If we think that this life is all there is to life, then there is no interpretation of our problems, our pain, not even of our privileges. But everything changes when we open up to the possibility that God’s story is really our story too.
35 And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in 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 is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly.
38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 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.”
The past couple of weeks we have been discussing the question of Jesus’ authority, and that theme continues in this passage. Jesus has been challenged about his claim to authority and then tested to prove the extent to which his authority would prevail. Now the questions have ended and Jesus goes on the offensive, asking his own question in verse 35 and then contrasting the religious practice of the scribes with the faith of a poor widowed lady.
Jesus is the new boss. His authority changes everything. In this text we see the authority of Jesus applied to three specific areas. The authority of Jesus changes how we interpret Scripture, how we live out our faith in the world, and how we worship God.
THE INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
In verses 35-37, Jesus stakes his own theological challenge. “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?” he asks (v. 35). Though no biblical text specifically says that the Messiah would be a descendent from David, this was the standard understanding of the day. And for good reason. God had made a covenant with David, promising him that his kingdom would be established through his descendents and that his throne would be “established forever” (2 Sam 7:12-16). The Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C. had brought the monarchy to an end. But the prophets foretold of a restoration of the Davidic kingdom.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isa 9:6-7; see also Jer 30:9;Ezek 34:23)
About a century before Jesus, Jewish religious literature made explicit this Davidic hope, referring to the Messiah as the son of David. Jesus is challenging one of the most widely held beliefs and hopes of his day.
Who is David’s Lord?
But his challenge comes in light of what David wrote in Psalm 110. “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’” (v. 36). Jesus notes that David refers to the Messiah as his “Lord,” raising the question of how Messiah could be David’s son if he is David’s superior. The answer is of course obvious to us Christians today: Jesus, the Messiah, is both David’s human descendent and also the Son of God. But let’s look closer at Jesus’ argument.
- Jesus appeals to the inspiration of Scripture to make his argument. “David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared.” Psalm 110 is considered by Jesus to be Holy Scripture, meaning it is given to us by the revelation and authority of God.
- The first “Lord” in Psalm 110 is Yahweh, but the second “Lord” is adonai. The question is the subject of the second “Lord” (adonai). Psalm 110 is an enthronement psalm; the words were used at the inauguration of the kings of Israel. But with the end of the monarchy the Psalm began to be seen as Messianic, and David’s “Lord” was understood to be a great Messianic king who would reestablish the monarchy to the point where it would never fail again.
- While we have no problem with the idea of one’s descendent being greater than himself, both Jewish and Roman cultures did. For them, it was the patriarchs who were the “lords” of their families, and so Jesus points out the significance of this Davidic submission. Jesus’ point must have been taken, because he apparently silences his opponents with this word.
Son of David and Son of God
Of course, Jesus is not denying that the Messiah is a descendent of David. Rather, he is pointing out that he must be much more than a descendent. He must be both a descendent as well as David’s superior. And Jesus contends that he is David’s superior because the Messiah is also the Son of God. There are two pointers to that conclusion in this text.
First, as we mentioned earlier, in Psalm 110 there are two different Hebrew words for the translation “Lord.” But in Greek, it is the same word in both places, kurios. Why is that significant? Because as Mark has arranged the material, we saw the word kuriosjust a few verses earlier, in verse 29: “The Lord (kurios) our God, the Lord (kurios) is one.” There is only one kurios, and yet here we have Jesus claiming that title for himself as the Messiah.
Second, notice that Jesus quotes the entirety of Psalm 110:1. It is only the first line of that verse that Jesus utilizes to make his point that David refers to Messiah as his Lord (“The Lord said to my Lord”). But Jesus wants to press his audience further into the implications of his identity as David’s Lord. He is the one who sits at God’s right hand, the highest ranking that one could possibly achieve short of usurpation. From there he waits until God deposes his enemies, putting them under his feet. The enemies of the Messiah are God’s enemies, destined for certain destruction. These are bold claims that Jesus is making for himself.
God’s plan unfolds in Jesus
Again to Christian ears there is nothing surprising about these claims. But to those who confuse God’s kingdom with the kingdom of man, this is a clarifying text. Jesus shows us that we have to interpret the mystery of God’s plan revealed to us in Scripture through his Messiah. As David’s son there is continuity to this age, but as God’s Son there is also discontinuity. He has come to establish a different kind of kingdom than the only other kind we are familiar with. Not that his kingdom doesn’t impact the kingdoms of this age, but at the same time it challenges us to see beyond it.
