Mark 11-12: Jerusalem and the King who Comes1
11.1 And as they drew near Jerusalem in the vicinity of Bethany and Bethphage, close by the Mount of Olives, he dispatched two of his disciples, 2 telling them, “Go into the village directly before you; just as you enter it you’ll find a colt tied up-one that nobody has ever mounted. Untie it and fetch it here. 3 And if anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing that?’ say, “The master needs it,” and the fellow will send you right back here.” 4 And they went off and found a colt tied up outside a doorway in the street and started untying it. 5 And some of the men standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 So they answered just as Jesus had told them to do and the fellows allowed them to proceed. 7 So the two of them brought the colt to Jesus and put their robes over it. 8 And many people spread their robes on the road, while others cut down branches from the fields and spread them on the road. 9 Then those in the lead and those who were following kept crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming realm of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”2 11 And he entered into Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he had looked about at everything, since the hour was already late, 3 he left the city and went to Bethany along with the Twelve.
12 And on the next day as they were leaving Bethany he was hungry. 13 And when he saw from a distance a fig tree in leaf, he approached to see if he would find anything on it, but when he got there he found nothing on it but leaves (it wasn’t yet the time for figs).4 14 In reaction he said to the tree, “May nobody ever again eat fruit from you !” And his disciples were listening as he said it.
15 Then they entered into Jerusalem. And when he entered the precinct of the temple, he set about driving out those who were selling and buying things within the temple precinct, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those who were selling doves, 16 nor would he allow anyone to carry equipment through the temple precinct. 17 And he explained what he was doing, telling people, “Doesn’t scripture say, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?’ But you people have made it a den of thieves!”5 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard about it and began seeking some means of doing away with him, because they were afraid of him, since the whole throng was in awe of his teaching.6
19 And when it got late, Jesus and his disciples left the city. 20 And in the morning they passed by the fig tree and saw that it had withered from its very roots. 21 Peter called attention to it, “Rabbi, look!” he said, “The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”7 22 And in response Jesus told them, “Keep trusting God!8 23 I’m telling you the truth: if anyone says to the hill here, “Rise up and plunge into the sea!” without some hesitation within but confident that his bidding will happen, it will happen for him. 24 And so I tell you: whatever you pray for and request, be confident that you’ve got it, and it will be yours! 25 And whenever you stand to pray, dismiss any grievance that you have against anyone, and your father in heaven will forgive you your wrongs.”
27 Then they entered into Jerusalem again, and as he walked in the temple precinct, the scribes and elders came to him 28 and questioned him, “What authority have you for these actions? Who specifically authorized you to act thus?” 29 Then Jesus said to them, “I’ll put one question to you: if you’ll give me an answer, I’ll tell you what authority I have for these actions: 30 Did John’s baptism come from heaven or from human beings? What’s your answer?” 31 Then they talked it through with each other, “If we say, ‘It came from heaven,’ then he’ll say, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘It came from human beings ‘” They were really fearful of the throng, for everyone believed that John was a prophet. 33 Finally, in reply to Jesus they said, “We don’t know”; whereupon Jesus told them, “Neither am I telling you what authority I have for these actions.”9
