The Passion of the Servant, Part Two
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 12:1–44
Questions are an instinctive part of human development. They are one of the most natural ways of learning. From the time children are old enough to begin forming their first words, they are inquizative. In fact, it is generally thought that human beings are the only species that possesses sufficient intellect to be able to ask questions.
As we grow older our questions come to define us. There is a great deal of truth in Voltaire’s statement that “It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Were we to study the questions asked by the wide variety of characters in the Bible, I believe we would find that to the case.
There are a number of questions being asked in the 12th chapter of Mark’s Gospel as we enter into that passage this morning. Several of them are asked of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders, in attempts to entrap Him in His words so that they might silence Him and rid themselves of Him. Others are asked by Jesus Himself of those same leaders. As we shall see, in both cases, the hearts of the questioners are plainly exposed. I encourage you to watch and listen carefully, because the attitudes of our own hearts may be exposed as well.
It is Tuesday of Jesus’ final week. He is now just days away from the cross. He and His disciples are again in Jerusalem, for the third day in a row, and this will prove to be the last day of His public ministry. It is Passover season and thousands of tourists and residents have flocked to the city in order to celebrate the great feast. The questions put to Him tend will confirm the disbelief and the unbelief of those who ask them, while the ones He asks hold His doubters more accountable. When He walks out the Temple that day, it will be for the final time.
The first twelve verses of chapter 12 are actually a carryover from the questions put to Him near the end of chapter 11(:27-28). There, you may recall, “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, ‘By what authority are you doing these things?” Specifically, they were referring to His recent cleansing of the Temple when He cast out those who were buying and selling there. When Jesus “turned the tables” on them, so to speak with a question of His own, they had no answer for Him. And so, He refused to answer their question.
Instead, in the first twelve verses of chapter 12, He told them a story which addressed...
The question of authority (verses 1-12)
The text says that Jesus “began to speak to them in parables.” As we saw when we were in chapter 4, “parables” were one of our Lord’s favorite methods of teaching. You may recall that a parable is a distinct form of communication that is more like a riddle in which truth is revealed to those who were willing to receive it and concealed from those who were not.
Jesus told of a man who “planted a vineyard” and did everything within his power to make it healthy and productive. Instinctively, some hearers would have thought back to Isaiah 5, verses 1 through 7, where that God employed the figure of a “vineyard” to describe His choice of and tender care for the nation of Israel. In fact, the “vineyard” was a national symbol. Like the “man” in the parable, God had expected great things to come from His spiritual “vineyard.” We learn from verse 12 that the intended hearers recognized themselves as the “tenants” to whom the “vineyard” had been entrusted.
In due season, the owner is said to have “sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.” But instead, “they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.” So he sent another servant and another, and then still others, all of whom were “treated shamefully”...some beaten and others killed. The language recalls what is found in Hebrews 11, where is recorded the descriptions of many of God’s messengers who chose martyrdom rather than compromise God’s message of judgment.
Parenthetically, let me add that you and I must take care not to reduce the relevance of this passage for ourselves. We have received a much richer “vineyard” than Israel ever received. We have no living prophets like Isaiah, but we do have the complete Word of God and the testimonies of thousands of years of witnesses. Jesus said elsewhere, “To whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Therefore, let us not leave this story in the dusty pages of history. We must try and understand what it means for us today.
At last in verses 6 and following, we read, “He had still one another, a beloved son (a reference to Jesus that may have gone completely over the heads of those who heard the parable that day). Finally he sent him to them saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.”
What an outrage! Israel’s leaders wanted the fruit of the vineyard only for themselves, and as they had demonstrated they were willing to stop at nothing to get it, even if it meant ridding themselves of God’s Son.
At this point, Jesus asks His own question: “What will the owner of the vineyard do?” As He rarely did, Jesus does not wait for a response. He rapidly answers His own question: “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” What will God do with those who reject His Son, both in that day and in ours? He will “destroy” those to whom it had been entrusted and will place it into the hands of others.
Jesus has inserted His verbal sword into in His victim, and now He turns it by asking those who considered themselves to be the authoritative teachers of God’s Law, “Have you not read this Scripture...?” and He proceeds to quote from the 118th Psalm. Interestingly, it was the same Psalm from which the crowds chanted when He rode into the city two days earlier. Here he cites the part that reads:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:22-23).