FAITH LIVED OUT IN THE WORLD
The next section, verses 38-40, brings to light the tension between the uniqueness of God’s kingdom and how that kingdom impacts life in this age. The connection to the preceding is Jesus’ concentration on the scribes. In the previous paragraph Jesus questions the scribes’ interpretation of the Scriptures. Now he questions the genuineness of their religious practice.
“Beware of the scribes”
Who were the scribes? The title comes from the fact that in ancient Israel the ability to read and write was not widespread, so professional secretaries played a major role in public life. While scribes were employed in various professions, the term eventually began to be used more narrowly to refer to those who gathered, studied, and interpreted the Scriptures. But in Jesus’ day they were not mere copyists, as the word scribe might suggest. They were “the teachers of the law” (NIV) or “the experts in the law” (NET). In other words, they were the Bible scholars, the religious professionals and authorities.
One would think that we could look to the scribes for an example of authentic faith. But Jesus says we should “beware” of them. The scribes are not just wrong in their interpretation of Scripture; they are dangerous because of it.
The dangerous example of the scribes
Rather than being an example of godliness, Jesus says that they “like to walk around in long robes.” These were full-length prayers shawls made of wool or linen that set them apart as men of authority. The scribes, Jesus said, love the attention they get for wearing these “uniforms” because they also “like greetings in the marketplaces.” We are told that when a scribe passed through the market, people would rise and recognize their presence. The scribes also like to “have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts.” Who wouldn’t be gratified by the kind of public attention and respect that was afforded to the scribes? Things are no different today.
What’s so dangerous about this kind of self-seeking behavior? I think verse 40 answers that question. Not only do the scribes seek the respect of their fellow man, but they also “devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.” Because of their behavior Jesus warns, “They will receive the greater condemnation.” Jesus’ warning seems to be that if we follow the example of the scribes we will follow them straight toward the judgment of God.
So don’t be like these scribes who “devour widows’ houses,” Jesus warns. Easy enough, right? Well, the danger is much more subtle than it appears. You see, we might think that the scribes were modern day prosperity gospel preachers, living extravagantly on the contributions of the poor. But such was not the case.
In the first century A.D. the scribes lived primarily on subsidies, since it was forbidden that they should be paid for exercising their profession. While few scribes were reduced to begging, an abundance of evidence shows that the Jerusalem scribes belonged to the poorer classes.
In other words, the profession of the scribes was not in any way a sham. It was legitimate business, and most people would agree that they were worthy of their pay. How then were they guilty of devouring widows’ houses? Scribes served as lawyers, and they frequently helped a widow make decisions about what to do with her assets following the death of her husband. No one thought ill of them for receiving support from the widows they had helped. This was how they made their living. But Jesus accuses them of social injustice.
The gospel and social justice
Don’t miss this important point. Jesus expected these scribes to refuse to take any support from widows who were among the most vulnerable people in that patriarchal society. By taking support, Jesus says the scribes are guilty of violating the destitute. It’s a strong accusation to make, and we might even be surprised that Jesus expected that level of righteousness from them. But Jesus is saying that those who know the Scriptures best should be those who leave an example of how to live out the Scriptures.
If we know God through his gospel there must be a change in how we look at business and wealth. It should result in a serious concern for justice in this world. That is, true religious practice should make for a better society. We may not solve all the problems, but those who have understood the gospel should make serious contributions toward the solution. Why? Because we of all people should be concerned with social justice and not ignore it or excuse injustice for the sake of religious practice. We can be guilty of devouring widows’ houses simply by ignoring our responsibility toward them. We may not always know what to do for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized in our society; but if we know anything at all about the gospel of grace, doing nothing is not an option.
The relationship between faith and practice
I say that this is true if we know God because although to everyone else it may appear that we have a genuine relationship with God, he alone knows our heart. The scribes made “long prayers” that made them appear righteous, but Jesus said it was all done “for a show” (NIV). It was religious hypocrisy through and through. Craig Keener points out that Jesus, like the Old Testament prophets, saw social injustice and religious hypocrisy as inextricably linked. This suggests the opposite may be true as well. When we sincerely respond to the gospel it leads us to live justly in society.
