to grasp. Hear the marriage song of heaven in Revelation 19:6-9. If we belong to him, that song is for us.
However, for this passage, that is not the main issue! The main issue is the resurrection. Look again at vv.26-27. I have often puzzled over this saying; maybe you have too. How does this reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob prove anything about the resurrection? They hadn’t been resurrected, had they? Most commentators fail to come up with any satisfactory explanation – or at least, they don’t convince me! Usually they say one of two things. Either Jesus is using some kind of strange, rabbinic argumentation that doesn’t really work for us; or else he is forced to use a text from Moses, even though it doesn’t really prove the resurrection, because this is the only part of the Old Testament that the Sadducees accept. There are much clearer texts elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is said, but Jesus doesn’t use them because the Sadducees won’t believe them. In fact, there is no good evidence for the idea that the Sadducees accepted only the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses (though they did accord it higher status than the other books). It probably started with some confusion with the Samaritans, who did accept only the Pentateuch. So to find the real reason Jesus uses this story and the glorious truth it reveals, let’s go to the place Jesus is quoting from.
The story comes from Exodus 3 – Moses at the burning bush. Out in the desert, the Lord summons Moses from out of the fire, Moses approaches and the Lord speaks (Exodus 3:5-6). Now read the two verses which follow. The story is about God remembering his promises to his people and coming to deliver them from their desperate predicament as slaves in Egypt. In that setting, God introduces himself as the God of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is saying, Just as I was the rescuer and protector of your ancestors, so I will be your rescuer and protector here and now. God made a covenant with those men of old. He gave them promises. He looked after them year after year; and he will do just the same for Moses. In every trial, in every struggle, God will be there. But how much is that promise really worth? After all, the trials of this life are only a faint shadow of the greatest trial, the greatest enemy of all – death itself. What kind of God would he be, if when we arrived at this one supreme trial, he said: Sorry – I can’t help you here! He’d be ‘the God of the dead’! He would be a God who broke his promise to be faithful to his people. When God says, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’, it has to mean, I was faithful to them all the way through, in life and in death. They are not just ancient history or honoured memory to me; their story goes on. Moses, I will be the same for you, in life and in death. This is the Lord’s certain promise of resurrection. Today, as he is our God too, he will be the same for us, in life and in death – through the trials of this life and through the greatest trial of all which lies at life’s end. There is a resurrection: there is a hope – because our God is faithful, because he does not drop us at the toughest times. ‘He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.’ The Sadducees don’t grasp this. Like some of our own opponents today, their minds simply cannot embrace a God as great as ours. But our God has made an unbreakable commitment to his children – unbreakable by anything in life and unbreakable by death. He will take us through, and one day will come our resurrection to new life in a new and perfect world.
Now to our side of the relationship: A wholehearted response. Look again at how Jesus answers the teacher of the law in vv.29-31. Many people say they love God, but they don’t all mean the same thing. The key point to notice here is that our love for God springs from who this God is. Jesus begins with a statement about him: even before the command to love, there is a call to understand. ‘The Lord is one’. That also means that God is unique. He is the only God. We are not in a position, as some religions claim, where we can pick our favourite god and worship that one. No, there is one God with almighty power in this universe, only one who holds sway, who is sovereign, who has created us, and to whom we must answer.
This God has made the first move. The Lord is ‘our God’, ‘your God’ (vv.29-30). Back in the days of Israel’s desert wanderings, when these words were first spoken, Israel was already God’s own people because he had called them to himself, brought them into relationship and declared his unbreakable commitment to them. That grace came first; that was how he became ‘your God’. You see how much of this is about God and what he has done, and how little is about us. In response to such a great and unique God, in response to his first move reaching out to us, this is what our love for him must look like. It’s an extreme love, wholehearted, single-minded, full-strength. Of course love is a feeling; but the love which God calls for is vastly more. It pulls and draws on every fibre of our being. Nothing less is enough for such a God. It’s a love that transforms our attitudes, because we want to please him and be like him. Loving God means not loving money, not pursuing a comfortable life just because it seems the easy thing to do. It’s a love that changes our decisions, because we are determined that our lives will count for his glory. Our life choices, our career choices, our relationship and marriage choices, will be made deliberately for the love of God, as we delight in him for all that he is. It’s a love that takes us into places that we would never otherwise go – for God’s glory and for the love of our neighbour. A love like this, so strong and uncompromising, can’t come from us. It can be in us only if God himself has put it here in the first place!
This teacher of the law seems to have all the right answers, even to knowing that these commands to love matter more than the sacrifices God has told his people to perform (v.33). The prophets knew that, but even so it takes some saying when you are standing within earshot of the great altar of sacrifice – that love for God and man matters more than what is going on just over there. But still Jesus will only say: ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God’. You’re still not in it. Why? It is because there is only one way in to the Kingdom of God. The only way in to the Kingdom is knowing Jesus himself. This teacher of the law has a lot of right answers, but so far he still does not have Jesus. Here is a warning to us. Getting in to the Kingdom means far more than knowing the right answers. You may have been brought up in church and be first with all the answers. But even then, you may only be ‘not far’ from the Kingdom. ‘Not far’ is still the outside. Are you near – are you far – or have you come inside?
