Tuesday, September 3, 2019

According to Mark: Total Devotion

I mentioned in our last study that there was important context to keep in mind as we moved forward into Mark 12:13–44. As a brief reminder, Mark 11 had displayed the opposition to Jesus coming from the highest authorities in Judaism. He handled it deftly, and in fact humiliated them to the point that they were looking to kill Him for it (Mark 12:12). Our passage for today concerns the ways they attempted to establish grounds for destroying the Lord (just as He had predicted; Mark 12:6–11). However, it also moves beyond that conflict to make a more lasting point. It is devotion to God, rather than a concern for appearances, that leads to blessing.

Paying Our Dues

Appearances are very much at the heart of the dialogue in vv. 14–17. The Pharisees and Herodians are looking to trap Jesus, but they want to appear flattering in an effort to put Him off guard. Their question is also about appearances. Whose side does Jesus want to be on?

To understand the question about paying taxes, we need some background. Judea was ostensibly free under the rule of Herod the Great, but shortly after he died, the mismanagement of his son led it to become a province under direct Roman control. One of the things the Romans demanded of their provincial subjects was a poll tax. Many Jews chafed under Roman rule, and the tax was one of the sources of their consternation. In the years preceding Jesus’ ministry, there had already been a few attempts to revolt from this foreign occupation. More would occur in the years to follow, eventually leading to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Jesus is therefore being given two choices. If He said the tax should be paid, then He would legitimize Roman rule and make Himself a traitor that the people would stop supporting. Or, if He said it should be withheld, then that would make Him an insurrectionist and give grounds for the Herodians to accuse Him as an enemy of Rome. Either way, His own words could be used to trap and destroy Him.

Instead, the Lord comes up with a third option that leaves His enemies totally dumbfounded. He asks to see a denarius, the coin that was used to pay the poll tax. It was something that everyone would have already seen, but He draws attention to it to illustrate the point He is about to make. In the United States, many of our coins carry someone’s image. Historically, however, they have been great leaders of the past. Our inscriptions, meanwhile, are usually statements of national virtue like “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum.” Not so with the Romans. Their coins had the profile of the living emperor and the inscription gave his name and title. It was a reminder of his personal authority.

Jesus does not challenge this, at least not directly. Rather, He diminishes it. Caesar minted the coins, so Caesar can have them back. His reign will last for a few more years, and his empire a few more than that under other rulers. Governments have an important role to play and Jesus validates it. But no matter how great they are, they still are not God. Everything ultimately belongs to Him, and does so eternally. And the most valuable thing that belongs to Him is His image, humanity (Gen. 1:26–27). Governments can collect taxes, but the Lord wants us to give ourselves. It is a profound concept, and incidentally served to keep Jesus out of either of the snares laid out for Him.

God of the Living

Once the Pharisees and Herodians are left with nothing else to say, the Sadducees take their shot. The Sadducees have not been mentioned specifically in Mark before, and they will not be mentioned again. However, they were most likely synonymous (or allied, anyway) with the “chief priests” of Mark 11:27. From what we know of them, this group was distinguished as the aristocratic priesthood that oversaw the operations of the Temple. They were also known as only viewing the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible which were written by Moses, as the authoritative word of God. They did not consider the rest of what we call the Old Testament as having been inspired.

A result of this view on Scripture was a denial of the resurrection or the afterlife, a concept that admittedly receives very little attention in the Pentateuch. They viewed it as an absurdity, and they loved to illustrate it as one. That was the reason for their strange question. However, as Jesus points out, it was based on a few faulty assumptions.

For one, they assumed the resurrected life would have to go on as the first life did. However, that will not be the case. Nowhere else in the OT, let alone the Pentateuch, discusses this, so Jesus is speaking from His own divine authority. However, it does make sense. The new world will have no need for procreation, seeing as life will no longer have to be passed to new generations, so it will have no need for marriage. It is a category change that the Sadducees had not considered, making their smug assurance look like foolishness.

Secondly, they had ignored the power of God. If they had cared to know Him, then they would have known that nothing is impossible for Him and that death’s dominion did not have to be eternal. In fact, if they had been paying attention, they could have seen that He was among them and already giving a foretaste of the resurrection by bringing people back to life. But they ignored and resisted the ministry of Jesus, leaving them with less knowledge than they mistakenly thought they had.