12:1 Then he began talking to them in allegorical language: “A man planted a vineyard;10 he walled it around and dug a trough for treading grapes and built a tower; then he gave it over to tenant-farmers and went away. 2 Then in season he sent a servant to the tenant-farmers to get some fruit of the vineyard from them; the tenant-farmers seized him, flogged him and sent him back empty-handed. 4 Then again he sent another servant to them; this one too they roughed up and treated with contempt. 5 Then he sent yet another, and that one they killed; they mistreated several others as well, flogging some and killing others. 6 Now he still had one beloved son; he sent him to them last of all, thinking, “They’ll treat my son with some respect.” 7 But those tenant-farmers told each other, “This one’s the heir; come on, let’s kill him and the property will be ours!” 8 So they took and killed him and chucked him outside of the vineyard. 9 What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do? He’ll come and get rid of those tenant-farmers and give the vineyard to others. 10 Surely you’ve read this text from scripture, 11 ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous to our eyes!'” 12 Then they were intent upon arresting him, but they were afraid of the throng: they realized he had told this parable regarding themselves; so at this point they left him and went away.11
13 Then they sent to him a delegation of Pharisees and of Herodians in order to snare him in argument.12 14 They came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and completely free of bias-you aren’t partial to anyone but rather you teach God’s way truthfully; tell us then, is it allowable to pay tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay it or not?” 15 But he saw through their hypocrisy and said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Fetch a denarius and show it to me.” 16 So they brought one, and he asked them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this on the coin?” “It is Caesar’s,” they said. 17 Then Jesus told them, “What belongs to Caesar you should give back to Caesar, and what belongs to God you should give back to God.”13 And they were astounded at him.14
18 Then Sadducees approached him (they’re the ones who claim that there’s no resurrection)15 and put to him a question: 19 “Teacher, Moses laid down for us the law that if anyone’s brother dies childless and leaves a surviving wife, then his brother should take the wife and get a child for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers; the first of them took a wife and died childless; 21 then the second brother took her and he also died without leaving a child, and the third did likewise. 22 Then all seven failed to produce offspring; finally the wife too died. 23 Now just whose wife will she be in the resurrection? All seven, after all, had her as a wife.”16 24 Then Jesus said to them, “Isn’t it the case that you’re confused because you don’t know either the scriptures or God’s power?17 You see, when people rise from the dead, they don’t marry nor are they given in marriage; rather, they’re like angels in heaven.18 26 But as for the resurrection of the dead, haven’t you read in the book of Moses how God told him at the burning bush “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”? 27 He is not the God of the dead but of the living;19 you are quite confused.”
28 One of the scribes had heard them arguing and had seen that Jesus had given them good answers,20 and now he put the question to him: “Which one of all the commandments is the most imporant?” 29 Jesus replied, “The most important one is, ‘Hear, Israel, God our Lord is one, 30 and you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your intelligence and with all your strength.’ 31 The next in importance is this, ‘You are to love your neighbor as you do yourself.’ There is no other commandment more important than these.”21 32 Then the scribe replied, “Well-said, teacher; you’ve said in very truth that He is one and there is no other apart from him; 33 and to love him with all one’s heart and with all one’s understanding and with all one’s srength and to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself makes trivial all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 Then as Jesus saw that the man had replied sensibly, he told him, “You’re not far away from the reign of God.”22 Thereafter nobody dared to put any more questions to him.
35 In response to that Jesus continued to teach in the temple precinct, and he said, “How can the scribes claim that the Messiah is David’s son? 36 David himself, when inspired by the Holy Spirit, said, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit on my right until I have put down all your enemies.’ Now, since David himself refers to the Messiah as “Lord,” how can the Messiah be David’s son?”23 And as he soke, the sizable crowd continued to hear him gladly.