What you and I cannot immediately see is that the Hebrew word for “stone” (“eben”) differs from the word for “son” (“ben”) by a single-letter prefix. So the words would have had a similar sound to the hearer. And while the significance of that may have gone unnoticed, it would not appear to be accidental to those paying attention.
The metaphor, then, has shifted from “tenants” to “builders,” but the point remains the same. Jesus has been rejected by those to whom He had been sent. In just three days, Jesus’ malevolent listeners would haul him before their own authorities and condemn Him. Then at last the “vineyard” would be theirs. Or so they believed.
They were wrong. Just are those today who deny Jesus’ rightful authority in their lives. In a manner of speaking, to reject Him is to kill Him...and some have been killing Jesus all their lives. Oh, they may find some twisted pleasure in hearing about Jesus, but to not respond to Him as Savior and Lord is to reject Him. And if they persist in denying Him, they will succeed only in killing themselves.
Verse 12 tells us that this first group of questioners walked away. But soon another group would take their place bringing their own query, this one being...
The question of responsibility (verses 13-17)
The scene in verses 13 through 17 brings together two groups that, except for their hatred of Jesus, had nothing in common. In fact, they were normally political foes. The “Pharisees” were staunchly traditional and nationalistic, whereas the “Herodians” were religiously liberal and politically loyal to Herod, the puppet-king put in place by Rome. The Pharisees opposed Jesus because He disrupted their religious agenda, and the Herodians were against Him because He threatened their political arrangement.
Here we find them banding together in order “to trap him in his talk.” Their lips drip with insincere flattery as they attempt to disguise themselves as innocent inquirers. They hoped to disarm Jesus, throw Him off guard, and force Him into giving a self-condemning answer. So they ask, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the word of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them or not?” With baited breath His antagonists awaited His answer. Surely they had Him this time. No matter how Jesus answered, He would be caught in their trap. If His answer was “Yes,” then the Pharisees would accuse Him with dishonoring the Law of Moses. But if He answered, “No,” then the Herodians could charge Him with being disloyal to Rome.
Our Lord’s answer was both brilliant and unanticipated. We read in verse 15, “But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ And they brought one. And he said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” You and I may be familiar with this exchange, but I wonder if we have pondered sufficiently what Jesus is saying here. His response was not merely to silence them—although it did that—but to stress two significant truths.
The first is that just as the coin bore Caesar’s image, it would properly be identified as his “property” and must, therefore, be rightfully surrendered to him upon demand. By way of contrast, we—each one of us—are those who, by virtue of creation, bear God’s image (cf. Genesis 1:27) and are therefore His property to be yielded to Him upon demand. To put it another way, people are God’s “coinage” because they bear His image. Our entire being owes its existence and allegiance to Him.
But there is a second point to be made, one that is frequently overlooked, and it is that followers of Christ are responsible to give to Caesar “the things that are Caesar’s.” In fact, the word “render” (“αποδιδωμι”) means “to repay” or “to give back.” Paul fleshes this out in greater detail in Romans 13(:1-7), but let it be noted that all persons—including, and perhaps especially, Christians—are commanded to yield to the temporal authority of the state. It that Romans passage, Paul reminds us that “There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
Though they are distinct, the responsibilities toward God and man are not entirely separate. Our duty to God does not eliminate our duty to the governing authorities. If anything, Christians are to be the most law-abiding people in the land. For our testimony’s sake, we should pay our taxes, we should obey traffic laws, we should participate in the political process by voting, and—above all else—we should pray for those in authority. Is there any doubt that Jesus prayed for both Caesar and Herod?
There are, of course, occasions when a Christian must resist authority, such as when asked to violate a clear command of God or to perform an immoral act. In the great majority of intances, however, we are called upon to live responsible lives as citizens of the community in which we live. Most of us could probably be doing a better job of that.
At this point, Jesus is faced with a third line of questioning by yet another group. In verses 18 through 27, we come to...
The question of eternity (verses 18-27)
This time it is the “Sadducees” who approach Him with a theological question based upon the Levirate system of the Mosaic Law. We don’t know a lot about the Sadducees, except that they—like many liberal preachers today—did not believe in the supernatural... “no resurrection...and neither angels or spirits” (cf. Acts 23:8). Although they were fewer in number than their religious opponents, the Pharisees, because of their wealth they were actually the ruling party. They believed only the first five books of the Old Testament were inspired. If something was not taught in the Torah it was disregarded.