Finally, and most egregiously, they did not even understand the Scriptures in spite of only having five books to know and when they were expected to be the greatest upholders of it. Jesus points them directly to the writings and experiences of Moses to show them how little they actually know. Exodus 3:6 describes God’s introduction of Himself to Moses, which He makes in reference to Moses’ ancestors. He presents Himself there as still being in relationship with the patriarchs. If Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were nothing but long-rotted corpses, then it would make no sense for God to speak as if He were still their God. And to suggest that He is nothing but a God of the dead would be sacrilege. The Sadducees were, indeed, disastrously mistaken.

The Greatest Commandment

Jesus is asked one final question, but as a nice change of pace, it is a sincere one without antagonism (at least as Mark presents it). A scribe, an expert in the Law, wants to know Jesus’ opinion on the Law. This is still a test, to be frank. The scribe probably had his own ideas and wanted to see if Jesus could match him. But importantly, he is actually willing to listen and have an honest conversation.

In response to his question about the most important commandment, Jesus points to two of them. The first is the Shema, the most important affirmation of Judaism, which is found in Deut. 6:4–5. The second is taken from Lev. 19:18. Though Jesus gives two answers, they actually make an inseparable conclusion. This conclusion lies at the heart of Christian living.

The most important thing we have to do is to devote ourselves to God. He made us to have the ability to relate to Him, to glorify Him by loving Him and giving Him all of who we are. We do that by foregoing the pride that would have us live for ourselves, instead living selflessly. And selfless living is expressed in the ways that we treat those around us. Loving God means loving our neighbors, and loving our neighbors proves love for God.

The scribe shows that he is following along with what Jesus is saying by expanding on it. In the same way, we have to remember that devotion and obligation are not the same thing. Obligation carries the sense of force and it leads to ritual. It is religious service done for the sake of being seen, not because it what our hearts desire. That is just another form of pride, and it gets us nowhere. Loving God means actually caring that He be glorified for who He is and what He has done. Similarly, loving others means actually caring for who they are. We have to look outside ourselves in order to do what Jesus commends here.

Preeminence of the Messiah

Mark records one final question in which Jesus turns the tables (in a different sense than what He did in Mark 11:15). We got to see one scribe who was willing to hear Him out, but most of them are still set against Him. So He asks them to explain themselves. They taught that the Messiah would be the Son of David on the basis of the many OT prophecies that said the Savior would descend from Israel’s great king. But David, meanwhile, had shown deference to the Messiah. How could a descendant be greater than His ancestor, to the point that the ancestor would call Him “Lord” (Ps. 110:1)?

In a culture where respect for elders was a central aspect of life, it was a difficult question. In Christian hindsight, it is simple. Jesus was David’s Lord because He had always been David’s Lord. He was not just the Son of David. He was the eternal Son of God. His incarnation brought Him into humanity but not into existence. His eternal nature was the reason He was greater than David, and David had expressed that through the insight given to him by the Holy Spirit. Jesus was David’s son, but He was also more. The “spiritual leaders” of Judea were unwilling and unable to understand this, which made it impossible for them to explain it.

Total Devotion

We’re told in Mark 12:37 that the crowds were delighted by this, but not that they were convinced of anything by it. I could be wrong about this, but I take that to mean their delight came from schadenfreude. The discomfort of the arrogant can be a funny thing. They enjoyed seeing Jesus knock the elites down a peg or two. But He wasn’t there to give the crowd a visceral thrill. He wanted them to actually learn something, and so He brings it up again in the remainder of the chapter.

The point He makes in vv. 38–44 is that faith is not for show. That does not mean it is totally private. Secular society wants us to see religion that way so it can be driven out of public life. God certainly wants us to do things for Him where the whole world can see. But if we do it for ostentation, then we are doing it for ourselves.

That is where the poor widow comes in as the perfect contrast. She makes her offering where she can be seen, but not so that she can be seen making it. The little she gives is barely enough for a meal, hardly anything in comparison to the wealthy donors that came before her. No one notices or cares. But Jesus noticed her. Jesus cared for her and blessed her for giving far more than anyone else had because she had actually made a sacrifice. It cost her to give what she did. She did it because she loved God, and for no other reason. As a result, the rich had hardly given anything by comparison.

When we live out our faith, it should look like this. It isn’t supposed to be about what we gain for what we do. We have already been given everything, anyway. Our love for God can never compare to His love for us expressed on the cross. He gave absolutely, literally everything, an infinite sacrifice to save our souls. So what’s the use in worrying about appearances? We are simply called to love Him because He loved us (1 John 4:19). If we want other people to see anything, it should only be our love for Him shared as love for them so they can be drawn up, as well. We don’t have to have a lot to give, so long as it is everything.

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