Reality or hypocrisy?
In the final section of Mark 12 – vv.35-44 – Jesus takes direct aim at the Bernard Madoffs of the spiritual realm. He shows us the difference between the fakes and the genuine article. This passage gives us the very end of Jesus’ public ministry, plus a follow-up session with his disciples. Then he will leave the Temple for the last time. The setting is still the Temple courts. Now Jesus goes onto the offensive, posing a difficult question which is aimed at the teachers of the law (v.35). From what we know, these teachers are held in high honour. People rise to their feet as they pass by. In the synagogue a special seat is reserved for them, in full view of the congregation. They favour long white robes which mark them out from the colours that the ordinary people wear. Everything about them breathes respectability, seriousness, gravitas. Even so, there is a hint that not everyone takes the scribes as seriously as they take themselves. When Jesus throws out his question, which no-one is willing to pick up and answer, we find in v.37 that the crowds are quite happy to see these experts being given a hard time; and Jesus has just proved he can run rings round them. Meanwhile, receiving no answer to his question Jesus now proceeds to lay into these scribes (vv.38-40). He is saying that these people are not all they seem. Behind the fine façade there is a very ugly reality. At the end of it all, they are going to be judged. In Mark’s gospel, significantly, that warning of judgement is the very last public statement that Jesus makes.
The final part of this story takes place in a slightly different location. Jesus moves on from the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost courtyard of the Temple compound, to the next courtyard further in, the Court of Women. Any Jew can go this far; but no Gentile, if he values his life, is permitted to enter. It’s here in the Court of Women that the offering boxes are placed, fixed to the walls, thirteen of them in all, with trumpet-shaped funnels into which you throw your money. If you give a lot, it will make a nice loud clatter as it falls into the box. Here Jesus sits and watches what happens (vv.41-42). He sees plenty of people who are obviously well-off, walking by and throwing in their contributions – impressively large amounts, in some cases. But then someone else appears. A poor widow – her poverty at least will be obvious from her dress – and her contribution to Temple funds makes no impressive sound. A barely audible clink is all that ensues as she puts in two tiny coins. The coin is the lepton – one of the smallest copper coins in existence, each worth less than one-hundredth of the denarius mentioned in v.15. Mark tells his readers that together these coins are worth a quadrans: that may not mean much to us, but it does confirm that he is almost certainly writing for people in Rome, because the quadrans is a Roman coin that is only used in the western Empire, and not in places like Palestine
What does this story show us about reality and hypocrisy? Let’s start with Jesus. The first truth this passage shows us is that Jesus is the ultimate reality. This takes us into vv.35-37 and Jesus’ tricky question. The Jews and their teachers understand that God is going to send a Messiah, a Christ – a specially designated leader who will rescue his people and reign over them as king. He will be a descendant in right line from the great King David. That is the great national hope; and whichever of the various parties they belong to, and even though they won’t all see it the same way, it’s a hope that all the Jews share. It’s a hope that springs directly from the pages of the Old Testament, for example in Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Isaiah 9:6-7. Jesus’ question is this. How can the teachers say that this Christ is going to be David’s descendant when David himself describes him as his ‘lord’? The reference is to Psalm 110, written by David, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God, and understood by everyone to be talking about the coming Messiah-King. Let’s clarify the quotation. In English the first line sounds confusing, but in the original Hebrew it was crystal clear. The first ‘Lord’ is Yahweh, the unique name for God himself. That’s why in Psalm 110 itself the English translations put it in capital letters. The second ‘Lord’, ‘my Lord’, is adonay, which can refer to God but doesn’t always. It means someone of superior status, someone higher than you. So: God speaks to ‘my Lord’ and says, Sit in this place of greatest honour and I will deal with your enemies. I will make you king. So here’s the point – v.37. David is calling this coming Messiah ‘Lord’. But no-one – certainly no-one of the greatness and majesty of King David – would call his own descendant ‘Lord’. The ancestor is the superior one. So, as we’d say today, ‘What’s that all about then?’
No-one knows. No-one can answer; because what Jesus has just shown them is that the coming Christ has to be more than merely man. He’s proved it from a psalm they know is about the Messiah. He can’t just be a human king, because he is David’s ‘lord’. They can’t answer the question, but we can. We know what this means: what Jesus at this point is only hinting at – that he himself is the Christ, that yes, he is the Son of David, and that he is far more than mere man. That is why, speaking by the Holy Spirit, David looks ahead and calls Jesus Christ ‘my Lord’. That is why Psalm 110 becomes the New Testament’s favourite Old Testament Scripture, quoted more times than any other – because here we see the glory and majesty of Jesus revealed ahead of time. As Psalm 110 goes on to say, He will judge nations. The ends of the earth will acknowledge this Christ, they will all acknowledge him as Lord and King and God; and they will meet him as their judge. The Old Testament contains the seeds of all these great truths; in the New, the seeds spring to life in Christ as he is revealed as the final, supreme and glorious revelation of God to humanity. This is what gives him the right to judge. In fact this is the final answer to the question about his authority in 11:28. In a sense, he’s been answering that question ever since. Jesus is the ultimate reality; and this is what gives him the right to say what he says next.