So, now they come to Jesus with a “puzzle” disguised as a question. The purpose of the Levirate law was to protect the property and possessions of a family in which the head of that family had died (cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-10). We find a clear and beautiful example of this enacted in the Book of Ruth. Because the Levirate law comes out of the Torah, it was something in which the Sadducees were well-versed. But here they carefully construct a ludicrous hypothetical dilemma intended to trip up Jesus. A woman had married seven brothers, and each one dies! Really? So now here comes the challenging question: “In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife shall she be? For the seven had her as wife.” It was a “loaded question” intended not only to ridicule the resurrection but carefully constructed to discredit Jesus.
Once again, the Lord is up to the challenge. Looking straight into the eyes of those who claimed to know the Law so well, He says to them in verses 24 and following, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses (your book!), in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ (those with whom He had made covenant)? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong.”
In one fell swoop, Jesus has exposed their faulty understanding of the Torah and demonstrated the reality of the resurrection. And lest we ourselves misunderstand, the references to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob suggest that these patriarchs yet live! If they were not still alive, then the covenant promises made to them would be meaningless. As far back as the 2nd century, Origin realized that would be ridiculous for God to say that He is the God of men who no longer exist. Make no mistake...our God is “the God...of the living.”
There are “modern day Sadducees” still with us, those who do not believe that God will raise bodies from the grave. Throughout the New Testament—and especially the Book of Acts—it is for the sake of the resurrection that preachers preached and believers believed. Paul lays out this line of reasoning in 1 Corinthians 15:16-17 and 19, saying, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins...If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
With his own life on the line, this same Paul later confessed before His accusers, “It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (Acts 23:6). Never allow anyone to tell you differently, lest you be “quite wrong” yourself...apart from the resurrection of the dead there is no Christianity.
That brings us to the fourth of the questions Jesus faced that day, this one...
The question of priority (verses 28-34)
We are informed in verse 28 that “one of scribes” was in the crowd that day. Scribes were the ones who handled most the teaching, interpretation, and regulation of the Old Testament Law. They were the legal experts. But this one scribe seemed to be different from the rest. He had been listening in on the conversations and observing how Jesus handled with grace each of His questioners. He may have at last mounted the courage to approach Jesus himself. Jesus perceived that the question of this one scribe, unlike the others, was a sincere one. There was no attempt to entrap Jesus. He simply asked, “Which commandment is the most important?”
Before we look at Jesus’ answer, it should be pointed out that the scribes had identified 613 separate commandments in the Old Testament Law, some of which were considered “weightier” or “more important” than the others. This man simply wanted to know which one was the “weightiest” commandment of all. Which one had the priority?
Jesus’ replied by taking him to two Old Testament texts, which—it is believed—had never before been combined by the scribes. And yet by bringing them together, Jesus summarized and stated the essence of the entire Law. He first quotes Deuteronomy 6, verses 4 and 5, known in Jesus’ day as “the Great Shema.” It reads this way: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And then Jesus surprisingly adds these words from Leviticus 19:18: “And the second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The scribe responded in an encouraging manner, by agreeing with Jesus in every respect. And so our Lord—I believe with tenderness—replied to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Those words at first hearing are very encouraging, but upon further reflection they are extremely convicting. To be “not far from the kingdom” still means to be on the outside looking in. Being “almost there” is not being there!
While researching this message, I learned that Mark 12:34 was a verse that had long-haunted John Wesley until at last, after several years of preaching to others without being converted himself, he responded to the grace of God and entered that Kingdom with great assurance. Even after being saved, he kept it as his “life verse,” a continual reminder that “not far from the kingdom” was still to miss it altogether. It is a frightful thing to consider being within an inch of Heaven, and yet go to Hell!
Did this scribe ever make it into the Kingdom? We do not know. The Scriptures are silent. Perhaps the silence is intentional so that we might ponder the reality of our faith. And as you consider your own eternal destination, realize that it all comes down to...
