This is the thirty-eighth installment, comprising Act 5, Scene 9, chapter 12:28-44, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-seventh installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 9: 12:35-44
35 While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? 36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, "The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet." ' 37 David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?" And the large crowd was listening to him with delight. 38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." 41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." (NRSV)
Jesus has not left the Temple, regardless of how difficult his encounters with the authorities at the Temple have been. After Act 5, Scene8, Mark has actually let some of the suspense dissipate and allowed time for Jesus to teach. The tension has been relaxed, at least for a time, while we are allowed to catch our breath and join the “large crowd” which listens to him with “delight” (12:37). Jesus puts to the crowd a conundrum,
“How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by 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 can he be his son?” (12:35-37)
What is behind this riddle? The Scripture itself, precisely Psalm 110:1: 1: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
The passage is straightforward in many ways. The Psalm is attributed, as are many Psalms, to King David himself. Psalm 110:1 was seen as a royal or messianic Psalm, in which God says to the King that he is to sit at God’s side while the King’s enemies are subdued. Jesus asks why the scribes say the Messiah is to be a son of David, but certainly Jesus knows it is not just the scribes, but Scripture itself, such as 2 Samuel 7, where God says he “will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me” (7:12-14). So, not just the scribes suggest that the Messiah will be a “son of David;” it seems Scripture makes the same claim.
The verse which Jesus cites from Psalm 110, though, contains the phrase, “The Lord said to my Lord,” which Jesus interprets as God speaking to his royal son who is himself “Lord,” or God. This cannot be a simple, human “son of David” (though Matthew 1:1 will certainly claim Jesus is at least that). What makes Jesus’ statement here interesting, though, is his willingness to push at common scriptural understandings: “David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” It is an odd place to push, since Scripture captures this meaning of the Messiah as “son of David,” but Jesus’ exegesis points to another level of meaning: however the Messiah is a “son of David” it does not mean he is simply a human descendant, for Psalm 110:1 tells us by David’s own lips that God acknowledges him as Lord.
Note that this challenge to Jewish understanding not just of the Messiah, but of the divine itself is met with “delight” (12:37). But note, too, where Mark has situated this scene, namely, immediately following the scene in which Jesus reiterates the Jewish belief in the oneness and unity of God. Now Mark has Jesus make an outstanding claim, that the Messiah - and as readers and listeners of this Gospel we know this is Jesus - is not just human but somehow divine. It could hardly be more subtle or profound, yet the crowd according to Mark is excited by this claim. How will the authorities accept a Jesus who claims divinity for himself, when they cannot accept a Jesus as Messiah who had yet to make such a bold claim?
As he continues to teach, we see that the calm which Mark has granted us cannot last, it is only a means to allow Jesus to explain himself and not a turning of official sentiment towards him. We know this, or sense it, because even as Act 5, Scene 8 presented a positive portrayal of a scribe, now Jesus segues in this scene into a warning against the scribes:
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. (12:38-40)
Jesus presents the scribes as a callous, self-righteous group, who seek human respect, wealth and honor. It is a bit jarring coming after a scene in which a scribe is called “not far from the kingdom of God. Mark’s juxtaposition begins to ratchet up the suspense and warn us that these interludes of teaching cannot change the ultimate end to which Jesus is destined to go.
Mark allows Jesus one more comment to his disciples, though, one more moment of private teaching. He sat down after teaching the crowds“opposite the treasury” and I think Mark indicates that he is taking a break with his disciples. He "watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny” (12:41-42). After observing this, Jesus called his “disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on’” (12:43-44). She demonstrates by her actions all that has been intended by Act 5, Scenes 8: by giving all she has to the temple treasury she has shown love of God and love of neighbor; she has put them above herself. By doing so, she has acted out her profound belief that God will care for her and the fact that she will rely on her neighbors to make God’s care for her known in her life. What she cannot know is that according to Jesus' exegesis of Psalm 110:1, God was watching her as she did it.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @BibleJunkies