Secondly, then, Jesus condemns the fakes (vv.38-40). Not every teacher of the law is necessarily like this. Presumably the one we met in v.28 was not; but as a group, this is what they look like. They are fakes. Their lives are one big lie. Jesus gives four hallmarks of hypocrisy. Number one: an obsession with appearance. They are proud of their flowing robes which mark them out for all to see. Everything Jesus describes in vv.38-39 takes place in public, where everyone can observe. They are obsessed with looking right and keeping up appearances! Number two: a passion for status. Those greetings in public places will be made with titles of honour: they relish being addressed as Rabbi, Master teacher. They always have a close eye on the seating plan and that special place that is rightfully theirs. Being first on the guest list of the rich and famous is what matters. Number three: a false spirituality. They can pray long and impressive prayers. Jesus is not saying there is anything wrong with long prayers – what he condemns is that they do it all for show. It’s all false. They do it all to conceal what they are really up to; because number four is this: a ruthless greed. ‘They devour widows’ houses’. The scribes are not allowed to make money from their activities; they are supported by people’s giving. In theory, they might be very poor; but from what Jesus says, not many of them are. To look after a scribe is felt to be a very worthy activity. So the temptation is there for the scribes relentlessly to sponge on people’s hospitality. There’s a widow, left with some property and a few savings. She wants to do what is right, so she invites a scribe round for dinner from time to time. Before she knows what’s happened, he has done a Madoff and taken her for all she’s got. All this when widows are singled out in the law as people who need special attention and care.
Behind this respectable veneer, says Jesus, this apparent spirituality, this swanning around in fine clothes, this honour and distinction – behind all this, there is no reality: no heart for God, no love for people, not even any true reverence for his Word which they make so much of. It’s one big lie – and Jesus condemns them (v.40b). As we’ve seen, Jesus has every right to say that. He is the judge. Now it’s at this point that the spotlight turns on us. You may say, I don’t see much of this going on in my church. I don’t see too many people sitting in special seats or showing off their long robes! Maybe not; but hypocrisy takes many forms. The truth is that many people have been put off the Christian faith, prevented even from coming to church, by the nauseating hypocrisy they find inside. Perhaps you yourself have been disgusted by the yawning gap between what some Christians say and the way that they live. If you really believe that there is none of this hypocrisy in your own life, then you have my permission to close the book now. Otherwise, come with me and let’s revisit what Jesus says here.
An obsession with appearance? That’s you, if you care as much about how people see you as you care about how the Lord does. It may be your clothes – it may actually be that you go to church on Sunday to be looked at – but more likely it’s about keeping up a good front, letting everyone think you are what you are not. It doesn’t take flowing white robes to do that. A passion for status? Here is a challenge for any leaders, especially anyone who gets a buzz from being admired, from being well-known either within the church or beyond. There are too many Christian leaders who clearly care more about status than they do about service. A false spirituality? How easy it is to pretend that we are doing well when in fact our spiritual life is in tatters, we rarely open the Bible and we never pray outside church services. We disguise our emptiness with spiritual language, just as a Madoff concealed his empty scheme with high-flown financial jargon. We avoid the challenge that might come if people knew what we were really like. And a ruthless greed? Perhaps we are not exploiting the poor as obviously as that – or at least, not the ones we will ever meet. But there are Christians who really care only about money, about when they can move into a bigger house or buy a newer and shinier car, as if it mattered; and if that means their family suffers or they have no time to serve God, so be it. Jesus says that fakes will be judged. Let these words search our hearts.
Finally in this story, Jesus approves the genuine. Remember what happens in vv.41-42. How would the world judge this scene? In business, what counts for most? A big order or a small order? A large income or a small income? It doesn’t need an answer. In church, surely a big gift must automatically be worth more. Yet that is not what Jesus says (vv.43-44). Whatever might be true in the world at large, says Jesus, in the eyes of God this widow with her few pennies has given more than all the big guys. They had plenty to give, and they gave some of it. But she gave her everything – all she had. Literally, she gave out of her lack. This woman is the genuine article. Clearly, there is a challenge for us here too. If you give sacrificially to the Lord’s work, to the point where it makes a difference to your lifestyle, Jesus sees it. Just as he sat and watched the people’s giving on that day in the Temple, so he sees each of us today. As for those who don’t give, God’s Word shows us clearly that giving money to the Lord’s work is a basic part of following Jesus. Not giving ‘what you can afford’ – that’s what these wealthy people were doing; not giving from what’s left over at the end of the month. It’s an adventure of faith to see what God will do when you give him full access to your money – when your wallet finally gets converted! Serious giving is a blessing to the giver just as much as the receiver, and you will never be the loser.
There is an even deeper challenge here also. This woman, this genuine, wholehearted lover of God, didn’t give a proportion. She gave everything. If she could, she would have squeezed herself into the collection box. That’s what this story really calls us to do. Jesus calls his disciples to an all-or-nothing faith, to trust the Lord for everything, without exception.