The question of identity (verses 35-37)
You will notice that the interrogation of Jesus comes to a halt in verse 34. It is now He who poses a question. Matthew (22:41-45) informs us that it is addressed to the Pharisees. And upon hearing it, they are left speechless.
By citing the first verse of Psalm 110—interestingly, the most frequently quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament—Jesus essentially is asking, “Whose Son is the Messiah?” The Pharisees clearly admitted that this was an inspired text, but even they stumbled over how David, the author of this Psalm, would have referred to his son as his “Lord.” The scribes freely admitted that the promised Messiah would be the Son of David, but they could not fathom how that One would also be “Lord.” And therein was their stumbling block. For as Scripture so clearly reveals, unless a person confesses that “Jesus is Lord,” they cannot be saved (cf. Romans 10:9).
And so, we too must ask, “Who is Jesus to you?” What is His true identity? Perhaps you have been willing to attribute to Him “greatness,” but not Deity. If so, then listen again to this paragraph from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I have cited many times before:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic...or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Jesus Christ is Lord! There is no other satisfactory answer. Thus, there remains one more matter He will address, after which His public ministry will have ended and His break with the Jewish religious leaders will be complete. It is...
The question of humility (verses 38-44)
In this final section we have a study in contrasts. On the one side are the “scribes,” to whom Jesus pronounces condemnation, while on the other is a “poor widow” who receives the Lord’s commendation.
In Jesus’ day, scribes lived off gifts and subsidies because they were forbidden to take money for their work. Supporters were easy to come by, however, because providing honoraria to a scribe was considered meritorious. Jesus’ harsh words appear to have been directed toward those who paraded their proud and profitable lifestyle before others, a lifestyle He points out in condemnatory detail.
Nearing the end of a long and tiring day, Jesus sat down to observe people putting money into the Temple treasury. The rich came and went, making an ostentatious show of their offerings. Thirteen golden, trumpet-shaped receptacles served as the “collection plates.” The larger the sum contributed, the louder the sound made when it was deposited, so that at times onlookers would pause when a large number of coins clanged within the golden vessel. These so-called “worshipers” may have given huge amounts, but by doing so for a pretense they were sealing their own “condemnation.”
But then Jesus spotted a “poor widow,” who when she dropped in her “two small copper coins” would have likely gone unnoticed by the crowd. The paper-thin coins were called “λεπτα,” and together would have been worth no more than a few cents. Her gift would have barely made a sound when dropped into the large ornate receptacle. Jesus pointed her out to the disciples telling them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.” How could that be? Jesus added, “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
When it comes to our giving, it is the posture of our hearts that makes all the difference in terms of the value of our gifts. The Lord does not want our money, per se. He wants us...all of us. And while it is true that “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21), the reverse is also true: “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be.”
What is at stake in this final section is actually a matter of pride. Who is it that occupies the throne of our lives? Is it the Lord or is it ourselves? It takes humility to give ourselves totally and exclusively to the Lord, and yet that is precisely what He demands. Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah (6:8) posed his own question, asking, “What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
What a staggering moment it is for a worshiping soul when he or she first awakes to the reality that Jesus is watching. Our every action and every thought are under His careful scrutiny. Nothing escapes His notice. In fact, His eye is upon us at this very moment. What id He seeing of you and in you?
He has watched us as we have sung, prayed, and listened to His Word being preached this morning. He knows where our heart has been and where our attention has been focused.
He has watched as we have given our offerings. He knows if we have given of our “leftovers” and “surplus” or whether we have given Him our very selves, of which our offering is but a token.
And He will watch as we gather again this evening to worship and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. He already knows if we desire to fellowship with Him or if we will be merely going through the motions. So, what does He see in You?
Questions of authority, responsibility, eternity, priority, identity, and humility are before us each day. Some are asked of us, and some are asked by us. Perhaps you have identified yourself in some of the questions we have heard being addressed this morning. Both our questions and our answers provide good indicators of where we are in our relationship with Christ.
Perhaps you are “not far from the kingdom of God” today. If that is the case, let me remind you that you are still on the outside looking in. What more will it take? What further questions need to be asked and answered before you turn away from your sin and acknowledge Jesus as the One who has come to deliver you from condemnation to commendation and welcome you in His Kingdom?
One day—sooner than what we might expect—the time for asking questions will be over. And only His ultimate answer will remain.