We have not interpreted the Bible correctly when we have not seen the gospel clearly causing us to be transformed by its radical grace so that we live differently—truly justly—in an unjust world. Such was the failure and the danger of the scribes. Now this may be discouraging to us. After all, if the scribes missed it, what hope is there for us?
TRUE WORSHIP OF GOD
Well there is great hope for us because the right interpretation of the Scriptures does not depend upon the sharpness of the mind but on the posture of the heart. That’s one of the crucial things we learn in the concluding paragraph of Mark 12 (vv. 41-44). The scribes are guilty of devouring widows’ houses because of their failure to attain real worship. And this in spite of their expertise in the Scriptures—they have missed the point of the Scriptures altogether! But we can see real worship in one of these widows.
A lesson from a poor widow
Jesus sits down across from the treasury and watches as people put money into the offering box. There were 13 receptacles in the temple for collecting the offerings of worshippers. The amount of money collected there was significant; Mark tells us that “many rich people put in large sums” (v. 41). Then Jesus watches as “a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.” A very insignificant amount, especially in comparison to the great sums deposited by the rich. This small act by an unnamed poor widow should have gone as unnoticed as her penny, except for the fact that Jesus makes a big deal about it. He summons the disciples to him for another one of those “teachable moments” (this happens 8 times in Mark’s Gospel).
And he begins his lesson with one of his 13 “amen” sayings: “Truly, I say to you.” Again, this denotes a significant observation that Jesus wants to communicate to his disciples. This discreet act by a poor widow carries huge implications about true worship and true discipleship. Why? Because “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.” Of course, that is simply an untrue statement, unless Jesus counts differently than we count.
How the widow’s penny is more
Indeed he does. He explains that this woman has given more than anyone else because “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” (v. 44). Let’s meditate on this for a moment.
- The question here is about the worth of one’s worship, not the worth of one’s money. Jesus is evaluating the worship of the contributors, not the money of the contributors. Not all acts of worship have the same value in God’s eyes.
- True worship does not come without a sacrifice. Or, to say it another way, if there is no sacrifice then there is no true worship. The Old Testament gave us a vivid picture of this as the worship of God always included a literal sacrifice. It is impossible to worship without cost. The rich gave “out of their abundance,” that is, they offered up their surplus. They could give great sums of money without ever really missing it. But this woman gave “out of her poverty,” meaning she gave what was necessary for her own survival. It was “all she had to live on.” Her donation left her without any means for obtaining even her next meal.
- To push that last point further, true worship is costly because it costs us everything. This poor widow, Jesus said, “put in everything she had.” She had two copper coins, but she gave both, refusing to keep even one of them for herself. This is what true worship demands. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1).
- This kind of worship cannot be coerced, but must be the natural result of our joy in God. This poor woman could have given her penny begrudgingly, feeling forced to do so in order to earn God’s favor. Or, she could have given her penny out of sheer delight in God, believing that he loved her immeasurably and would provide for her needs. The latter best explains why Jesus commended her.
The point of this text is not that true worship requires us to give away all of our money to the church or some other charity. It does challenge us to consider the motives of our financial giving. But money is only one part of our lives. The question here is whether or not you offer to God merely your surplus: your discretionary income and your discretionary time. Or, do you joyfully yield all of your life including your money and your time to God to be used as he sees fit?
What the scribes missed
The gospel is what can transform us to desire God above anything else. The gospel points us to Christ, the Son of David and alsothe Son of God, who has come to rescue us from our slavery to sin and death. Only the Christian gospel makes it possible for us to love God with our entire being and at the same time to love our neighbors sacrificially, unlike the scribes who were guilty of religious hypocrisy and social injustice. What was it about the gospel that they had missed?
They had simply failed to see how desperate they really were for God’s mercy and grace. They had failed to see that the deliverance they really needed was not political but spiritual, that God was far from them because of their sin not because of Roman dominance. But this poor woman knew her need and knew that God alone could supply her need. She gave everything she had in joyful worship, casting herself totally upon the mercy of God. That is what the gospel is all about. And if we can see that, and if we can let it grasp our hearts, then Jesus will change everything, beginning with how we interpret the Scripture, how we live out our faith in the world, and how we worship God.
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