38 In the course of his teaching, he said, “Watch out for the scribes who like strutting in robes and theatrical embraces when they meet in public places 39 and front-row seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, 40 – they are the ones who gobble up the estates of widows and offer long prayers for show; all the greater is the condemnation they will get.”24
41 Then he sat down facing the offering box and observed how the throng was putting money into it Several rich men were putting lots of money in; 42 Then one poor widow came and put in two tiny bits of small change, a pittance. 43 Then he beckoned to his disciples and told them, “Take it from me, this poor widow has put in more than all the rest who dropped money in the offering box. 44 Everyone else, you see, put in a little of their superabundance; she, on the other hand, put in everything of what little she had, her entire livelihood.”25
Mark 11-12 Notes
1Chapters 11-12 are constructed so as to inroduce, along with chapter 13 (the so-called “Little Apocalypse”) an introduction to the Passion Narrative in chapters 14-15. The confrontation played out in this whole sequence is between Israel (with Jerusalem and the Temple at its heart) and the claimants to authority over Israel: Jesus as the Messianic King on the one hand, who comes to establish the Reign of God, , and the chief priests and scribes constituting the Sanhedrin on the other. This confrontation was foreshadowed in the activity of John the Baptist, 1:5 “And people would come out to him: all the area of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem …” (see note 5 there). As this sequence begins, Jesus enters into Jerusalem and proclaims in word and deed God’s claim to the absolute commitment of Israel (11:1-25); in the central panel of this sequence, the King confronts the primary claimants to authority over Israel and the Temple in the persons of the leaders of the Sanhedrin: a stand-off confrontation between them ends in Jesus’ allegorical denunciation of his opponents as rebellious tenants of God’s vineyard (11:27-12:12); finally, the sequence moves on in a series of episodes demonstrating Jesus’ authority as teacher and interpreter of God’s law and comments on the quality of commitment demonstrated by different segments of Israel. From that point Jesus will proceed in chapter 13 to foretell the doom of the temple and the tribulation facing Jerusalem and the people of Israel in the years immediately ahead.
2Although the evangelist does not call attention to it, it is clear that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem amid this acclaim accords with the prohetic oracle of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice, daughter of Zion! Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Your king comes to you with authority and victorious, a self-deprecating man, one who rides on a donkey, on the foal of a female donkey.” While this oracle points to the legitimate authority of Jesus, it also emphasizes the antithesis of the grand airs one expects of royalty: this man puts on no airs, rides no white horse, wears no shining armor; rather, even if he is a king with God-given authority, he enters the city as one less likely to be a user of violence than to be a victim of it. This “triumphal” entry, as it is usually termed, is in fact paradoxical and thus consistent with Mark’s characterization of Jesus as one who disdains regal majesty while acting with unquestioned authority, one who prefers to describe himself publicly as a servant rather than as a monarch. Even so, the public acclaim here is for a Messiah, a deliverer: the shouts of adulators echo the coronation psalm (Ps. 118:25-26).
3As with some other chronological indicators in this gospel, the reader here suspects that the evangelist is indicating something more than the hour of the day at which Jesus completes his survey of “everything” in Jerusalem and the Temple: it is late, yes: is it too late for Jerusalem? Has her King arrived too late to save her?
4 Cursing of the Fig Tree and Driving Merchants from the Temple Precinct: Mark 12-14, 15-18, and 19-25 constitute together a “Marcan Triptych” (see note on 2:1-12 and the excursus on “Marcan Triptych” there. Here the two narratives of the cursing of the fig tree and the discovery of its ruin enclose the central panel describing Jesus’ action in the temple precinct, disrupting the commercial activity and denouncing the profanation of the site where “all nations” are to bring their petitions to the Lord. The fig tree upon which Jesus seeks fruit represents an Israel from which her king has come to seek “what belongs to God” (cf. 12:17) as does also the vineyard in the parable told to the Temple authorities in 12:1-12. We may discern in Jesus’ visit to the Temple (the entire sequence of 11:15-12:44) the coming of “the heir” to claim the fruits of the vineyard. The fig tree itself should be seen not so much as a particular unfortunaate specimen damned because of an unreasonable expectation that it should bear fruit out of season, but rather as an oracular eschatological “sign” that the apocalyptic “time of harvest” is at hand (cf. 13:28)
5literally “he proceeded to teach” (ἐδίδασκεν). Jesus cites Jeremiah (7:11) while emulating in his own fashion the characteristic manner of that prophet who delivered his oracles while illustrating them with striking mimed actions.
6The narrative underscores the direct threat of Jesus to the central authority of Israel, the Sanhedrin. The fact that Jesus acts and teaches with an authority readily recognized and acclaimed by throngs threatens their own claim of authority over Israel. It is clear to them that if their authority is to stand, Jesus must be destroyed, but to do so will require stealth and manipulation of those throngs who acclaim Jesus.
