Appointment in Jerusalem
In the previous session, we had discussed how on the road from Caesar Philippi to Capernaum toward Jerusalem (where Jesus was to be crucified), Jesus had made a prediction about his betrayal, death and resurrection three different times. Three times his disciples had misunderstood or didn’t want to hear his prophesy. Three times he then tried to teach them about discipleship. In the third sequence, James and John asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory, a request Jesus said was not his to grant.
We began session seven with a digression – a story about Elijah and his disciple Elisha (2 Kings 2:2-10). On the road from Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan (where Elijah was to be taken up in a whirlwind), Elisha was told three times that Elijah will be taken from him by God – told twice by prophets, and the third time by Elijah himself. Twice Elisha hears, but doesn’t want to talk about it. The third time, after they cross the Jordan, he asked Elijah for a double portion of his spirit. Elijah explained that this was a difficult request, not something he could grant on his own, but would depend on how events unfolded. The parallels between this story and that of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem with his disciples are striking.
The next sequence in Mark’s Gospel finds Jesus and his disciples on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the City of David (Mark 11:1-11). The events of the final six chapters all take place in and around Jerusalem. A central venue for Jesus’ next few days in Jerusalem will be the temple. After sending a pair of his disciples for a colt, Jesus rode into the city from Bethany amid the cheers of the crowd. “Hosanna! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our father David!” Cloaks and branches were spread on the road before him. It was Palm Sunday. Like a conquering hero, Jesus and his entourage entered the city and headed toward the temple, where the victor of a great battle might offer sacrifices of thanksgiving. But Jesus is not who the crowds think he is. He went to the temple, looked around, and then went back to Bethany. This was less a triumphal entry than a lampoon of one.
The following day on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus spotted a fig tree in leaf (Mark 11:12–14). On closer inspection, he saw that it did not have any figs on it. He responded by cursing the tree – the beginning frame of another of Mark’s intercalations. Inside the frame, Jesus went on to the temple where he upset the tables of the money-changers and disrupted the flow of commerce (Mark 11:15–19). Quoting Isaiah 56:7, and Jeremiah 7:11, Jesus said the temple should be “ a house of prayer for all the nations, but you have made it a robber’s den.” Perhaps the temple was serving a legitimate function in facilitating cultic sacrifice, but Jesus also saw the failure of its intended purpose – to serve people of all nations, not promote separation of people – providing a place for the pious to find security, while keeping out the ‘great unwashed’. The crowd was enthralled. The chief priests were not.
The following day as Jesus and the disciples headed back into Jerusalem from Bethany, they saw the fig tree withered from the root up. In this closing frame of the intercalation (Mark 11:20–25) we see the relationship between the fruitless fig tree and the temple that has not produced its promised fruit. The fig tree withered and died. What will happen to the temple that Jesus has also cursed?
From the viewpoint of the chief priests at least, Jesus has not ‘cleansed’ the temple but polluted it with his attempt to bring back the concept of a temple for “all the nations”. Jesus first challenged this perspective of exclusion in Chapter 7 when he discussed eating. “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.” (Mark 7:20).
Eight more passages about Jesus in the temple fill the remainder of Chapter 11 and Chapter 12. The first four segments involve questions that display open hostility toward Jesus. His responses and other teaching in these passages deal with two primary questions: (1) who is God?, and (2) how should the people of God live their lives?
After they had seen the withered fig tree, they went on to the temple where Jesus was challenged about the source of his authority by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders (Mark 11:27–33). Jesus’ authority has been a concern for the church leaders from the very beginning. Jesus countered their question with one of his own about the authority of John the Baptist, a question they are unable to answer. Because they could not answer Jesus, the scribes are in no position to reject his reply as evasion. They just evaded a straight answer themselves. Having confessed failure to judge John’s credibility, they disqualify themselves from judging that of Jesus. Finally, by pleading ignorance because of popular repercussions, they reveal they believe their own authority resides in the “view of the crowd.”
Jesus then told a parable of the vineyard owner and his tenant farmers (Mark 12:1–12). The parable began with a near-quote from Isaiah 5:1 about the planting of a vineyard. But then it veered off in a different direction that answered the question about Jesus’ authority, and at the same time challenged Jerusalem’s religious leadership represented in the parable as tenant farmers gone astray. (A parallel plot line was uncovered in 2 Kings 9:11–25.)
The Pharisees and Herodians crafted a question on payment of taxes to the Romans (Mark 12:13–17). Jesus replied, “Give to Caesar the things that are Cesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” What belongs to God? The Pharisees and Herodians knew – everything.
The Sadducees are introduced for the first (and only) time in Mark’s Gospel, challenging the credibility of Jesus’ teaching about the Son of Man’s resurrection (Mark 12:18–27). Jesus’ responded that (1) their assumptions were in error, (2) their refusal to believe in resurrection had led them to mistake the character of life after death, and (3) they misread scripture. God is the God of the living and remains faithful in life and death.
A supportive scribe asked which commandment was first of all (Mark 12:28–34). Jesus replied, “ … you shall love the Lord your God … (and) love your neighbor as yourself…” Jesus went on to tell the scribe that he was not far from the kingdom of God. After that, everyone was afraid to ask him any more questions.
Jesus continued to teach, but now on topics of his own choosing. The first discussion was on whether the Messiah is the son of David (Mark 12:35–37). Defying all expectations, Jesus said no, supported by a somewhat cumbersome explanation. He quoted Psalm 110:1 (a psalm of David) “The Lord (God) said to my (David’s) lord, sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” If David considers the Messiah (sitting at the right hand of God) to be his lord, how could he simultaneously be David’s son (David’s subordinate)? If the Jewish people expected a Messiah poured from the mold of King David, they would be disappointed. The kingdom is not what we expect it to be. Jesus is not who we expect him to be.
In Mark 12:38–40, Jesus warned about the conduct of the scribes. He then observed a poor widow putting two small coins in the temple treasury (Mark 12:41–44) and used a most unconventional value system to measure her contribution. She gave up all she had for a lost cause – the temple. Hence, she has power.
Jesus is not David’s son – redefining what it means to be Christ. And now he proclaims that his power does not come from the temple, or from the religious leaders of Jerusalem who surround him. His power, like that of the poor widow, lies in his ability to give it up.
Primary Text: Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), by C. Clifton Black
Coming in Session 8: Mark 13; Mark 14:1-26. Jesus’s Farewell – Prelude to Betrayal