7See note 4 above; if Jesus’ unseasonable hunger for figs and disappointment at their absence on the tree followed by the curse and the withering of the tree were to be understood simply as a miracle story, then one might have reason for wonderment at Jesus’ “irrational” behavior. On the other hand, if this episode is understood as a symbolic enactment of a conception of God’s judgment upon the Jerusalem Temple, perhaps upon Jerusalem itself, then there can be no doubt that Jesus’ curse upon the fig tree is not an arbitrary response to a childish disappointment but a graphic representation of the doom confronting Jerusalem and the Temple as a consequence of Jesus’ coming as the Messiah to seek in vain the fruits of righteousness and faith in God there.
8It may appear that Jesus’ remarks here are not really directly relevant to the cursing of the fig tree and its subsequent withering, despite the fact that these are clearly matters of answered prayer; the evangelist has evidently gathered together some disparate elements of oral tradition and brought them into this context. Inasmuch as all this is said to be “in response” to Peter’s observation (ἀποκριθεὶς … αὐτοῖς), the essential point is the initial imperative, “Keep trusting God!” (ἔχετε πίστιν θεοῦ): what Jesus seeks in his disciples as well as in Israel is unwavering confidence and trust in God. It is to such confidence and trust that he has attributed the success of his healings previously in the gospel narrative (e.g. 2:5 ‘And when Jesus saw the extent of their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, you are being forgiven your sins.” See also 5:34, 10:32), and it is the absence of such confidence and trust in the disciples that he has faulted (e.g. 4:40 ‘Then he asked them, “Why are you cowards? Do you still not trust?”‘). On the other hand, although verse 24 offers an apparently exaggerated example of an improbable request that will assuredly be granted, yet verse 25 seems to temper such expectations by noting that the believer in prayer must have a mind and heart attuned to God’s will-and indeed, that the most improbable of all requests that the believer might put to God would be that for forgiveness.
9 If we assume that Mark’s gospel antedates the other Synoptics, then we must acknowledge Mark’s narrative skill in this presentation of the confrontation between authorities who might be expected to hold the upper hand over the provincial upstart, but who are thrown embarrassingly incapable themselves of coping with authority beyond the political level. Jesus’ question and their inability to give him a straightforward answer demonstrates their own lack of authority in face of this opponent. One might compare Mark’s accounts of the embarrassment of Herod Antipas in the matter of the beheading of John the Baptist in chapter 6 or of Pilate confronting the Jerusalem throngs over the question of releasing Jesus or Barabbas in chapter 14.
10The story told by Jesus is rooted most fundamentally on Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard” (Is. 5:1-7, wherein Yahweh cultivated Israel/Judah as his cherished plantation but from this people has reaped sour grapes instead of good fruit: disobedience and cries of distress instead of the expected justice and fair-dealing. But surely one may discern in Jesus’ story also the Eden narrative of Genesis 2, where God establishes the humanity which He has created in a garden or orchard with the covenant responsibility to tend it and instructions regarding use of its fruit; Adam/humanity in that instance violated the covenant and was expelled from the garden even as Israel/Judah is threatened with expulsion from Yahweh’s plantation. Here obviously the servants sent to the tenants of the vineyard are the prophets who have been denied the fruits and repeatedly subjected to abuse and violence until at last the beloved son is sent, only to be put to death by the tenants in hopes of ending any and all challenges to their ownership of the vineyard; the tenants are here clearly the very political authorities of the Sanhedrin, whose doom, like that of the vineyard of Isaiah 5, is prophesied by Jesus.
11 There can be no misunderstanding on the part of the scribes and elders of the import of this story as bearing upon themselves and as Jesus’ response to their question regarding his authority. Yet they are cognizant of the inviability of their current authority in face of the acclaim of Jesus by the throngs present in the area. Still, their sparring-match with Jesus continues as they maneuver to have questions put to Jesus designed to undermine his current popularity.
12 It is the Pharisees and Herodians who are first named in this gospel (3:6, see note 39) as scheming together to “get rid of” Jesus. In 8:13 (see note 38 there) Jesus warns his disciples to “watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” In this present instance they are sent by the elders and scribes; although one might expect the Herodians to favor the paying of taxes to the Romans while the Pharisees oppose it, their question to Jesus is intended to evoke from him a response favoring one side or the other, either answer being likely to bring upon Jesus the hostility of a considerable number.
13In this instance as elsewhere in chapters 11-12 Mark’s narrative skill is at work: the lavish praise of Jesus’ integrity and impartiality underscores the hypocrisy of their expectation of a response of which his opponents can make political capital, but Jesus’ response reveals his cognizance of their machinations while at the same time underscoring yet again the urgency of God’s demand for covenant obedience to His will-for “the fruits of the vineyard.”
14The upshot of the question and Jesus’ response is astonishment, not different from the response to Jesus’ teaching and healing previously in Galilee but here all the more striking because this scene plays out within the Temple precinct.
15The Sadducees as the party of the priestly nobility were “strict-constructionists” of the Law of Moses; they held that only the five books of the Torah were authoritative and that the teachings of the prophets and the tradition of oral law as taught by scribes and Pharisaic rabbis were iillegitimate supplements. In the Torah they recognized no authority for a doctrine of resurrection such as held by Pharisees and some other Jewish sects, while at the same time they insisted upon strict observance of the scriptural ordinances set down within the Five Books.
16The hypocrisy of this hypothetical question from speakers who themselves do not hold a doctrine of resurrection is manifest, as is its basis in the ancient law of “levirate marriage” providing that brothers are responsible for begetting offspring for a deceased childless brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-10): while the law may be Mosaic and may have been intended to secure the lineage of all men of Israel insofar as it is biologically possible to do so, yet the question posed is obviously no more than academic: relationships of real human beings are obviously not at stake here in the thinking of the interrogators.
17Even before he offers any response to the actual question, Jesus comments on the incompetence of the interrogators to understand the only scriptural authority that they recognize as well as upon their want of authentic faith in God. It is for these reasons that they “are confused” or “are prone to error” (Greek πλανᾶσθε); yet he does not comment on the hypocrisy as such; even at the conclusion of his response, he repeats the comment, “You’re quite confused” (27).
18This response does not really suggest or permit inferences regarding other questions to which it does not respond and it would be best not to speculate about what is not said: Jesus neither asserts nor denies that the raised dead lack distinction of biological gender; he says only that marital relationships are not sanctified for the resurrected dead. In effect, Jesus dismisses the question of the Sadducee delegation as frivolous.
19While the first part of the response more directly concerned the hypothetical question put by the Sadducees on the basis of the levirate proviso of the Mosaic law, the second part cites a text from the Torah itself, the authoritative status of which the Sadducees cannot dispute, as implying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who have died are not dead since indeed God is their God.
20I suggested in my preceding discussions of the cursing of the fig tree and the parable of the wicked husbandmen that the evangelist intends readers to understand these scenes played out in the Temple precinct as representing the coming of the Messiah-son to seek the fruits of Israel’s righteousness; in view of that suggestion it may be worth noting that there is an apparent pattern in the arrangement of episodes: two episodes demonstrating the hypocrisy of sectarian partisans in Israel (12:13-17 “Tribute to Caesar” and 12:18-27 “The Question of Resurrection”) are followed by an episode that is more hopeful (12:28-34 “Summation of the Law”); a second group of three episodes seems to display a similar arrangement: 12:35-37 comments upon a scribal misinterpretation of the nature of the Messiah; 12:38-40 is a harangue against the Pharisees; then in 12:41-44 the widow’s offering signifying total commitment is contrasted with the token offerings of others. If this analysis is correct, we have two series of three pericopes, each consisting of two instances of “bad fruit” and a final instance of “good fruit” or at least an indication that Jesus’ quest for righteousness in Israel is not altogether fruitless. Furthermore, if that observation is valid, it would appear consistent with what we have observed in earlier sequences wherein sequences concluding with the healing of blind persons suggest that there is ultimately hope that the apparently hopelessly-blind disciples may yet come to envision Jesus as he is and understand their own destiny.
21While we know that the same summation of the substance of the Torah has been attributed to Rabbi Hillel, the question to be asked here is how Mark’s usage of this saying of Jesus relates to other indications in Mark’s gospel of the teaching of Jesus about the Torah. The stories in chapter 3 surely have indicated a sovereign freedom to ignore ritual provisions of the Torah with respect to Sabbath observance and fasting on any occasion where there is a possibility and discerned need to answer a legitimate human need. The teaching at the beginning of chapter 7 indicate Jesus’ radical repudiation of the laws of kashrut. With reference to the Mosaic allowance for divorce, Jesus has indicated that Mosaic legislation is not a straightforward indication of God’s intention regarding marriage (10:1-9). Jesus’ discussion with the rich young man and subsequently with his disciples in chapter 10:17ff. has indicated that observance of the Mosaic decalogue even is no clear indication of whole-hearted commitment to God’s will. Jesus’ teaching in the present instance seems fully consistent with those earlier indications: What God demands is whole-hearted commitment and trust. The believer demonstrates this commitment and trust in behavior toward others, showing that one acknowledges God’s love and care for all of His creatures and not for oneself alone. With this one may compare the almost-casual statement in 11:25 about the relationship between authentic commitment to God in prayer and the integrity of one’s relationships with other human beings.
22It is remarkable that here alone in the entire gospel of Mark is there a complete meeting of the minds between Jesus and his interlocutor. Surely the evangelist intended too to emphasize in this context the supreme importance of service to humanity as authentic worship of God, repudiating in essence the notion of sacrificial offerings.
23 This unprovoked comment by Jesus demands interpretation not in the light of subsequent traditions and doctrines on the nature of Jesus as Messiah but rather in terms of what Mark’s gospel directly affirms about who Jesus is. It must be borne in mind that Mark either does not know about or chooses not to mention any biological or adoptive descent from the dynasty of David nor does he indicate any awareness of natal associations of Jesus with Bethlehem. What Jesus clearly seems to be indicating here is that the authorities on interpretation of scripture are in error in claiming that the Messiah is of Davidic descent; there is no indication that this designation is simply inadequate because the Messiah is more than a descendent of David; rather he seems to be saying that the expectation of a descendent of David is not justified. Jesus cites Psalm 110:1 as a sort of “proof-text.” It may be that he is doing no more here than demonstrating the shallowness of the scribes’ manner of interpretation of scripture. On the other hand, it may be that the evangelist relates this episode, like others previously, in order to counter notions of a Messiah of regal majesty and authoritarian airs. Such a purpose is certainly consistent with the tenor of the remarks of Jesus immediately following in 12:38-40.
24This powerful denunciation of the scribes, especially in conjunction with the immediately preceding demonstration of an inadequacy of their interpretation of scripture, brings together several of the recurrent themes of Mark’s gospel: as has been shown, they do not teach with authority as Jesus manifestly does teach; they assume authoritarian airs as Jesus does not and as he has bidden is disciples also not to do, they covet and achieve great prestige and proudly display their hypocritical piety, while at the same time they prey upon the weaker members of society.
25This narrative segment surely needs no clarification, but it ought perhaps to be noted, as was suggested above (note 20) that the series of episodes set in the Temple precinct concludes on a positive note: righteousness is indeed to be found in Israel, even if it conrasts sharply with an abundance of hypocrisy, distortion and misunderstanding of scripture and God’s will, and ostentatious false piety.